Tag Archives: Security

Educating Costa Rica: A Master Class in Influence

Costa Rica advertises itself as the “Switzerland of Central America,” but under President Carlos Alvarado’s administration, drug trafficking, narco-wars, homicides, corruption, and foreign state interference into politics and government systems have skyrocketed. These effects can be traced to poor decisions by Carlos Alvarado’s administration. The first was a mishandling of the Nicaraguan immigration crisis; the second, a poorly thought out financial reform. However, by putting the country’s situation under a microscope, one can see the shadowy hand of a foreign state actor at work: Cuba. The Castro government has found Costa Rica’s higher education system, considered one of the best in Latin America, to be a soft entry point into the heart of its democracy.

Costa Rica is clearly undergoing a massive influence campaign from pro-leftist, pro-Castro, and pro-Chavist countries. Cuba, in particular, wields influence through Costa Rica’s higher education system by manipulating education and mobilizing discontented students. A number of influential players within Costa Rica, driven by a mix of personal greed and ideology, use their positions to give Cuba the upper hand. Cuba is not, however, the only one benefitting from the Costa Rican education system’s instability.

Educating Costa Rica

The University of Costa Rica (UCR) and National University (UNA) are the country’s main higher education institutions. They are also a major political force within the Legislative Assembly and have strong ties to the majority party, the left-of-center Citizen’s Action Party (PAC). PAC has led the country since Luis Guillermo Solís’ 2014-18 presidency. Unfortunately for the current administration under Carlos Alvarado, Solís’ legacy included several scandals, rampant corruption, a financial crisis, and social uncertainty.

Soon after his election, Alvarado worsened the situation with two grave miscalculations. He poorly handled a massive wave of Nicaraguan refugees fleeing the Ortega dictatorship and then enacted a long-overdue financial reform without proper long-term planning. This provoked a three-month strike at the end of 2018 with massive political, economic, social, financial, and security consequences for Costa Rica.

In the midst of this turmoil, the rectors of UCR and UNA, Henning Jensen Pennington and Alberto Salom, silently began working to protect Costa Rica’s education system from the country’s politics. They acknowledged the ongoing financial crisis but encouraged students to protest financial reforms because of their effect on education sector funds. This “self-protection program” culminated on July 1st, 2019, with the resignation of the Minister of Education, Edgar Mora, due to his alleged lack of planning and management during the financial negotiations. His Vice Minister for Regional Coordination and Institutional Planning, Amparo Pacheco, resigned immediately after.

Not-so-Covert Influencers

Pennington and Salom have long been associated with the current instability in Costa Rica’s education system and are known Cuba supporters. Though Pennington was the stronger supporter of the “leftist insurgent movement” during the 2018 protests, Salom has been an active supporter of cultural exchanges with Cuba since 2011. A former PAC legislator from 2006 to 2010, he is very close to Costa Rica’s political elite and still has considerable support in the Legislative Assembly. During a Presidential visit to Havana in 2016, Alberto Salom signed the agreement of mutual collaboration and exchange with Cuba’s Ministry of Higher Education in his capacity as President of the Costa Rican National Council of University Presidents (CONARE). As it turns out, during Salom’s time as a legislator, his assistant and adviser was none other than Carlos Alvarado.

Thanks to these strategic maneuvers, the rectors gave themselves the tools to legally promote their voices by manipulating student movements. They could freely promulgate their leftist vision and pro-Castro attitudes via university-led education and cultural exchanges with Cuba. Their long-term objective is to spread the “truth” about Cuban Communism through the universities and to maintain complete political, social, and legislative control of the university education sector that yields millions of dollars. Salom’s last “restructuring” project called for a USD $14 million allocation. Both rectors personally supported student uprisings against the redirection of education sector funds towards constructing new university buildings on the disputed basis that doing so would compromise scholarships. The opposition party questioned this before the Legislative Assembly on the suspicion he was diverting it for other purposes. To bolster his view, Salom made university buses available to transport students to protest locations.

In light of government investigations and public concerns over pro-Castro propaganda and ideology, some members of the student body, those associated with the student federation known by its acronym FEUNA, are beginning to question the rectors’ integrity and functionality. Students angered by the manipulation and false information campaign, as well as the betrayal of the universities’ ethical mandate, have publicly declared their dissatisfaction with the rectors’ programs and called for their resignations. Naturally, both refused but Salom went on to highlight how indispensable he is for the future of UNA and its students’ careers. President Alvarado immediately backed him, confirming suspicions about Costa Rica’s highest level of government.

