China Is Exploiting a U.S. Police Void in Latin America

This week, hundreds of mayors from across Latin America and the Caribbean are descending on Denver for the inaugural Cities Summit of the Americas. Reducing crime and violence will be on the top of their minds. In 2022, the region continued to experience high murder rates: Ecuador saw an 82 percent rise in killings due to drug-fueled gang violence, Haiti suffered from lawlessness as the state collapsed, and parts of the Caribbean saw some of the highest murder rates per capita in the Western hemisphere, in part due to the ubiquity of U.S. guns.

At the Cities Summit, subnational leaders will attempt to address citizen security, along with environmental protection, technology, energy, migration, and other topics. The convening is a continuation of the 2022 Summit of the Americas held in Los Angeles. High-level U.S. leaders such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, and Trade Representative Katherine Tai will all be in attendance.

The United States has long served as the primary security partner for most Latin American and Caribbean nations; U.S.-sponsored military exercises and training, weapons and equipment sales, and professional military education far outstrip those provided by any other country. Yet Washington focuses less on training local police forces who provide day-to-day civilian security. It could be that U.S. officials are deliberately reluctant to engage directly in police training in the region: Some countries’ police forces have long suffered from corruption and low citizen approval, and the frequent news of police brutality and racist policing in the United States weakens U.S. moral authority to provide such training abroad.

But whatever Washington’s hesitations, China has in recent years exploited this U.S. void in law enforcement cooperation. Through China’s Safe City program, companies such as Huawei, ZTE, Dahua, and Hikvision have donated surveillance cameras and facial recognition technology to law enforcement agencies around the world. In Latin America and the Caribbean, Ecuador, Guyana, and Suriname use China’s Safe City technology to try to reduce crime. Critics argue the technology might give China a back door into overseas sensitive government and personal data and are also concerned that China is exporting the same intrusive surveillance and repressive policing practices it employs within its own borders.

China’s overseas law enforcement presence goes far beyond security cameras. Beijing’s Ministry of Public Security has conducted 12 bilateral police diplomacy meetings with its counterparts in Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, Ecuador, Panama, and Trinidad and Tobago dating back to as early as 2013. They discussed jointly combating organized crime and police affairs cooperation; joint law enforcement operations; overseas Chinese organized crime; and protecting the Chinese diaspora’s safety, property, legal rights, and repatriation.

China’s 2016 white paper on Latin America, the second released since 2008, stressed the need to “speed up the signing process of treaties concerning judicial assistance in criminal matters, and expand cooperation in such areas as fighting crimes, fugitive repatriation and asset recovery.” These priorities support other recent Chinese operations that have returned more than 10,000 fugitives from over 120 countries to China. The country’s 2022 to 2024 joint action plan for Latin American and the Caribbean and Global Security Initiative also both express an intention to help the region uphold peace and security, although both documents are vague in specifying how.

Another phenomenon is the rise of Chinese overseas police outposts. There are more than 100 such offices around the world and 23 in the Western Hemisphere, according to the human rights group Safeguard Defenders, though those numbers have been disputed. Last week, the FBI arrested two people for allegedly operating a Chinese police outpost in New York City. It is only the latest example of the Chinese government extending its law enforcement arm abroad to exert control over the Chinese diaspora. The Chinese counties of Fuzhou and Qingtian have also set up overseas police service centers in Quito and Guayaquil, Ecuador; Rio de Janeiro and São Paulo; Viña del Mar, Chile; and Buenos Aires. Since 2001, China has established extradition agreements with Mexico, Panama, Barbados, Grenada, Ecuador, Peru, Brazil, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina. Most of these agreements were signed after 2013, although some of them have not yet been ratified domestically.

In 2017, one year after China’s white paper on Latin America was released, then-Minister of Public Security Guo Shengkun signed a cooperation agreement with Ecuador during the 86th Interpol General Assembly hosted in Beijing. The agreement included promoting joint law enforcement planning, implementing control and surveillance activities, transferring law enforcement technology, and police human resource development. In 2018, then-Chief of Beijing’s Municipal Public Securities Bureau Wang Xiaohong signed a law enforcement memorandum of understanding with Argentina and a letter of intent for law enforcement cooperation with Panama. Curiously, links to the Argentina and Panama documents have since been deleted from the website of China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Since 2018, Argentina, Brazil, Cuba, and Panama have sent delegations of law enforcement officials to take a two-week course at the China Criminal Investigation Police University in Shenyang. In 2019, the Shandong Police College in Jinan hosted a delegation from Grenada, a Peruvian delegation traveled to Zhongshan city to study investigation techniques and counter-drug and counter-fraud, and Uruguay sent a delegation to learn about China’s forensic identification system and organizational structure, DNA technology and applications, optical nondestructive testing of physical evidence, development trends of physical and chemical testing, and research on drug testing. The original webpage detailing this training has since been deleted.

China has also donated police cars, trucks, motorcycles, helmets, bulletproof vests, shields, batons, and other investigative equipment to Guyana in 2017, Trinidad and Tobago in 2019, Uruguay in 2019, Costa Rica in 2021, Nicaragua in 2022, and Panama this year.

In coming years, China will likely host a multilateral forum with the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States on law enforcement and police engagement. As the region continues to suffer from high murder and crime rates, the countries may welcome more Chinese law enforcement assistance, training, and exchanges.

Moreover, as more Chinese tourists resume global travel, the Ministry of Public Safety could send Chinese police officers to certain popular Latin American and Caribbean countries to assist in helping Chinese tourists in the area, as it already does via obscure agreements in Italy, Croatia, and Serbia. China’s Ministry of Public Safety in 2020 even began awarding foreign law enforcement officers for protecting Chinese citizens abroad. On Feb. 22, Grenada’s deputy commissioner of police, Tafawa Pierre, received this year’s Great Wall Commemorative Medal from the Chinese Embassy, although Pierre was unable to disclose the specific law enforcement collaboration he engaged in “for confidential reasons.”

The United States must compete with China’s growing police presence in the Western Hemisphere by expanding its own regional law enforcement engagement. The State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement (INL) already provides billions of dollars of law enforcement, counternarcotics, and judicial capacity building around the world. INL could boost the number of regional law enforcement officials attending the International Law Enforcement Academy in New Mexico.

The United States should encourage state and city police force exchanges through the National Guard’s State Partnership Program. Since 1993, 18 U.S. states, Puerto Rico, and the District of Columbia have built robust partnerships with 24 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean. The National Guard could facilitate exchanges and workshops between state and city police departments and their regional counterparts. Participating police departments would need to be vetted to ensure they have a clean track record before being trusted to train with foreign counterparts.

The U.S. government should also encourage more private-sector companies to provide security technology services in the region. The U.S. Foreign Commercial Service at U.S. embassies around the region could court American businesses reluctant to expand to smaller civilian security markets to compete. Businesses from partner countries like the United Kingdom and Japan could also serve as viable alternatives to Chinese companies.

These law enforcement commitments are the kind of deliverables needed for the Cities Summit in Denver. The current U.S. emphasis on military cooperation is important for national defense but does not help its partners meet their immediate need for domestic public security. The United States must send a clear message that it is willing to work side by side with Latin American and Caribbean mayors and law enforcement officials to build safer, more transparent, and more democratic cities from Canada to Argentina.

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