A <i>New</i> New World Order?: U.S. Military Mission Grows in Latin America

September 25, 2007

The smoke has mostly cleared over the Pentagon and the wreckage of New York City’s World Trade Center, yet an image of our new new world order has yet to emerge. In the wake of the terrorist attack on the United States, U.S. defense and security policy in the hemisphere and around the globe takes on an unpredictable and potentially ugly demeanor. President George W. Bush has pledged to wage war against the perpetrators of the assault, wherever and whoever they may be. Democrats and Republicans alike are calling for massive reinforcements to the national defense and intelligence budgets. And even as some members of Congress aver that the country’s response to the attack must preserve the essential values and freedoms that its citizens take for granted, government officials have already warned that life, as we know it, is bound to change dramatically. Most troubling of all, the din of warmongering has drowned out the voices of those calling for an examination of U.S. policies that may have helped bring the country to this crisis: the policies that fuel despair, that exacerbate difference, that stall or obstruct peace. For Latin America, the attack will translate into an escalation of U.S. pressure over security concerns at the cost of ongoing multilateral efforts to strengthen democracy, human rights, trade and development. The administration has called on its neighbors for their unequivocal backing as the United States begins to retaliate with military force; it will strengthen ties to regional armed forces accordingly.

The hours and days after the attack were filled with ominous signs that the United States was prepared to tighten an array of security measures that will have repercussions for U.S. policy in Latin America, with little regard for the painful lessons learned from past crises.

—Former CIA director, James Woolsey, went on national television on the evening of the attack arguing for a reversal of a U.S. policy prohibiting the use of foreign assets with abusive human rights records, because “it cuts back on your ability to recruit spies inside terrorist organizations if you can’t recruit people with some kind of violent past.”[1] The guidelines had been established by CIA director John Deutch in 1996 after a government-wide investigation revealed that paid CIA informants in the Guatemalan military were involved in kidnapping, torture and assassination. Deutch’s move led to the firing of dozens of Latin American assets on the agency payroll and gave the public a glimpse of the extent to which human rights violators in the region had served as U.S. intelligence assets in the past. The new guidelines may be reversed as part of the anti-terrorist legislation being considered by Congress.

—During a press conference on September 12, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld warned repeatedly that the U.S. government would not tolerate leaks of classified information.[2] His words fuel mounting pressure within Congress to pass a sweeping secrecy bill that would impose severe penalties for disclosing classified material, without defining the legal limits of government secrecy. Such a provision would cast a shadow on any contact between the public, especially the media, and government officials, and would restrict the ambit of public debate on U.S. national security policy. The legislation would directly affect the kinds of disclosures that led to the release of new information about U.S. links to human rights abusers in Chile, Guatemala and Peru.

—House and Senate lawmakers expressed broad support for pouring billions of additional dollars into U.S. intelligence agencies, increasing spy networks around the world and creating a new federal agency designed to fight terrorism.[3] The emphasis on enhanced intelligence gathering brings to a halt a post-Cold War assessment of the role of the CIA in Latin America, where the agency has come under attack of late due to revelations about its support for Peru’s disgraced intelligence czar, Vladimiro Montesinos, its participation in the shoot-down of a private plane over the Amazon which killed a U.S. missionary and her infant daughter and its reliance on violent military officers in the region as informants. Once Congress finishes debating not whether but how much to pump up intelligence spending worldwide, the CIA will enjoy a resurgence of clandestine intelligence gathering and operational powers in the hemisphere in the name of anti-terrorism.

—Senior U.S. officials have floated the possibility of reversing a decades-old ban on assassination in order to give the administration greater powers in waging its war on suspected terrorists.[4] President Gerald Ford signed the executive order in 1976 that barred the use of political assassination, responding to revelations from the 1973 Senate Church Committee hearings about the CIA’s failed efforts to murder Fidel Castro. Although the ban remains in place to date, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared days after the attack that “There is no question that the ban does have an effect. It restricts certain things the government can and cannot do.” Rep. Bob Barr (R-GA) has drafted a bill designed to overturn the ban, and has found ten members in the House to co-sponsor it.