Foreign Education

There are several cases of foreign state actors exploiting universities worldwide. Campuses are fertile ground for raising easily manipulated young dissidents and followers. For Costa Rica, whose geostrategic position is integral in creating a Latin American “sphere of influence”, the level of foreign influence in their education system presents a major issue. Continuing waves of student protests, encouraged by pro-Cuban university leaders, could lead to unrest similar to that which has shaken Latin America in the last few months.

The counterintelligence implications represent another challenge for Costa Rica’s national security. At this point, without a proper threat assessment and operational countermeasures, it may be too late for the country’s intelligence and security agencies to properly engage this threat. If government institutions lack coordination, transparency, and a strong willingness to follow the “rule of law”, the situation will deteriorate further.

Though Cuba may be the primary agent attempting to influence Costa Rica, it does not do so entirely on its own. Cuba’s current tactics have a distinctly Russian flavor. Certainly, if Costa Rica remains a non-aligned stronghold of democracy in the region, Russia will view it as key to expanding its sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. In this way, the destabilizing agenda and relationships of a few influential politicians and bureaucrats in San Jose could threaten the non-alignment of the “Switzerland of Central America” and place it within the arena of superpower competition. If there is one thing Costa Ricans should remember from the last time a Castro meddled in their security, it is that then, as now, the Cubans were operating off a Russian lesson plan.


Dino MoraDino Mora is an experienced Intelligence and Security Operations Specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the international affairs industry. His expertise includes Intelligence Analysis/Reporting, Counterintelligence, TESSOC threats, Tactical, operational and strategic Assessment/Planning, Counterinsurgency, Security Training & Team Leadership. He has extensive experience in NATO multinational operations and intelligence operations. Multilingual in Italian, English, and Spanish. He graduated from the Italian Military Academy.

Shutdown Security: Grinding the Axe

As the US Government shutdown enters its fifth week, federal employees and the businesses that support them are feeling the pinch. While it is somewhat easy for the average American to see the effects of the impasse on the Transportation Security Administration or the US Coast Guard, there is an entire range of services from food safety inspection to scientific research that are just as important but less obvious. The same is true of security and counterintelligence programs that play a critical, yet largely unseen role in keeping America great.

US security and counterintelligence programs are designed with the principal aim of maintaining American advantage — and therefore our power — against foreign adversaries. These programs, and the legions of professionals that implement them, protect our sensitive sources and methods for gathering intelligence, our plans for responding to contingencies, and our valuable people and resources overseas. We simply cannot allow these things to be neutralized, countered, or lost; a job that is made increasingly difficult by the ongoing government shutdown. As one colleague, a former CIA case officer suggests, the intensifying financial hardships of US government workers present a growing opportunity for criminal organizations and foreign intelligence services. If you have an axe to grind, they will be happy to help.

Patrick Skinner @SkinnerPM
Patrick Skinner is a well-known former CIA officer.

Security & Counterintelligence

Though security and counterintelligence are related, they are not the same. Security refers to efforts to protect information, people, and resources from loss or exploitation. Security covers a broad spectrum of activities ranging from establishing standards for computer passwords to running armed convoys in high threat areas. Security of personnel at diplomatic and military facilities overseas is almost always a cooperative effort with the host nation government and, by extension, the community at large. With contracts frozen and a large percentage of US Embassy staff working without pay, it is only a matter of time before the Embassy relationship with partner governments and their citizens begins to sour as we fail to pay our bills. There will be incidents that result in security problems for our people as the shutdown drags on and there is no government budget that will cover expenses for individual staff members.

Inside Man Sulu Arms Market
As I wrote in my 2011 book, The Sulu Arms Market, an “inside man” embedded in the right place is extremely valuable for criminal and intelligence organizations. Both exploit the same vulnerabilities in their targets.

The much larger and more damaging fallout from the ongoing shutdown comes from intelligence threats. Unlike security, which attempts to prevent loss from within, counterintelligence programs prevent threat actors from coming in and taking what they want. Criminal organizations and hostile intelligence services both seek sensitive information from inside the US government and if possible, agents they can count on to reliably provide information and access when required. Not surprisingly, they both depend on the same human factors that assist in targeting and recruiting Americans to work for them. Among the most common of those factors are financial vulnerabilities: debt and greed. Where the shutdown makes our counterintelligence efforts more difficult is that it is rapidly and massively increasing the number of US government workers that are in financial trouble and frustrated with the Washington power play that caused it.

