Beyond the Drug War: The Pentagon’s Other Operations in Latin America

June 30, 2011

148 Stryker armored vehicle test in Suriname ( the last two decades, the dominant narrative justifying the U.S. military’s activities in Latin America has been the war on drugs and the fight against “narco-terrorists,” especially in Colombia. That narrative’s credibility has always been fragile, at best, if measured by the results in cocaine use, retail price, amount of land planted in coca, or other objective metrics. Now that credibility is losing ground even among political elites, as well as among the U.S. electorate, according to polling data.1 In June, the Global Commission on Drug Policy, a panel of 19 former heads of state and dignitaries, released a report that is highly critical of the United States’ “drug control imperialism” and its attempts to impose a prohibitionist and militarized approach to drug control on other nations.2


The military, however, does not rely exclusively on the “drug war” paradigm to justify its dealings in the hemisphere. According to Defense Department data on its contracts with private companies, the U.S. military has in the last decade undertaken several activities in the region that are unrelated, at least directly, to fighting drug traffickers or insurgents. These include low-profile tests of military equipment in Honduras, Panama, and Suriname; humanitarian assistance that the military itself acknowledges has intelligence-gathering purposes; and training to suppress social protest.


Some Pentagon operations in the region, while framed as “exchanges” with the region’s militaries or as humanitarian assistance, serve to train U.S. troops in combined operations or in engineering projects that the U.S. military is prohibited from doing within the United States, such as those that might compete with U.S. businesses. Other operations include deployments of ships and other forces in counter-narcotics operations.


It is no surprise that the drug war continues to serve as the principal public rationale for U.S. military assistance and activity in Latin America and the Caribbean. After all, it has worked as an effective pitch to Congress that has more than tripled the Pentagon’s contract spending in the region during the last decade. In 2000–2001, yearly military contract funds averaged $121 million; by 2010 it had reached $438 million, according to federal data.3 Some of this increase (36%) is attributable, as we would expect, to two costly programs: Plan Colombia, the multibillion-dollar counter-narcotics and counter-insurgency aid program implemented in 2000, and the Merida Initiative, a similar program for Mexico that began in 2008. Contracts in Colombia went from $24 million in 2000 to an annual average of $90 million for 2006–2010.


With the implementation of the Merida Initiative, contract spending in Mexico also grew, jumping from $5.5 million in 2009 to $57.8 million in 2010. Most of the increase in Mexico was spent on just three contracts: with the giant military contractor Northrop Grumman for an unspecified service, with San Diego–based Cubic Corporation (for training equipment), and with Blackwater’s training company, based in North Carolina. In fact, only five companies received more than half of all drug war dollars for all of Latin America from 2005 to 2009, many for non-competitive contracts.4 Pentagon drug war support to the Mexican armed forces (which includes costs not contracted to private companies, such as aircraft purchases) totaled $86.5 million in 2010.5


A large segment of increased Pentagon spending, from an average of $16.3 million in 2000–2001 to $62.1 million in 2010, is occurring in Central America, where the United States is building a series of coastal military bases that are to be turned over to the region’s armed forces (including Costa Rica and Panama, which have no formal militaries). Although the United States is constructing military bases or operations centers in every Central American country, the bulk of attention is focused on Honduras and Panama. The primary rationale for the bases is to combat drug trafficking, but the infrastructure could be used for other military missions in the future as well.


View US military construction sites in Latin America, 2010-2011 in a larger map


Meanwhile, two other sources for the growth of Pentagon spending are missions in the Caribbean with little to do with the drug war: the detention center in Guantánamo, Cuba, and the U.S. military’s deployment in response to the earthquake in Haiti. Defense contracts in Cuba shot up from an annual average of $34 million in 2000–2001 (before Cafmp Delta was built) to $115 million a year since 2005. After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. military carried out a major mobilization, and in nine months spent $50.9 million on contracts in Haiti—more than 10 times what it spent in the previous decade combined.


