RIMS 2014

Latin America Not Too Risky for U.S. Business

Violence and unrest are rampant, but risk mitigation strategies can ensure success in the region.
By: | April 30, 2014

The risks of doing business in Latin America are worth taking, according to a presentation at the RIMS annual conference in Denver.

Rob Osha, global director of risk management for mineral exploration company Boart Longyear, and Carlos Caicedo, senior principal analyst at IHS Country Risk, acknowledged social unrest and drug-related violence as two of the top dangers throughout the region, but expressed confidence in the growth of opportunities for U.S. business.

Caicedo highlighted Mexico as one emerging region. There, drug cartels pose the greatest risk, but their power may be decreasing. “Over the past five months, top leaders of the cartels have been arrested or killed,” he said.

However, a reduction of violence directed by drug lords could be replaced by extortion.

“We are seeing more risk in Mexico on the extortion side,” Osha said. “Cartels are looking to diversify their revenue streams.”

Caicedo conceded that extortion has increased against domestic Mexican businesses. He also said that cartel retaliation could lead to greater frequency of arson against commercial establishments. Despite these threats, though, he said security in Mexico has stabilized and the economy shows promise, thanks to a growing middle class and lower poverty rates.

“The economy is expected to grow at the end of 2014 and pick up even more in 2015,” he said.

Brazil, on the other hand, received a less favorable review. The region, in the view of IHS, is “a costly country to do business in.” The economy there has been poor since 2011, with inflation on the rise and a widening fiscal deficit. Social unrest, including World Cup protests, has been increasing this year.

In addition, state interventionism has undermined investor confidence, with domestic businesses stalling due to government influence in pricing.

Caicedo also addressed the terrorism threat in Colombia, where FARC continues to pose a danger, particularly to the country’s oil and energy infrastructure. However, the revolutionary faction and the government appear to be “very close to reaching a peace agreement,” Caicedo said.

FARC’s manpower has dropped from 20,000 at its peak to 8,000, and has been pushed into isolated areas of the country. The progression of peace talks will be critical in securing Colombia’s status as an emerging market and attractive place to do business, he said.

Even terrorist activity, however, didn’t scare off Boart Longyear from opening an office in Medellin, Colombia, where it had no prior experience.

“My first impression was, ‘Are you kidding me?’ I wasn’t sure we could do business there,” Osha said. The company established a “High Risk Country Committee” to examine the political, physical and travel risks in the region.

They identified general crime, bribery, extortion, and dangerous travel as the top risks facing the launch of a new facility.

“We gave [the project] the green light,” Osha said, as long as certain precautions were taken.

As part of the process, Boart Longyear hired a third-party firm to conduct a security review of the proposed location. “Don’t rely on your corporate real estate guy to tell you your location is safe,” Osha said.

After the review found the facility to be seriously under-guarded, the company added security cameras, remote locks, key cards, and after-hours guards.

They tackled travel risk next, by examining every route their workers could potentially take between sites and color-coded them by level of danger, establishing some “no-go” areas that were entirely off-limits.

Osha pointed to security assessments by IHS Country Risk and iJET, a travel risk provider, as vital resources for determining the safety of a travel route.

The company also hired a contractor to drive over every travel route and pinpoint areas with poor infrastructure or hazardous conditions like steep grades. Boart Longyear also established travel policies for its crew, instructing them to travel only by daylight and always with a partner.

Finally, they implemented a strict Foreign Corrupt Practices Act training and compliance program to address bribery attempts. Thanks to these efforts, the Medellin office was opened two years ago and has had no safety issues to date, Osha said. Follow-up assessments and ongoing monitoring have contributed to that success.

“We have to monitor the environment to make sure it is still stable,” he said. “Things can change in an instant with an election, a riot … things can get out of control.”

Should that happen, Boart Longyear put together a crisis plan that identifies the nearest resources like hospitals and police stations, and includes an emergency hotline.

While Latin America still presents big safety challenges to U.S. companies looking to capitalize on its emerging markets, those intrepid companies willing to take on the expense and effort of extensive risk planning and mitigation can expand to the area in a secure way.

Katie Dwyer is a freelance editor and writer based out of Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected]

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