The Operations Cycle

Intelligence services and criminal organizations are continuously spotting and assessing those they believe have access and placement to the things they want as well as a vulnerability they can exploit. Traditionally American officials are particularly challenging to recruit because they are vetted for a whole range of vulnerabilities through the security clearance process. Though this falls into the realm of security, it is basically an assessment of one’s susceptibility to recruitment. The relatively good pay and benefits afforded to US government employees protected us by ensuring their needs were met and that few would be willing to take the risks inherent with spying against their country. In other words, decent government salaries are a security measure. Needless to say, spotting and assessing vulnerable recruitment targets is becoming a whole lot easier for our adversaries. Since financial difficulties are one of the easiest things for an intelligence service to manipulate, recruiting those targets is also becoming easier.

Cyber Awareness
Though they poke fun at the adolescent presentation, virtually every US government employee is educated in basic counterintelligence via the Cyber Security Awareness Challenge course required for access to government computers.

The recruitment phase usually begins with something mundane that escalates as the subject becomes entangled, knowingly or otherwise, with the adversary. Imagine being a furloughed foreign service officer struggling to pay your bills. You’re having coffee with a local colleague and sharing your distress with the situation. He tells you he has a friend that works at a well-known think tank that would pay $300 — an intentionally small sum — for an article written by a native English speaker with some professional credibility. It could help pay the bills, does not have to be about anything you work on for the Embassy, and does not even have to be attributed to you. You decline the offer initially but the think tank checks out, is not associated with a government, and produces good quality work. You wouldn’t say anything controversial, certainly not about something important to the United States, and no one will know you wrote the piece anyway. You accept, and though everything goes well, you have unknowingly stepped onto a very slippery slope.

A few days later your friend congratulates you on the popularity of the piece. He tells you his colleague would like to thank you in person. You feel honored and write another piece or two in the meantime. When you finally meet your benefactor he tells you he would like to contact the Embassy’s Consular section to vouch for an employee seeking a US Visa. He doesn’t know who exactly to talk to, so he asks for a phone list. Without thinking too much about such a benign request you provide the list. Besides, you want to keep this gentleman happy since he’s paying your bills…

Grinding the Shutdown Axe

One can see where the rest of this tale leads. The subject in the story took money from what may have been a foreign intelligence officer; provided official, though unclassified government documents; and attempted to conceal all of the above. He or she is now ripe for exploitation. Though blackmail and coercion are the least effective methods of recruiting a source, the disillusionment that may come from being left without a paycheck can be a more reliable and productive basis for recruitment. There is nothing better than an agent with a grievance against his own government.

Financial vulnerabilities among staff are a significant counterintelligence and security problem and they are exploding under the shutdown. Some 800,000 federal employees in nine cabinet agencies are furloughed or operating in “exempted” status, meaning they are working without pay. The number of federal contractors affected — some of whom serve in critical national security positions — is estimated to be 1.2 million, most of whom do not expect to receive back pay. Some of those working for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, for example, are aware of the irony of being furloughed due to a power struggle that started over immigration.

The same is true of the Federal Bureau of Investigation which has the unenviable responsibility of protecting the country from intelligence threats under these circumstances. One thing is certain, the longer this shutdown continues, intelligence and security breaches will become more common and will take longer to discover and neutralize. As federal employees burn through their savings, more and more will decide their axes require grinding. How many ultimately make that choice is something we may never know.


Lino Miani, CEO Navisio Global LLC

Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC. He provided expertise in special and intelligence operations to NATO from 2013-2016 and occasionally writes about intelligence operations like the assassination of Kim Jong Nam.

Maduro Drones On

Wearing full regalia to mark the 81st anniversary of Venezuela’s Bolivarian National Guard on August 4th, President Nicolas Maduro became the world’s most prominent target of a drone strike. The scene was typical of the farcical government theater Venezuelans have grown accustomed to over the last 19 years since Maduro’s charismatic mentor, Hugo Chavez was elected President. The small explosion occurred while Maduro was addressing a massive assembly of soldiers, firefighters, and police; seven of whom were wounded when two drones approached and dropped their ordnance near the procession.

In a speech the following day, Maduro blamed the attack on the former President of Colombia, Juan Manuel Santos, a claim Santos bluntly repudiated. Though Maduro is accustomed to droning on against foreign interference, those claiming credit for the attack, a previously unknown group called “Soldiers of Flannel”, identify themselves as patriotic Venezuelans. They blame Maduro’s incompetence for the exploding economic crisis that is pushing millions of Venezuelans into desperation. Though some would like to write off the incident as a parochial Latin American squabble, the drone-delivery of explosives is a growing global security threat that simply cannot be ignored.