Such humanitarian missions, together with low-profile weapons testing, intelligence gathering, and police training programs, have become staples of the Pentagon’s activities in Latin America.




These operations and activities do not require fixed overseas bases, and they are budgeted and funded directly by the Pentagon, as opposed to foreign aid programs that operate through the State Department. They are thus more difficult to track, since the Pentagon’s budget is enormous, hard to navigate, and opaque. Pentagon foreign assistance, for example, is not programmed by country, and Defense officials have acknowledged that its monitoring of contracts is “inconsistent” and “error prone.”6 Moreover, the Pentagon’s activities are also more difficult to challenge, since the Defense budget is overseen by congressional committees that are particularly committed to military expansionism, allowing less margin for advocacy than committees on foreign aid channeled through the State Department.


For these reasons, human rights, peace, and leftist activists have focused primarily on U.S. military assistance in the foreign aid budget overseen by the State Department, and on U.S. military bases, the most visible form of U.S. militarization in the region. These foci correspond to assistance, presence, and training, three categories that Pentagon officers use to plan U.S. military relations with Latin America. The School of the Americas Watch and the movement it sustains has focused on some military training, forcing the school to rename itself in 2001 and leading some Latin American countries to withdraw from sending students.


In terms of reducing military assistance in the foreign operations budget, there has been some limited success. In the 2012 budget that President Obama submitted in February, for example, military aid proposed for Colombia and Mexico was reduced. As for closing or limiting fixed U.S. military bases, public pressure has helped close bases in Ecuador, Panama, and Puerto Rico, while the plan to upgrade the Palanquero air base in Colombia for U.S. use has been scuttled.


In the meantime, U.S. military activities that fall outside the domain of the drug war are little discussed. Yet despite the obscurity of Pentagon spending, it is possible to track Defense Department contracts with private companies for activities abroad. For example, more than $30 million in Pentagon contracts has gone to equipment testing in tropical zones, known as “tropic testing,” carried out since 2002 by the private companies Kvaerner Process Services, based in Houston, and Las Vegas–based Trax International. These low-profile tests have taken place principally in Panama, where Pentagon-financed projects include the use of drones manufactured by Stark Aerospace, a division of Israel Defense Industries, as well as an upgrade to firing ranges. A U.S. Army agency called the Tropic Test Center once tested conventional munitions, chemical weapons, depleted-uranium munitions, and many other kinds of matériel in Panama for decades. But public disclosure of these tests during the 1990s, when the United States and Panama were negotiating a continued U.S. military presence, tripped up the discussions, and the test center was closed in 1999. But as the Pentagon’s contracts reveal, the testing resumed in Panama, as well as in Honduras, Suriname, and Hawaii.


The tests focus on military equipment ranging from airborne sensors and electronics to chemical and biological protective systems to the XM8 rifle. The United States also conducted tests on the XM-7 Spider land mine in Panama or another tropic site.7 On its website, Trax International promoted the use of firing ranges for tropic tests with U.S. troops in Panama, as well as the other sites, until exposure in the Panamanian media in January 2011 prompted the company to conceal the test locations.8 With a headquarters in Panama, the revamped Tropic Regions Test Center (TRTC) has had access to five test sites and maintains agreements with two universities allowing it to “retain key tropic test capabilities.” An agreement with the Technological University of Panama, for example, focuses on testing materials for the effects of tropical exposure in areas on the Caribbean end of the canal.


