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Human Intelligence Investigations in Latin America

In a region like Latin America, the investigative landscape is one in which open source intelligence ('OSINT') is simply insufficient for adequate decision making in most cases. This is due to three key reasons:

(i.) the disparities in availability of open source information between (and sometimes within) jurisdictions;

(ii.) reliability issues, such as the possibility of manipulation, biases, and political motivations in OSINT sources; and,

(iii.) analyst bias, or the tendency of an OSINT analyst without proper regional expertise/experience to ascribe prima facie validity to open source information due to a deficient understanding of the reality of Latin America.

As such, an investigation limited only to open sources in this region is often a very dangerous prospect. This OSINT deficiency can be at least partly remedied by solid human intelligence ('HUMINT'), that is, intelligence gathered through interviews of human sources as opposed to open source intelligence. But even human intelligence gathering comes with its own complications in Latin America.

HUMINT is an oft-misunderstood aspect of conducting investigations, and this is especially true when it comes to Latin America. Most commonly, there is a tendency by some outside the region to assume that HUMINT collection here is: (i.) easy; (ii.) mere rumour-trafficking of little value; (iii.) feasible using investigative models that work in other cultural contexts, but not here; and/or (iv.) aimed at obtaining admissible evidence.

I once met an attorney who characterised HUMINT as mere trading in 'rumours'. While this is an understandable point of view for someone accustomed to thinking of information in terms of the strict legal thresholds of evidence, it ignores aspects of critical importance such as (i.) how good HUMINT is collected and analysed as well as (ii.) the goal of the investigative exercise (actionable, strategic intelligence) for which the HUMINT is collected (e.g. due diligence, competitive intelligence, etc.).

Ultimately, the topic of HUMINT collection in Latin America is far too complex to address fully in a brief article, but some key points stand out.

  • Your intelligence is only as good as your sources. If you do not have good sources who can provide reliable information and are in a position to have critical information or the required knowledge, the quality of your HUMINT will suffer. This may seem obvious, but there are people who appear unaware of this notion. The ideal, is to have a set of knowledgeable, adequately-cultivated sources in place that can be tapped for information. Proper source cultivation is a laborious and time-intensive effort as it requires building trust. Obviously, sometimes it is necessary to identify and cultivate sources as we work, which comes with its own set of complications given budget and time constraints; it requires adaptive tradecraft and, often, creative, outside-the-box thinking, but it is not impossible. Recognising that your intelligence is only as good as your sources also requires you think about potential biases your sources may hold and constraints to which they may be subject.

  • A 'laundry list' of issues isn't helping anyone.Too often, reputational due diligence exercises are limited to mere identification of issues. Without additional context, this achieves only predictable consternation for decision makers. Compliance and legal departments will fret over the issues identified and the business side will push to go forward with the transaction, likely characterising any 'red flags' identified as 'speculative' while ignoring the fact that the point of the exercise is to obtain actionable/strategically valuable intelligence rather than admissible evidence. When investigating in Latin America, it is not enough to merely identify issues, we must seek to provide clients or stakeholders with context so they can understand what those issues really mean and where they might lead.

  • Keep in mind the operating environment and subjects' status. The operating environment is of critical importance to providing the above-referenced context and to collection of HUMINT; as is the status of the subjects. If you are seeking to collect HUMINT on powerful subjects in an autocratic jurisdiction, that will provide necessary colour that must be considered when analysing the collected intelligence. It will also affect the strategies that are useful for collection.

  • Consider cultural/legal factors. All too often, consultancies based outside the region seek to apply investigative models that are effective in their home jurisdictions without considering cultural and legal factors relevant to Latin America. In the US, one may be able to simply cold call a source or show up to the source's office or home, such behaviour is generally culturally unacceptable in Latin America if not viewed with outright suspicion (in some countries it makes sources very apprehensive due to security concerns). There is the further complication of criminal penalties for defamation, which can lead to further hesitancy on the part of sources to speak freely. The political environment of the jurisdiction plays a role, as discussed previously, but cultural factors are equally important to consider. Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede's Cultural Dimensions Theory can provide us with additional insight into these cultural aspects. Hofstede seeks to describe national cultures along six dimensions. Most relevant for our purposes are the following:

  • Latin American societies tend to be collectivistic. That is, people tend to emphasise obligations toward their ingroup members and are willing to sacrifice their individual needs for the benefit of the group. There is an emphasis on fitting in and harmony; there is often a tendency to exercise self-control over expression of opinions and emotions because of their potential impact on others.

  • Latin American societies are what Hofstede describes as high 'power distance' societies. Hierarchy and inequality are considered normal or even beneficial. Superiors are meant to take care of subordinates and subordinates owe superiors deference, loyalty and obedience. Subordinates will generally refrain from freely expressing negative thoughts or opinions.

  • Latin American societies tend to have cultures with high levels of 'uncertainty avoidance'. Formal rules and structures are valued (even if they do not work) and there is a tendency to avoid conflict and take fewer risks.

These aspects complicate the art of HUMINT collection in the region. Good HUMINT collection takes these factors into account; collection in Latin America often requires more artfully-conducted interviews and a keen ability to read the 'subtext' of a source's remarks. 'I would rather not comment, as I don't want to "get in trouble"', is not an unusual response. Similarly, a source who might not feel comfortable openly accusing a specific person or company of wrongdoing (for the above-noted reasons) could well do so indirectly by saying something like, 'Oh, everyone in that industry pays kickbacks'.​

  • Ideally, HUMINT and OSINT should complement each other during the collection and analysis processes. Ideally, HUMINT and OSINT should complement each other. OSINT may inform the issues that human sources should be asked about and may also reveal leads for human sources. OSINT should also be used, where possible, as a means of verifying human intelligence.

HUMINT collection and analysis in Latin America may appear to be both of little value and straightforward to outsiders; it is neither. Done properly, HUMINT collection/analysis can provide penetrating insights and actionable intelligence of critical strategic worth for business and other decisions. However, in the Latin American context,collecting and analysing HUMINT is an art that requires cultural knowledge, a solid network of sources, and, creative/systemic thinking.

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