The "Soldiers of Flannel" claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.
The “Soldiers of Flannel” claimed credit for the drones that attacked Nicolas Maduro.

Bolivarian Devolution

Though Saturday’s drama may seem remote to those outside Latin America, Venezuela is in the midst of an exploding humanitarian disaster. This is not hyperbole. Some 1.5 million Venezuelans have fled the hyperinflation and scarcity that has plagued their economy since 2014. Conditions are at the point that international humanitarian actors supporting affected Venezuelans in Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, and elsewhere claim newborns in Syria have lower mortality rates than those in Venezuela. Once the richest nationality in Latin America, Venezuelans both at home and abroad suffer from malnutrition, crime, sexual exploitation, and human trafficking as the crisis — and their desperation — intensifies. Meanwhile, the Maduro regime increasingly relies on repression and violence to maintain control. A patronage system guarantees military and police loyalty but is coming under escalating stress from an inflation rate that may exceed 1 million percent by the end of the year.

At these rates, it is difficult to imagine Maduro will be able to sustain this system, particularly in the face of the rapid collapse of oil exports. For years, the state oil company, PDVSA, funded the socialist economy set up by Hugo Chavez; but as PDVSA demands for control of production grew to pay the rising costs of Chavismo, international oil companies began to cut their losses. Beginning with the American firms, the oil majors shut down their Venezuelan operations, taking their expertise and equipment with them and leaving a lasting impact on the economy, currency, and security of the country. Something will have to give in order for conditions to improve and Saturday’s drone strike suggests the security situation will further deteriorate long before the economy stabilizes.

Drones On Target

Saturday’s attack on Maduro, though of little significance in real terms, marks the first notable proliferation of non-state, drone-delivered explosives outside the Middle East. Though the attacked wounded seven members of the Bolivarian National Guard, Maduro was unhurt and he and the generals surrounding him responded stoically enough to preserve their machismo. What alarms security officials around the world about the incident however, is there is no real way to defend against this rapidly proliferating technology.

Drone technology has advanced by leaps and bounds in the last five years. Improvements in battery capability enabled this leap, driving down costs and giving smaller drones more range and power. Though state militaries were the early drivers of drone technology, they focused their research and development efforts on larger platforms that somewhat replicated capabilities of manned aircraft. Private hobbyists and commercial interests such as Amazon pushed demand for smaller devices and drove innovation faster than militaries were capable of doing. Not surprisingly, the commercial utility of drones as a delivery device has military implications as Mr. Maduro discovered on Saturday.

Maduro's security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.
Maduro’s security detail reacts to safeguard him from additional detonations.

Keeping up with technological advancement is not the only policy challenge drones represent. In most parts of the world, airspace is only regulated above 3000 feet above ground level (AGL). Below that level, there are very few regulations and almost no laws governing air traffic. Even in those instances where governments made steps to address this gap, enforcement remains an administrative and technical headache. There are very few requirements for registration or licensing, and that’s just the start. On the extreme end of the spectrum, traditional defenses against air attack, specifically fighter aircraft and surface to air missiles, are almost completely ineffective below 3000 feet AGL. This is especially true in urban environments. Though one of the drones that attacked Maduro was reportedly shot down by an alert sniper, it crashed with its deadly payload into a nearby apartment building, setting fire to the structure and forcing an evacuation. The incident highlights that even effective defenses may cause unintended harm.

Technological solutions are no more promising. Countermeasures range from systems that jam guidance inputs, to others that launch netting to capture drones, to trained birds of prey. Clearly the defense sector is struggling to establish a workable industry standard. Detection is a different problem that has more obvious solutions but integrating them with countermeasures and backing that up with effective legislation and enforcement is the biggest challenge of all. If there is a silver lining associated with the dramatic attack on Nicolas Maduro, it is that his misfortune may actually raise enough alarm at a high enough level to make a difference. When it comes to drone defense, the Soldiers of Flannel said it best: “…it’s only a question of time.”


Lino Miani is a retired US Army Special Forces officer, author of The Sulu Arms Market, and CEO of Navisio Global LLC.

Thanks to Kirby Sanford for consulting on flight rules and airspace control measures. Kirby is the author of Bolivarian Devolution and Paraguay: Voting Away Freedom on The Affiliate Network.