One of the sites used is the Cerro Tigre firing range, run by the Panamanian National Police. This is one of several canal-area ranges used by TRTC’s predecessor agency and other U.S. military units during the 20th century that were contaminated with tens of thousands of pieces of unexploded ordnance when they were returned to Panama as part of the canal treaties. A 2004 presentation by TRTC touted “access to SOCOM [Special Operations Command] soldiers” in Panama, suggesting that U.S. uniformed soldiers continued to participate in weapons or other testing there.9


In Honduras, the United States’ tropic tests are conducted on the Honduran Army’s Fifth Battalion base in eastern Mocorón, 25 miles north of the Nicaraguan border. In 2008 former TRTC director Lance Vander Zyl described the area as “ideal” for testing sensitive communication systems and sensors.10 The Fifth Battalion’s commander, Colonel Francisco Gálvez Granados, told me in June he doesn’t know what the test team does, and that his troops just provide security. After the June 2009 coup in Honduras, the test site went dormant and remained unused through most of 2010. During that time the TRTC looked to the tropical climate of Suriname as a replacement. The TRTC had already in 2008 first partnered with BHP Billiton, the world’s largest mining company and a subsidiary of Alcoa, to test Stryker armored combat vehicles on the company’s extensive land holdings that form part of a bauxite-mining complex. But the lack of access roads led the military to identify a new site in 2010 in central Suriname, south of Paramirabo, the capital city.11


In addition to military testing, disaster-relief and humanitarian efforts help account for non-drug war spending by the Pentagon in the hemisphere. After the January 2010 earthquake in Haiti, the U.S. military carried out a major mobilization, and in nine months spent on contracts in Haiti more than 10 times what it spent in the previous decade combined.


150 Image from Tropic Regions Test Center slide presentation, 2007.The U.S. military frequently promotes the humanitarian aims that its missions serve—disaster relief, digging wells, providing medical services in poor rural areas of the world. The U.S. Southern Command (SouthCom), in charge of the Pentagon’s operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, highlights the large number of patients treated. But the medical model is military; what the United States provides is neither long-term treatment nor the building of state agencies’ medical capacity, much less the training of health promoters who help communities from within to address their health needs. Rather, these are sessions with patients that the military’s medical staff, as caring as they may be, will likely never see again. While the funds for these deployments are appropriated for training purposes, they also “build partnerships down-range,” that is, over the long term, SouthCom spokesman Steve Lucas told me.


The military is upfront about the public relations purposes of its humanitarian deployments. “Providing veterinary services while in uniform yields the additional benefit of showing the military in a different light,” a Marine Corp veterinarian said of a deployment from the USS Iwo Jima, an amphibious assault ship, in Covenas, Colombia, in August.12 Yet that very same naval visit to Colombia illustrates how the military’s activities can be framed as disaster relief but in fact prepare the host country for clamping down on unruly citizens.


“U.S. Marines geared up with riot shields, shin guards and batons to show Colombian Marines the basics in non-lethal weapons and riot control,” said a SouthCom press release. “These skills are essential when dealing with a populous [sic] that turns desperate after a natural disaster.” SouthCom added: “Security and crowd control are chief concerns when providing humanitarian assistance. Colombian Marines also learned proper takedown techniques and enjoyed practical application with both U.S. and Colombian Marines.”13


The military approach to disasters reflects broadly held fear and bias. Drawing on the findings of disaster scholars since the 1950s and on her own fieldwork in New Orleans, San Francisco, Mexico City, and New York, author Rebecca Solnit challenges the perception that in a disaster ordinary people need to be controlled by the government. She shows how the most effective responses to disasters are typically spontaneous and unofficial citizen efforts. Government officials, meanwhile, frequently imagine that the populace will panic and riot in savage behavior, especially if those affected by the disaster are people of color. Solnit calls these violence-prone responses “elite panic.”14


Such panic can be reinforced by worst-case planning. The Air Force’s 615th Contingency Response Wing, whose mission is to quickly provide disaster relief and open air bases in hostile territory, is now designated for operations in Latin America and the Caribbean. Its air personnel ran the airport in the first days after the Port-au-Prince quake. The unit’s commanders like to feel good about humanitarian work, but are also “training for the hostile, the worst case scenario environment,” regardless of the mission, Colonel Daniel Miller told me last year.


