Closing the "Seams": U.S. Security Policy in the Americas

September 25, 2007

Looking around Latin America today, one could be reasonably encouraged by the regional security picture. Beyond Colombia and the remnants of Peru’s Shining Path insurgency, there are no civil wars and relatively little organized political violence in the hemisphere. While social upheavals have occurred, they have most often been resolved constitutionally. The regional economy is no longer in a tailspin, and some countries are even seeing poverty rates decline. Elections generally regarded as free and fair are taking place, and left-of-center leaders are winning and even being allowed to govern.

The U.S. government, however, takes a much darker view. “Good progress has been made, but much work remains to better secure our region,” Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told a gathering of the hemisphere’s defense ministers in Quito in November. “The new threats of the twenty-first century recognize no borders. Terrorists, drug traffickers, hostage takers and criminal gangs form an anti-social combination that increasingly seeks to destabilize civil societies.” In the spring of 2004, the Southern Command’s Gen. James Hill similarly warned Congress: “Terrorists throughout the Southern Command area of responsibility bomb, murder, kidnap, traffic drugs, transfer arms, launder money and smuggle humans.”

In its worldwide search for terrorists and other “new” transnational threats, Washington is once again encouraging Latin America and the Caribbean to arm, enlarge and reorient security forces to combat internal enemies. For the most part, this push is still incipient beyond Colombia, and some countries are resisting it. Nonetheless, the U.S. government’s message for the next few years appears to be: The world changed after September 11, we all face borderless, stateless threats, and militaries must play an active role in helping governments administer their own territory.

There is little new about this. Over the past century, the region’s militaries have needed little prodding to focus on perceived threats within their own borders. In a part of the world with few external threats—Latin American countries have fought relatively few wars against each other—armed forces have tended to look inward to find their reason for being.

In a region with the world’s highest levels of economic inequality, the result is that militaries have historically made some citizens more secure than others, while too often targeting those working peacefully on behalf of the have-nots. During the past century, and especially during the Cold War, the definition of “internal enemy” came to include labor and campesino leaders, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, journalists, authors and leftist intellectuals. Victims numbered in the thousands.

After the Cold War ended, many countries, vowing “never again,” sought to diminish both the size and the role of their armed forces. The United States slowed this progress, however, by stepping in with a new internal role to guide its military aid to the region: the “War on Drugs.” Today, the “War on Terror” provides a new and seemingly more urgent internal enemy.

Unless one is paying close attention to the hemisphere, the words “Latin America” and “War on Terror” don’t seem to go together. Images of the Guantánamo detention camp or perhaps of U.S. involvement in Colombia’s conflict may come to mind. But the imperatives of the Bush Administration’s “global war” are beginning to manifest themselves through a still-incipient set of exercises, aid programs, policy initiatives and proposed doctrinal shifts.

Colombia is beyond this incipiency. Counter-terrorism—really, counterinsurgency—is already the principal declared purpose of U.S. aid to Colombia. More than five years into Plan Colombia, with $4 billion appropriated (80% of it for Colombia’s security forces), the U.S. government is carrying out a host of activities that would have been unthinkable back in 2000 when the Clinton Administration promised that its new aid package would not cross the line between counternarcotics and counterinsurgency.

For two years now, a $100 million-plus program has sought to help the Colombian Army defend an oil pipeline partly owned by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum. U.S. funds have paid for a Colombian army commando battalion charged with hunting down guerrilla leaders. U.S. personnel have helped set up Special Forces, mobile brigades, river-based Marines and other specialized units all over the country. The United States is also heavily supporting Plan Patriota (Patriot Plan), a massive, year-old military offensive in the guerrilla jungle strongholds of southern Colombia. This offensive requires significant logistical support, intelligence and advising from U.S. military and private contractors, so the Southern Command asked Congress for, and was granted, a doubling (to 800) of the number of U.S. troops who may be in Colombia at a time. It also got a 50% increase in the U.S. citizen contractor presence (to 600).

Beyond Colombia, though, terrorists are rather scarce in Latin America, and terrorists who threaten U.S. citizens on U.S. soil are scarcer still. Possible exceptions may include some Hezbollah and Hamas fundraising activities; the potential presence of al Qaeda-related cells in zones where criminality—particularly contraband smuggling—is already common, such as the tri-border area shared by Argentina, Brazil and Paraguay; or the chance that terrorists could enter the United States via routes used for illegal immigration. But for the most part, dealing with these phenomena has not required military skills as much as good police investigative work to root out clandestine networks.

Only four Latin American armed groups in two countries (Colombia’s FARC and ELN guerrillas and the AUC paramilitaries, and Peru’s Shining Path guerrillas) are on the State Department’s list of foreign terrorist organizations. So to portray terrorism as a region-wide threat, from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, seems like a tough sell.

