p o l i c y b
r i e f
Militarizing Latin America Policy
by Adam Isacson | May 2001
This brief was commissioned and originally distributed
by the IRC’s Foreign Policy
in Focus (FPIF) project. It is reproduced here courtesy of FPIF. Foreign
Policy in Focus—A Think Tank Without Walls—can be accessed online
The military is currently playing a major role in shaping U.S. policy toward Latin America, rivaling the role of diplomacy and economic assistance.
The militarization of Washington’s Latin America policy is being led
by the drug war, training programs, arms transfers, and a wide array
of “military-to-military contact” efforts.
The U.S. military regularly “engages” with the armed forces of each
country in the hemisphere except Cuba.
Deep within the Defense Departments civilian bureaucracy, the
Clinton administration made a quiet shift in 1999 that speaks volumes
about the current U.S. relationship with Latin America. The Pentagons
office for Inter-American Affairs was transferred from the Bureau for
International Security Affairswhere it sat in the organizational
chart alongside similar offices for Africa, the Middle East, Asia, and
Europeinto a bureau with the alarming name of Special Operations
and Low-Intensity Conflict. Under the reorganization, Latin America is
the only geographic area assigned to an office that deals with issues
like terrorism, drug enforcement, and other activities of Special Forces
(defined as military units that specialize in operations other than
The shift at the Pentagon is emblematic of the militarization of U.S.
policy toward Latin America since the early 1990s. Militarization is not
a new tendency, of coursethe United States has treated Latin Americas
many social problems as special operations (witness the cold
war emphasis on military aid instead of land reform or rural development).
But militarization is intensifying, led by new antidrug initiatives and
rapidly growing training and military engagement programs. Today, military
contacts and activities are playing such a central role in bilateral relationships
that they threaten to overshadow diplomatic ties, economic cooperation,
and democratic development.
The highest profile example is the drug war. In response to social problemsaddiction
at home and desperately poor peasants in Colombiathe United States
is sending Colombias armed forces aid valued at $1.5 million per
day during 2001. But antidrug operations are just the beginning.
The U.S. military presence in the region rivalsand perhaps surpassesthat
of civilian diplomats. The State Department has about 16,000 direct-hire
employees at posts throughout the world; Latin America accounts for a
modest fraction of that total (about 4,000). Meanwhile, the Southern Command,
the unit responsible for U.S. military activities in Latin America and
the Caribbean, has a staff of 800 military and 325 civilian employees
at its Miami headquarters, while two of its componentsU.S. Army
South in Puerto Rico and Joint Task Force-Bravo in Hondurascombine
for an additional 570 military and 1,390 civilian staff. Another 107 officers
work in Milgroups, managing security assistance programs at U.S. embassies
throughout the region, and still more are assigned to Special Operations
Command South in Puerto Rico and at Forward Operating Locationssupport
bases for U.S. counterdrug aircraftin Ecuador, El Salvador, and
the Netherlands Antilles. On temporary deployments, more than 55,000 military
personnel, including National Guard troops and reservists, pass through
Latin America in a typical year.
In contrast, economic assistance for the region has dropped sharply
in the early 1990s. In 2000for the first time since before John
F. Kennedys Alliance for Progress economic aid initiativetotal
security assistance to Latin America actually exceeded total economic
assistance (roughly $900 million versus $800 million).
Beyond drugs, the main interest of U.S. military planners in the region
is engagementmaintaining frequent contact with military
counterparts everywhere in the hemisphere except Cuba. The main form of
engagement is trainingcourses in the U.S. and overseas as well as
dozens of yearly exercises and deploymentsand such programs have
expanded greatly since the early 1990s.
The United States trained some 13,000 Latin American military and police
personnel in 1999, the last year for which data is available. At least
two-thirds of those trained are instructed in their own countries by U.S.
military Mobile Training Teams (MTTs) and during almost 200 yearly visits
by U.S. Special Forces teams on Counterdrug Training Support (CDTS) and
Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) deployments. In a typical year,
Latin American trainees also take courses at over 100 military institutions
on U.S. soil. This includes the 650 students trained in 1999 at the School
of the Americas (recently renamed the Western Hemisphere Institute for
Security Cooperation) at Fort Benning, Georgia. Training also takes place
through a robust program of about a dozen multilateral military exercises,
regular exchanges, and courses offered at a new Center for Hemispheric
Defense Studies in Washington.