Moreover, the Army Corps of Engineers explicitly recognizes the military uses of even civilian-oriented projects. “Every soldier a sensor,” said Lester Dixon, program director for the Corps’ division that operates in Central and South America. Corps “Civilians/Soldiers can collect information and intelligence” and “provide entry point into country,” Dixon said in November. He noted that Central and South America are “key locations of recent interest.”15


“Along with helping the local citizens, the [medical and civic assistance program] allows the Honduran military to assess the security in the area and research for any suspicious activity,” Special Operations Command South (SocSouth) said of medical programs in which U.S. troops participate in Honduras.16




The proliferation of U.S. military missions leads inevitably to institutional prerogatives, and the Southern Command and SocSouth are benefitting from major construction at their U.S.-based facilities. SouthCom’s new $402 million headquarters in Miami was completed in December. The Seventh Special Forces Group, which conducts SocSouth’s military training in Latin America, is online for a new $240 million complex in Florida, scheduled to be completed in July. The unit will also benefit from new training ranges and a host of other construction for special operations at Eglin Air Force Base on the Florida Panhandle costing more than $100 million.17


At least some people in Florida question these priorities. Peace groups are organizing a protest at SouthCom headquarters in October to commemorate 519 years of militarization. Opponents of this militarization highlight the impositions on Latin American sovereignty and dignity represented by such a violence-ready set of resources and policies. The growth of Pentagon spending not only goes hand in hand with the impoverishment of the state’s social commitment to addressing poverty and other sources of conflict; it also leads inexorably to deeper secrecy about the United States’ activities abroad. Perhaps, if civil society can make such militarization more visible, efforts to transform it might see greater success. 



John Lindsay-Poland is research and advocacy director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, and the author of Emperors in the Jungle: The Hidden History of the U.S. in Panama (Duke University Press, 2003).



1. Ethan Nadelmann, “Breaking the Taboo,” The Nation, December 27, 2010.


2. Global Commission on Drug Policy, Report of the Global Commission on Drug Policy (June 2011), 8.


3. All years referred to in this article are fiscal years. All contract data was drawn from, unless otherwise noted. Figures exclude fuel purchases. The contracts can include both foreign military assistance and U.S. operational costs, but exclude equipment purchased in the United States and shipped as aid, as well as military operational expenses not contracted out to private companies.


4. U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security & Governmental Affairs, Subcommittee on Contracting Oversight, New Information About Counternarcotics Contracts in Latin America (June 7, 2011), 4, 8.


5. Clare Ribando Seelke and Kristin M. Finklea, U.S.-Mexican Security Cooperation: The Mérida Initiative and Beyond (Congressional Research Service, February 16, 2011), 30.


6. Ibid., 9.


7. Lieutenant Colonel Gail Washington, “Tropic Regions Test Center Core Mission Activities,” slide presentation, U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground, 2007.


8. “Pentagon Contracting Documents U.S. Military Activity in Panama,” The Panama News 17, no. 1 (January 29, 2011);


9. James Wymer, “U.S. Army Yuma Proving Ground,” presentation,


10. Lance Vander Zyl, “Tropic Regions Test Center,” ITEA Journal 29 (2008): 242.


11. Ibid. and Mark Schauer, “Rugged Jungle of Suriname Attracts Testers,” The Outpost 40, no. 9 (October 12, 2010): 1, 4.


12. Zane Ecklund, “Iwo Jima Brings Veterinary Assistance to Colombia,” press release, USS Iwo Jima Public Affairs, August 17, 2010.


13. Alicia R. Giron, “U.S. Marines Conduct Non-lethal Weapons Tactics Training With Colombian Forces,” U.S. Southern Command, August 19, 2010,


14. Rebecca Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (Viking, 2009).


15. Lester Dixon, “Status and Future of South Atlantic District,” Society of Military Engineers, November 2010.


16. Alex Licea, “Honduran Military, U.S. Army Civil Affairs Soldiers Spread Goodwill,” Blackanthem Military News, August 17, 2010.


17. “Southcom’s New Home,”; Colonel Byron Jorns, “Overview for the Society of American Military Engineers,” presentation, July 1, 2009, Savannah, Georgia.





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