This is just the beginning of what promises to be a profound restructuring of the U.S. defense posture at home and abroad. While the security implications for Latin America remain uncertain, what is clear is that the United States will demand unswerving allegiance to its plans for an imminent war waged against not only the terrorist networks responsible for the international crime committed on its soil, but possibly against nations believed to harbor terrorists, finance terrorists or otherwise support terrorists.

Even before the September terrorist attack, the level of U.S. military contacts in the region was at an all-time high. Indeed, ten years after the collapse of the Soviet Union, six years since the signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement and one year into the twenty-first century, perhaps the biggest surprise about U.S. policy in Latin America is the extent to which security and defense interests continue to dominate. During his two terms in office, former President Clinton championed the promotion of democracy and free trade in the hemisphere, but he left behind a booming U.S. military presence. The Bush administration promises to continue the trend. Washington’s determination to fight the war on drugs through military means has translated into unprecedented levels of new military aid, training, equipment, radar and the most sophisticated weaponry available pouring into countries vulnerable to narcotics trafficking. Human rights advocates warn that single-minded policies emphasizing security interests damage the ability of the United States to influence human rights and respect for the rule of law.

During the Clinton years, the U.S. military readjusted its mission in Latin America away from the Cold-War fixation with anti-Communism. It did not, however, reduce its involvement in the region. While military-aid levels declined for a time in dollar terms, military training, exercises, and Special Forces deployments proliferated everywhere in the hemisphere except Cuba. Over 55,000 U.S. military personnel pass through the region in a typical year, and in 1999 (the only year for which reliable figures are available) the United States trained nearly 13,000 Latin American soldiers and police. In a period of relative peace and democratic governance, with no immediate security threats, the United States pursued military engagement—the development and cultivation of military-to-military contacts—for its own sake, as a central foreign policy priority in the hemisphere.

By the late 1990s, the Clinton administration had found a new regional security threat to orient its military activities: the drug trade and related instability in the Andes, especially in Colombia. Military aid levels began to rise, a trend that promises to continue under the new leadership in the White House. Last June, the Bush State and Defense Departments (which at the time included many Clinton holdovers) submitted a 2002 aid request that would maintain and expand many of the previous administration’s military programs and policies in Latin America. The Bush administration continues to increase military engagement, while enthusiastically assuming stewardship of the U.S. contribution to “Plan Colombia,” the $1.3 billion mostly military aid package for the Andes that the Clinton White House put into place during its final year.

In Colombia, these initiatives add up to an estimated $1.28 billion in military and police aid in 2000, 2001 and 2002. They include improvements to Army, Navy, Air Force and police weapons, communications and other equipment, training, logistics, intelligence, and military reform advice. Most of the funding supports a strategy that officials call the “push into southern Colombia.” U.S. funding has created and trained a new Colombian Army counternarcotics brigade made up of three battalions (a total of 2,250 soldiers). The third battalion completed training by U.S. Special Forces in May 2001. In July, the battalions took delivery of the first of fourteen UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters (at $15 million apiece) and thirty UH-1 Huey helicopters.

The battalions’ mission will be to “create security conditions” for counterdrug operations in a coca-growing zone around the departments of Putumayo and Caquetá in southern Colombia. Since the main threat to “security conditions” in this zone are the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) guerrillas, the United States will be funding offensive operations against Colombian insurgents for the first time in decades, a significant new step in Colombia’s rapidly worsening conflict. The counterdrug operations these battalions will protect are mostly raids on drug-processing labs and a dramatically expanded program of aerial fumigation of coca and opium-poppy crops. Since 1995, U.S. contractor personnel and Colombia’s National Police have sprayed at least 75,000 acres per year with Monsanto’s “Round Up,” a mixture of the herbicide glyphosate with chemicals that help the poison penetrate plants and soil.

The U.S. contractors flying the fumigation planes are among a contingent of 160-180 U.S. citizens working as contractors in Colombia on an average day, hired by a still unknown number of companies. (The number of contract personnel exceeds 300 when non-citizens are included.) In addition to flying spray planes, the contractors work as mechanics, search-and-rescue personnel, military trainers, logistics experts, and intelligence gatherers, among other duties. Contractors will even serve as co-pilots in the Colombian counternarcotics battalions’ new helicopters. The heavy reliance on contractors raises serious issues of accountability and transparency. Rep. Janice Schakowsky (D-IL), who has been outspoken in her concern about a “privatized Gulf of Tonkin incident” in Colombia, asked a May 2001 hearing: “Are we outsourcing in order to avoid public scrutiny, controversy or embarrassment? Is it to hide body bags from the media and thus shield them from public opinion?”