Military-to-military engagement goes beyond training, however. Southern
Command has increased its Humanitarian and Civic Assistance (HCA) program,
in which U.S. troops build infrastructure or provide medical assistance
(98 such projects took place in 19 Latin American countries in the region
in 2000). And arms transfers are expanding, led by helicopters for Colombia
and a likely $600 million sale of high-tech fighter aircraft to Chile.
The new Forward Operating Locations offer fresh opportunities for contact,
as does an expansion in Foreign Military Interaction seminars, conferences,
and other events, most of them financed through budgets at the discretion
of the general who heads the Southern Command.
Problems with Current U.S. Policy
The U.S. military’s activities in Latin America at times outstrip
official policy, leading Washington to choose military solutions to
the region’s largely social problems.
U.S. military engagement often seems to have little to do with official
goals in the region and encourages Latin American militaries to take
on roles that would be illegal in the United States.
Military engagement and training strengthen the region’s militaries
at the expense of fragile civilian institutions, often with negative
human rights consequences.
The Pentagons role in policy design is increasing. Military engagement
activities have been growing, while State Department and foreign aid budgets
have fallen or stagnated. Although civilian officials and Congress still
generally play the greater role in U.S. policymaking toward Latin America,
they clearly do not have the greater momentum. Well-funded, frequent military
engagement programs are outpacing or eclipsing U.S. diplomatic engagement
with some countries while eluding effective civilian and congressional
oversight. By forging relationships and incubating policy initiatives,
these military activities are leaving the nondefense branches of governmentincluding
Congressoften struggling to keep up.
An important example is the three new counternarcotics battalions that
the United States is creatingat a cost of over a half billion dollarswithin
the Colombian Army. The battalion idea first emerged publicly at a December
1998 meeting of the regions defense ministers, an engagement activity
sponsored by the U.S. Defense Department. Training of the first battalion
began in April 1999 using Pentagon counternarcotics funds, a budget category
for which Congress did not get detailed reports. The first battalion got
weapons and Huey helicopters through drawdowns and no-cost leases,
mechanisms that do not require congressional approval. It was not until
the spring of 2000 that the Clinton administrations $1.3 billion
aid proposal for Colombia moved the now-active battalion initiative beyond
the Pentagons discretionary funds and into State Department-managed
Similar examples of Pentagon initiative abound. Today, the military
component of U.S. aid to Colombia in 2000 and 200180% of the totalis
in an advanced state of implementation, while the economic and social
component is barely underway. Most members of Congress would be surprised
to know that the Defense Department budget is helping to build barracks
in Bolivia and the Navy-Police Riverine Training Center in Peru. In the
wake of Hurricane Mitch, the U.S. military took the initiative to establish
relations with Nicaraguas erstwhile Sandinista Army, with little
public notice or debate. The Defense Department negotiated Forward Operating
Location agreements to use airbase facilities in Ecuador, El Salvador,
and the Netherlands Antilles, only checking in with Congress afterward
to seek construction funds for the sites.
Often military activities pull official policies along in their wake,
but in some cases it is simply hard to figure out how they relate to U.S.
foreign policy goals at all. A quick look at activities in 1999 offers
many examples. Why, for instance, did U.S. Special Forces need to train
with Argentine commandos in mountain warfare techniques? Why did they
train with 310 Belizean soldiers in small unit tactics, with 93 Dominican
soldiers in riot control, or with 432 Bolivians and Uruguayans in air
infiltration training? Why did the School of the Americas continue to
offer a commando course in which students are subjected to stressful
conditions simulating combat? Why did Southern Command offer Bolivia
$569,490 in infrastructure-building, medical, dental, and veterinary services,
when civilian U.S. agencies were perfectly capable of doing the same thing?
The stated purpose of the U.S. militarys engagement activities
is to promote democracy and respect for human rights, to modernize and
professionalize security forces, and to strengthen regional security cooperation,
often by developing relationships with key officers overseas. These are
all understandable goals, but it is not clear how combat and technical
training helps Latin America attain them.