Nonetheless, the word “terrorism” appears as a justification for military aid in 16 of the Western Hemisphere country narratives in the State Department’s 2005 congressional presentation document for foreign aid programs. For instance, this document tells us, “U.S. Anti-Terrorist Assistance programs brought Argentine officials to the United States for valuable counterterrorism briefings and training.” The request for Bolivia “also includes equipment and training for the Bolivian Army’s new Counterterrorism Unit.” In the Dominican Republic, “FMF [Foreign Military Financing] will train Dominican forces capable of responding to terrorist threats.”

When the terrorist threat inspires military aid in so many unlikely countries throughout the hemisphere, it is reasonable to wonder who exactly is being considered a “terrorist.” Terrorism, after all, is a term that is easily abused and can easily come to mean both everything and nothing. If the definition of “terrorist” is not rigorously applied, the region’s security forces may end up applying it far too broadly.

Are Bolivian coca growers who blockade roads terrorists? Coca-growing campesinos whose booby traps kill or maim eradication forces certainly deserve jail, but do they (as well as the union they belong to, the political party affiliated with it and allied labor and indigenous movements) really merit the terrorist label? Are Honduran peasants who stage road blockages to stop over-logging terrorists, as some in Honduras claim? Was the retired military officer who staged an abortive takeover of a rural Peruvian police station in late 2004 a terrorist, as the Peruvian government claims? Are Mapuches who damaged plantation property to press for land claims terrorists, as Chilean prosecutors have argued? When Colombian President Álvaro Uribe calls human rights groups “defenders of terrorism” in a speech before a military audience, is he engaging in rhetorical exaggeration or a veiled threat?

When employed so loosely, the term “terrorist” not only loses its usefulness as a way to describe some real threats, it risks becoming a pretext for action against internal opponents who do not even commit violence or work outside the system. The term is politicized when it becomes part of the U.S. government’s case against Latin American governments that have poor relations with Washington. Cuba, for instance, is one of seven countries on the State Department’s list of “terrorist-sponsoring states,” despite abundant evidence that it has long since abandoned any such practices.

As relations with Venezuela continue to sour, U.S. officials have hinted that President Hugo Chávez may have links to terrorist groups. “Venezuela is emerging as a potential hub of terrorism in the Western Hemisphere, providing assistance to Islamic radicals from the Middle East and other terrorists, say senior U.S. military and intelligence officials,” claimed a 2003 story in U.S. News & World Report.1 Bush Administration representatives have increasingly sought to link Chávez to Colombian guerrillas; in January 2005, U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William Wood demanded “clarity” from Chávez regarding his relationship to the FARC.

The Bush Administration, led by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, has characterized Chávez as a “negative force in the region,” and has placed Venezuela near the top of its list of security threats in the Americas. But hints about terrorist linkages make up only part of the stated rationale. Despite the lofty rhetoric of President Bush’s inauguration speech, the Administration has already blown much of its pro-democracy credibility in Venezuela. In blatant violation of the Democratic Charter of the Organization of American States, it rushed to recognize a government that briefly deposed Chávez during the April 2002 coup attempt. This has since made it difficult to express genuine concerns about some of the Venezuelan leader’s autocratic tendencies.

Instead, U.S. officials have come up with a creative new label, “radical populism,” to portray Chávez as a security threat. As the Southern Command’s Gen. Hill told Congress, “Traditional threats are now complemented by an emerging threat best described as radical populism.… Some leaders in the region are tapping into deep-seated frustrations … to reinforce their radical positions by inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment.”

Chávez heads the Administration’s list of “radical populist” threats in the region. Evo Morales, the coca growers’ union leader-turned-head of Bolivia’s main opposition party and a presidential hopeful, also gets frequent mention. Elected leftists in other countries—Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay—do not yet appear to qualify, though the Administration’s attitude could change if these leaders should run afoul of U.S. interests.

When U.S. security planners come to define “radical populism” as a security threat, it is reasonable to be concerned that its containment or reversal could become a guiding goal for U.S. military assistance to Latin America. This concern is a serious one. If U.S. security assistance policy comes to regard national militaries as a counterbalance to elected populists, we run the very real danger of returning to a time when the region’s armed forces assumed the extremely political role of deciding when civilian leaders had overstepped their constitutional bounds.

The spread of radical populism, Gen. Hill testified, is “overlaid upon states in the region that are generally marked by weak institutions and struggling economies. This resulting frailty of state control can lead to ungoverned or ill-governed spaces and people.” Concern about “ungoverned spaces” recurs often in U.S. officials’ discussions of hemispheric security threats. For U.S. security planners looking for the next terrorist threat, Latin America’s many vast, neglected and sparsely populated zones—strategically located jungles, navigable rivers, empty coastlines, busy but unmonitored borders—are viewed as places where “evildoers” can organize, recruit, raise funds and plot attacks with little state interference. Terrorists and transnational criminals “often find shelter in border regions or areas beyond the effective reach of government,” says Rumsfeld. “They watch, they probe, looking for areas of vulnerability, for weaknesses, and for seams in our collective security arrangements that they can try to exploit.”

Bringing the rule of law and government services to historically neglected zones is not necessarily a military mission—unless, of course, dangerous armed groups are entrenched in these areas. However, the Bush Administration is showing no interest in supporting the spread of non-military governance: the 2006 foreign aid request foresees a precipitous drop in economic aid to nearly all of the region, especially development assistance, and child survival and health programs.

