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Extremist Responses to COVID-19 in Latin America

Extremist Responses to COVID-19 in Latin America
13th May 2020 Dr. Alexis Henshaw

Expansion of the COVID-19 pandemic has been leveraged by armed non-state actors in numerous ways. Much of the attention to the relationship between online extremism, conflict, and the pandemic has focused on how it has been referenced in discourse from jihadist groups and far-right movements. However, the virus has also become a major point of discussion among armed groups in Latin America, including leftist guerrillas and criminal syndicates. A closer look at these activities reveals a response that in some ways resembles extremist discourse elsewhere, but which also carries some distinct regional patterns.

In Colombia, for example, the arrival of COVID-19 brought about a unilateral ceasefire on the part of the Ejército de Liberación Nacional (ELN), the country’s largest leftist guerrilla force since the 2016 disarmament of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). ELN leadership described this one-month pause on armed operations as “a humanitarian gesture” in solidarity with the Colombian people and in response to a call from the UN Secretary General. However, amid the ceasefire the organisation has continued to wage a war of words. Through its online presence, the ELN has used the spread of coronavirus to attack the legitimacy of the Colombian government and to question its ability to safeguard vulnerable populations. Social media posts have questioned the alleged misuse of emergency funds, the government’s lack of response in rural areas and in prisons, and have contextualised the coronavirus pandemic alongside ongoing attacks against human rights defenders. Through its magazine, supporters called for more mobilisation, stronger communication, and more open debates on decision making processes and ways to bring about structural change in Colombia.

In Brazil, criminal actors have positioned themselves as protectors of the vulnerable, while calling into question government responses to the pandemic. Amidst President Jair Bolsonaro’s skeptical approach toward protective measures, gangs in Rio de Janeiro’s densely populated favelas have begun to enforce their own curfews, using mobile communication as well as word-of-mouth to call upon residents to stay home, threatening retribution against those who fail to comply. Gangs have taken on a similar role enforcing social distancing measures in El Salvador, distributing videos demonstrating their enforcement capabilities. In parts of Mexico, criminal actors have also engaged in the provision of emergency aid, using social media to spread the word of their “good deeds.”

What conclusions can we draw from these responses, and how do they compare to events elsewhere in the world? Jihadist and right-wing groups have reportedly weaponized the virus in some sense, presenting it as a tool of divine or man-made retribution. Prior analysis has also suggested that the Islamic State views quarantines as an opportunity to step-up online recruitment or to plan new attacks. By comparison, groups in Latin America view the pandemic as an opportunity to cultivate authority and legitimacy. As discussed in an earlier insight, many armed groups in the region either control territory or seek to create local autonomy. They also share a desire to call attention to the failings of the state, thereby establishing themselves as legitimate security actors. Finally, although the Internet is not a primary tool for recruitment among many of these groups, they are extremely conscious about the image they project online.

Viewed through this lens, we can see that the Internet becomes an essential tool by which extremists can amplify their image as responsive and benevolent actors, standing in opposition to incompetent or callous governments that neglect underserved populations. To the extent that some groups, like the ELN, may be seeking negotiations with the government, reference to national or international directives in their online discourse further position them as honest brokers capable of fair dealings in the future. It is worth continuing to watch as the situation unfolds across the region, as responses like these may shape further actions by armed groups and governments alike.