The rise of military engagement may in fact be undermining these goals,
since U.S. military initiatives frequently encourage Latin American personnel
to take on roles that would be illegal in the United States. For instance,
U.S. units cannot conduct domestically the types of counterdrug operations
for which they train their regional counterparts. Barring extreme circumstances,
the U.S. military does not keep public order, though Special Forces frequently
teach Foreign Internal Defense and similar domestic-control
skills overseas. Moreover, U.S. military personnel cannot build roads,
bridges, schools, and wells at home, but they do so in Latin America,
setting a risky precedent for militaries in fledgling democracies.
The Pentagons enthusiasm for working with every military in the
region often drowns out the warnings of human rights activists. Despite
human rights protections in U.S. military aid law, the Pentagons
diverse military activities in Latin America can end up transferring weapons,
skills, and abilities that might later be misused by abusive officials
or units. Given the minimal tracking of trainees careers and the
feeble end-use monitoring of arms transfers, it is unclear exactly what
military assistance is leaving behind. Meanwhile, military-to-military
contact programs can have unintended political consequences. Visits, conferences,
exchanges, and other activities that the U.S. Southern Command initiates
can offer an inadvertent U.S. seal of approval to abusive military bodies,
units, or individuals who are invited to participate.
The spread of freewheeling, unsupervised military programsamid
a decline in diplomatic contacts and economic aidinclines Washington
to choose military solutions to problems in Latin America. If a solid
foundation for militaristic policy choices already exists, it can eclipse
political approaches, such as peace processes or social assistance programs,
which would have to begin from scratch with less-familiar civilian leaders.
Latin American military leaders analyses and recommendations often
carry disproportionate weight, because of their superior access to U.S.
policymakers. The resulting imbalance can lead Washington to neglect many
civilian institutions that badly need strengthening in fragile Latin American
Toward a New Foreign Policy
Increase transparency of military engagement programs by improving
congressional oversight, post-training tracking of military personnel,
and end-use monitoring of arms transfers.
Beef up human rights conditions on military programs in the region,
increase the budget and power of the State Department, and shift the
Pentagon out of counterdrug aid and development projects.
Reforms must take place in the context of a fundamental rethinking
of the Pentagon’s relationship with Latin America.
The militarization of U.S. policy toward Latin America is not the result
of some sinister hidden strategy. More than anything else, it is a symptom
of Washingtons tendency to turn to the Pentagon because the money
is there. Increases in defense spending are simply easier to attain than
increases for almost any other priority. As a result, nondefense activitiessuch
as diplomacy and drug policy in Latin Americaget funded through
the defense budget and managed by defense officials. Challenging this
tendency should be at the core of any long-term progressive political
agenda. Meanwhile, the more specific task of demilitarizing Washingtons
Latin America policy can begin now.
The first step, and perhaps the easiest, is increasing transparency
and educating the public. Military activities and influence in Latin America
have flourished, because nobody has been watching closely. Only effective
oversight will make an informed debate possible.
A report on all foreign military training activities, first required
by law in 1999, was a crucial improvement, revealing lists of courses
taught and numbers of students trained in each country. This report must
be strengthened by declassifying key information (e.g., students
military units, U.S. trainers units, locations of training) and
by requiring fuller descriptions of the courses offered and their relation
to U.S. interests. Other engagement activities, such as military exercises
and the panoply of Foreign Military Interaction events carried out with
the Southern Commands discretionary funds, should also be fully
reported to complete and clarify the often confusing picture of U.S.-Latin
American military relations.
Transparency requires scrutiny of everything that military engagements
leave behind. Until 2001, the Pentagon did not keep track of the future
career paths of its trainees, leaving no record of whether trainees subsequently
violated human rights or were transferred to units with very different
responsibilities (such as shifts of counternarcotics trainees to counterinsurgency
units). This year, Congress required the Defense Department to keep a
database with this information for trainees funded by the International
Military Education and Training (IMET) program. But post-training tracking
must go further; currently IMET monitors only about 20% of former U.S.
military trainees in Latin America. Ongoing oversight must also include
more rigorous end-use monitoring of weapons given or sold to Latin America,
including the small arms most often used to violate human rights or transferred
via black market channels to conflict zones.
Beyond transparency, there is an urgent need for effective legal conditions.
The Leahy Law, which prohibits aid to military units that violate human
rights with impunity, must be clarified (by defining what a unit
is, and delineating what circumstances trigger application of the law)
and expanded to include military engagement activities and all weapons
sales. Conditioning of military programs should also eventually extend
beyond human rights performance. Conditions should apply to the types
of military roles and missions that U.S. aid encourages in fragile democracies
as well as the types of skills and weapons provided to countries with
chronic histories of conflict and human rights abuse.
