Global Policy Forum

US Militarizing Latin America


By Jim Lobe

October 6, 2004

Less than 15 years after the end of the Cold War, the United States government is increasingly militarizing its relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean, according to a new report released here this week. U.S. military aid to the region has risen sharply since 2000, according to the report, which noted that, even during the height of the Cold War, military assistance was only a third or less than the amount of assistance the U.S. provided in economic aid to Latin America.

In 2003, however, military aid came to US$860 million dollars, just short of the $921 million spent on economic and humanitarian assistance in the same year. If recent trends hold, military aid may actually exceed economic assistance, according to the new report, 'Blurring the Lines: Trends in U.S. Military Programs in Latin America.' Moreover, vague new doctrines propagated by the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), such as "effective sovereignty'' -- which considers that U.S. security may be threatened by Latin American governments' failure to exercise control over vast "ungoverned spaces" within their borders, are providing new rationales for regional militaries to assert their power over civilian authorities.

And, with considerably more financial and other resources than the State Department or other U.S. agencies, Southcom is increasingly defining the U.S. role in Latin America, according to the report which was co-produced by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the Latin America Working Group (LAWG), and the Center for International Policy (CIP).

"Blurring the Lines" is a reference to the distinct roles that are supposed to be carried out by military and civilian institutions in government, and the major theme of the report is that Washington is encouraging Latin American militaries to encroach on what should be the jurisdiction of civilians. "This is not academic question," said Joy Olson, WOLA's executive director. "It goes to the heart of democracy, particularly for countries where transitions away from brutal military dictatorships are far from complete. "U.S. military programs are strongly encouraging Latin American militaries to carry out internal roles that civilians can fills, such as crime-fighting, road-building, and protecting the environment."

Thus, in his annual "Posture Statement" in early 2004, Southcom Commander Gen. James Hill, presented a list of emerging threats in Latin America that went far beyond the military's normal purview, identifying "radical populism" and street gangs as major new threats facing the region with the suggestion that the uniformed military -- rather than the police or other civilian-led institutions -- has a role in dealing with them. "This risks politicizing the armed forces," said Adam Isacson, CIP's program director. "Too often in Latin America, when armies have focused on an internal enemy, the definition of enemies has included political opponents of the regime in power, even those working with the political system."

The report characterized Hill's identification of "radical populism" as "particularly disturbing" given the history the Latin American militaries have played in repressing leftist and populist groups in the name of "national security," the doctrine that the U.S. promoted in building up the region's armies during the 1960s. Another problem identified by the report is Southcom's application of what it has called the "war on terrorism" to a whole variety of problems. "Terrorists throughout the Southern Command area of responsibility bomb, murder, kidnap, traffic drugs, transfer arms, launder money, and smuggle humans," Hill testified in his Posture Statement. "While that may be an apt description of Colombia and its border zones, it does not apply to the rest of Latin America," noted the report, adding that also fails to distinguish between Colombia's homegrown guerrilla and paramilitary organizations from al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups that directly threaten the United States and its territory.

In fact, very little of the increase in military training and aid to the region since 2001, according to the report, has been directed to al Qaeda-type or related threats, although that justification may be the most effective justification for the Pentagon to obtain budgetary increases from the White House and Congress. "Only a sliver of security assistance goes to counter-terror programs like port, airport, and border security," according to LAWG director Lisa Haugaard. "What we're seeing are the same old programs to fight drugs and guerrillas re-packaged as part of the war on terror." Of the 22,855 Latin Americans trained by the U.S. military in 2003 -- 50 percent more than in 2002 -- the greatest number, 5,506, took Light Infantry courses, which teach such traditional basic military skills as small-unit tactics, operations in difficult terrain, and marksmanship. Another 1,650 Bolivian police took a civic action course, while 1,234 soldiers from a variety of countries took riverine skills for counter-drug and counter-insurgency operations, according to the report.

Most anti-terrorist assistance -- just a fraction of the total -- was used for anti-kidnapping programs in Colombia and border security programs in Mexico. Indeed, war-torn Colombia was by far the largest recipient of military aid and training in the region. The U.S. provided training to almost 13,000 Colombian soldiers in 2003, almost 4,000 more than it provided to Iraqis and almost 8,000 more than to Afghans. Moreover, the administration has pushed Congress to increase the 400-man legislative ceiling on the number of U.S. troops and contractors operating in Colombia in order to increase training and other operations in-country.

The Pentagon is also increasingly using its own programs to fund training rather than those, such as the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program which are controlled by the State Department. Other concerns raised in the report were the strong increase in the number of Bolivian troops -- more than 2,000 -- in 2003, a year that was characterized by political upheaval and serious abuses committed by its army and police; Washington's efforts to press Latin American and Caribbean governments to sign bilateral "Article 98" agreements granting U.S. forces immunity from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC) for acts committed in their countries; and Washington's support for creating a multinational naval force through its 'Enduring Friendship' exercises. The report said "the most egregious example of U.S. military training blurring the line between civilian and military roles was the training of nearly 2,000 Colombian National Police and 100 Panamanian National Police in light-infantry tactics during 2003. The training, which is clearly military in nature, was even conducted by U.S. Special Forces, rather than military police, the report noted.

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