Instead, the emphasis of U.S. security planners is on closing “seams” in security structures. Defense planners see terrorists potentially thriving in geographical gaps between countries or governed spaces, and in the functional gaps between the roles of militaries and the missions of police forces. Pentagon civilians call their proposed response “effective sovereignty,” meaning that Latin American governments must effectively exercise sovereignty over their full national territory. They call for helping the region’s security forces to operate in ungoverned spaces, encouraging a blurring of the “seam” between military and police roles.

“Effective sovereignty” has not yet led to an increase in military assistance to the region. Excluding Colombia, military and police aid levels have been rather flat at roughly $300-350 million a year region-wide. The number of trainees from outside Colombia has also seen relatively moderate growth, from 8,797 in 2001 to 9,884 in 2003.

There are exceptions, however, which indicate where the effort to “fill the seams” has begun. Ecuador and Panama have received aid to beef up their security forces’ presence along their shared borders with Colombia. The Southern Command’s exercise program now includes “Panamax,” a multinational exercise in which the region’s militaries practice defending the Panama Canal from a terrorist attack. The 2006 aid request includes $5 million to launch “Enduring Friendship,” an effort to increase maritime cooperation among the navies of the Caribbean. In the next few years, we can probably expect efforts to expand this program to the entire hemisphere.

Mexico may be seeing an increase in U.S. military and police assistance with a focus on anti-terror border control. According to State Department spokesman Richard Boucher, “In 2004, we sponsored over 100 training courses attended by more than 4,000 Mexican police officers and prosecutors, working on everything from criminal investigations, anti-corruption, border safety, forensics, kidnapping, hostage negotiations—there’s a whole gamut of police techniques and police training.”[2]

Meanwhile, the countries that offered soldiers for the Iraq war—El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic—are getting more aid and cooperation in return. This is especially the case with El Salvador, where Foreign Military Financing grants are expected to increase from $5 million in 2004 to $13 million in 2006.

Elsewhere in Central America, and in Mexico as well, U.S. defense planners have their eye on criminal gangs (a phenomenon that has been fed in part by massive deportations of Central American criminals from U.S. jails). While there is discussion in Washington of doing more to help the region’s security forces to fight gangs, no concrete proposals—whether for military or police aid—have yet been adopted.

In its effort to expand “effective sovereignty,” one of the largest obstacles the Bush Administration faces is, in fact, self-imposed. The “American Servicemembers’ Protection Act,” passed in 2003, requires a cutoff of non-drug military aid for countries that are signatories to the new International Criminal Court and do not offer special immunity to U.S. military personnel on their soil. Currently, 12 militaries in the region, including such major aid recipients as Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, are getting no non-drug aid.

A more important obstacle to “effective sovereignty” is a lack of regional enthusiasm for the concept. This was evident in the November 2004 meeting of the hemisphere’s defense ministers, at which Donald Rumsfeld’s vague calls for “a new regional defense architecture” were largely rebuffed by governments who clearly do not share the Bush Administration’s perception of imminent threats rooted in ungoverned spaces, and who are unwilling to give police roles to their militaries. In a troubling development, reports from those present at the Quito summit indicate that the U.S. delegation resisted a push to include explicit references to human rights and international humanitarian law in the final declaration’s discussion of anti-terrorism.

Anyone concerned about human rights, democracy and healthy civil-military relations in the Americas must be extra-vigilant during this moment of Washington’s preoccupation with “seams,” “ungoverned spaces” and “radical populists.” Strategies and policy patterns begun now could become the blueprint for U.S. security relations with the hemisphere for some time to come. What’s more, a renewed effort to mobilize militaries against an “internal enemy” risks a repeat of past policies that yielded such well-known tragic consequences.

The U.S. debate too often ignores the fact that the threats being envisioned rarely require a military response. Outside of Colombia and its border zones, armed movements have not emerged, and the terrorist threat to the United States cannot be described as immediate. There is still time to mobilize non-military resources to make “ungoverned spaces” inhospitable to terrorists. Democratic governance can be improved, and economic opportunity created by investment in civilian police forces, judges, courts, prosecutors, mayors and governors, roads, schools, clinics, energy, potable water, credit, land titling, technical assistance and anti-poverty programs. Instead of changing the region’s “security architecture,” the U.S. government can make Latin America safer by helping to close the wide “seams” that persist between wealth and poverty, law and disorder, participation and isolation, and citizenship and neglect.

About the Author
Adam Isacson has worked since 1995 at the Center for International Policy, an independent research and advocacy organization in Washington D.C.He coordinates a program that monitors security and U.S. military assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean.


1. Linda Robinson, “Terror Close to Home,” U.S. News & World Report, October 6, 2003.
2. U.S. Department of State, “State Department Briefing” Washington, January 27, 2005 .

Tags: US foreign policy, US miitary, Plan Colombia, counterterrorism, radical populism

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