At the same time, the budget and power of the State Department and the
U.S. Agency for International Development must increase relative to the
Defense Department. The Pentagon should no longer be able to offer counternarcotics
aid or carry out development programs on its own, with its own funds.
The Defense Departments authority to use its own money to give counterdrug
aid to foreign militariesthe section 1004 law, which must be renewed
every few yearsshould be allowed to expire, and these programs should
pass to the State Department, where they belong. The State Department
must go beyond merely signing off on Special Forces deployments
and military-to-military engagement activities in the region. Diplomats
must begin actively questioning the Pentagons choices of trainees,
topics, and missions.
Several of these recommendations will be difficult to attain in the
current political context. Bringing them within the realm of possibility
will require a fundamental rethinking of the U.S. military relationship
with Latin America. Some mechanismperhaps a formal government commission,
a series of congressional hearings, or a nongovernmental education campaignmust
question the purpose of the current expansion of U.S. military programs
in the hemisphere for this rethinking to occur.
Military engagement for its own sake is no longer acceptable, and Latin
America is not a special operation. Serious thought is long
overdue about what U.S. goals should be in Latin America and what are
the best instruments, standards, and controls needed to achieve them.
Adam Isacson < firstname.lastname@example.org >
has directed the Center for International Policys Latin America
Demilitarization Program since 1995. The program seeks to limit U.S. military
involvement in the hemisphere and works with organizations in the region
seeking to reduce military sizes and roles.
Sources for More Information
Arms Sales Monitoring Project
Federation of American Scientists
307 Massachusetts Ave. NE
Washington, DC 20002
Voice: (202) 675-1018
Fax: (202) 675-1010
Contact: Tamar Gabelnick, Director
Center for International Policy
1755 Massachusetts Ave. NW, Ste. 312
Washington, DC 20036
Voice: (202) 232-3317
Fax: (202) 232-3440
Contact: Adam Isacson
Conventional Arms Transfers Project
Council for a Livable World Education Fund
110 Maryland Ave. NE, Rm. 201
Washington, DC 20002
Voice: (202) 546-0795
Fax: (202) 546-5142
Contact: Erik Floden, Director
Latin America Working Group
110 Maryland Ave. NE, Box 15
Washington, DC 20002
Voice: (202) 546-7010
Fax: (202) 543-7647
Contact: Joy Olson, Director
School of the Americas Watch
Washington, DC 20017
Voice: (202) 234-3440
Fax: (202) 636-4505
Contact: Alison Snow, Legislative Director
Washington Office on Latin America
1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, Ste. 2
Washington, DC 20009
Voice: (202) 797-2171
Fax: (202) 797-2172
Contact: George Vickers, Director
Lora Lumpe and Jeff Donarski, The Arms Trade Revealed: A Guide for
Investigators and Activists (Washington: Federation of American Scientists,
1998). Also available at http://www.fas.org/asmp/library/publications/revealed.htm .
Joy Olson and Adam Isacson, Just the Facts: A Citizens Guide
to U.S. Defense and Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean
(Washington: Latin America Working Group, 1998, 1999, 2001). Also available
at http://www.ciponline.org/facts .
Gen. Peter Pace, Commander-in-Chief, United States Southern Command,
Posture Statement of U.S. Southern Command, Statement before
Senate Armed Services Committee, March 27, 2001. Also available at http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/032701.htm .
Dana Priest, A Four-Star Foreign Policy? Washington Post ,
September 28, 2000. Also available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A31642-2000Sep27.html .
U.S. Department of Defense and U.S. Department of State, Foreign
Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest in Fiscal
Years 1999 and 2000, Joint Report to Congress, March 1, 2000 (Washington:
March 2000). Also available at http://www.state.gov/www/global/arms/fmtrain/toc.html .
This brief is a product of the Interhemispheric Resource
Center’s Global Affairs
and Americas Programs .
All rights reserved.
Recommended citation: "Militarizing Latin
America Policy," Foreign Policy In Focus Policy Brief, vol. 6, iss.
21 (Interhemispheric Resource Center/Institute for Policy Studies, DATE).
Web location: http://www.americaspolicy.org/briefs/2001/v6n21millat.html