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The fight to mitigate the effects of climate change has been ongoing for decades. In response to government inaction, non-violent movements of civil activism have arisen, and recently, so have organizations with more violent and radical agendas.
The term eco-terrorism has been misused multiple times by mass media to describe ecotage. The latter constitutes acts of civil disobedience such as sabotage, arson, or trespassing for ecological reasons. On the contrary, ecoterrorism, like any type of terrorism, is defined as the unlawful use of violence and intimidation, especially against civilians, in the pursuit of political aims, in this case, in defense of the environment.
Researchers estimated that Radical Environmentalist and Animal Rights (REAR) cells can be found in at least 25 countries and were responsible for more than 1,000 criminal acts between 1970 and 2007 in the United States alone. In Latin America the presence of REAR groups can be traced back to 2011, when scientists from the Monterrey Institute of Technology in Mexico City received a package bomb that exploded, injuring a robotics researcher. This attack was the first of many in the country, which mostly targeted bio and nanotechnologists.
The group that claimed the assaults were Individualistas Tendiendo a lo Salvaje -roughly translated to Individuals Tending to Savagery- or ITS, through a manifesto posted on the anarchist blog Total Liberation. They self-identify as eco-extremists and accuse technological progress of being the main cause of environmental issues. The closing lines of the manifesto state:
“We act without compassion in defense of nature. Did those that alter and destroy the Earth think that their actions had no consequences? That they didn’t have to pay a price? If they thought that, they thought wrong”.
ITS Presence in Latin America: A Timeline
Since then, a rise in threats and attacks has been registered in various Latin American countries. In 2017, an explosive package was delivered to the home of Óscar Landerretche, president of Coldeco, Chilean Copper Corporation. The explosion left him with injuries on his arm, forearm, and abdomen. Two years later, Camilo Gajardo was arrested and accused of being linked to ITS and named responsible for this and other attacks. The prosecutors sought a 170 years sentence and he currently awaits trial in prison. In 2018, Brasilian ministers Damares Alves – Women, Family, and Human Rights- and Ricardo Salles -Environment- received multiple death threats from REAR group Wilderness Secret Society.
In March 2019, in an explosion near a bus stop in Chile’s capital Santiago, five people were injured and no deaths were reported. Weeks later, ITS released a statement taking responsibility for the attack. Although Chilean authorities made no comments about ITS involvement, they opened an investigation labeled as terrorism. In the same year, during the International Congress on Transnational Crime held in Buenos A res, the head of the Anti-Terrorism Directorate of the Buenos Aires City Police, Alejandro Cassaglia, acknowledged the existence of ecoterrorist groups in the region without giving further details on their whereabouts.
Thinking Forward: Between Fear and Misinformation
The air of secrecy and misinformation that surrounds ITS can raise questions about their actual size and international presence. Often, they take credit for attacks that were later proven not to be executed by them. Nonetheless, they keep pushing a narrative that not only positions them as perpetrators but underlines an intention to be perceived as a factor of societal instability.
In this context, Latin American governments do not seem to have a strategy when it comes to tackling ecoterrorism in the long run. Countless attacks were registered in the last couple of years, yet very few people were arrested, let alone convicted, and there appears to be a tendency to deal with them after the fact. Meanwhile, not much is being done in terms of intelligence and preventative measures.
As with any social phenomenon, the causes leading to an increase in ecoterrorist attacks vary. A sense of hopelessness and frustration with government inaction can spawn radical views to arise within ecoactivists. At the same time, groups with other political views could be using the current relevance of green politics as a facade to attract and radicalize new people.
Either way, these attacks – although not necessarily linked – are the signs of a rising movement. Governments must be careful about how to approach the situation. The importance of preserving democratic values and the safety of its citizens must not come as a detriment to the reputation of the environmental movement, nor the right to protest.
- What are the intentions behind ecoterrorist organizations? Forcing governments to take action through violence and intimidation or socio-political destabilisation?
- Does the rise of ecoterrorism represent a real threat to national security? If so, are Latin American nations prepared to act upon it?
- Can a non-critical vision of ecoterrorism increase state led oppression of civil liberties against climate change activists?