The contractors’ performance offers more reason for concern. After one company, Military Personnel Resources International (MPRI), performed a yearlong, bottom-up review of Colombia’s military, Colombian officials quoted in Bogotá’s press criticized MPRI’s work as irrelevant and not tailored for their needs. In April 2001, Aviation Development Corporation, a CIA contractor, helped the Peruvian Air Force target a planeload of missionaries as a possible drug-smuggling flight. The contractors, who spoke little Spanish, were unable to call the Peruvians off before they strafed the plane, killing a U.S. citizen and her daughter. Since the incident, the U.S. aerial interdiction program—which links radar sites, forward-deployed U.S. aircraft, and local air forces in what many have called a “you-fly-you-die” policy—has been suspended.

Critics’ concerns about U.S. plans in Colombia go well beyond contractors, however. Of all countries worldwide where war claims over 1,000 lives per year, only Colombia receives significant amounts of U.S. military assistance (in fact it is the world’s number-three recipient). U.S. entanglement in this conflict could follow if the “push into southern Colombia” fails militarily—a possibility, since FARC guerrillas are quite strong in the new brigade’s zone of operation. Even the new helicopters could be vulnerable: “We’ve received numerous reports that the insurgents have surface-to-air missiles,” the U.S. Southern Command’s chief told a House committee in 2000.

Human-rights advocates have also voiced strong doubts about the direction of the Clinton-Bush policy toward Colombia. In much of the country, they charge, Colombia’s military continues to work hand-in-glove with paramilitary death squads. Other critics worry that the aid package has dealt a severe blow to an already-fragile peace process. Many also point to the cold reception that the U.S. strategy has received in Europe, where contributions to Plan Colombia have been much lower than Bogotá and Washington had hoped.

So far, the Bush administration has continued the Clinton administration’s policy of aiding only Colombian military units with counternarcotics responsibilities. As of late 2001, however, policymakers are carrying out a “formal review” to determine whether the U.S. mission should remain “just narcotics, or is there some wider stake we may have in the survival of a friendly democratic government,” as Assistant Secretary of Defense Peter Rodman defined it in August 2001. Indeed, many officials’ rhetoric has recently included calls to help Colombia’s government gain control of its territory, which indicates a likely tilt toward counterinsurgency.

This tilt will probably be substantially stronger in the wake of the September 11 tragedy in the United States. Three of the thirty-one groups on the State Department’s list of international terrorist organizations are Colombian (See “Terror’s Latin American Profile,” this issue), something that was clearly on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s mind in a September 23 television interview: “Quite a few [terrorist groups] will go after our interests in the regions that they are located in and right here at home. And so we have to treat all of them as potentially having the capacity to affect us in a global way. Or to affect our friends and interests in other parts of the world. For example, we have designated three groups in Colombia alone as being terrorist organizations, and we are working with the Colombian government to protect their democracy against the threat provided or presented by these terrorist organizations.”

The Bush administration has dubbed its 2002 aid request the “Andean Regional Initiative” because it would increase aid to six of Colombia’s neighbors. In Colombia, the request anticipates a continuation of all programs begun in 2000; it includes no new big-ticket items like helicopters, since the helicopters approved last year have only begun to arrive. Colombia’s closest neighbors—Bolivia, Brazil, Ecuador, Panama, Peru and Venezuela—will see large increases in military and police assistance in 2002. Much of the aid will help security forces tighten borders with Colombia to stem a feared overflow of violence and drug-crop cultivation. In Ecuador, which hosts U.S. troops and aircraft at a counter-drug “Forward Operating Location” at Manta on the Pacific coast, the United States will fund a new border-security plan as part of a two-thirds increase in military and police aid. Post-Fujimori Peru will see an especially sharp increase in such aid, from a 2000-2001 average of about $50 million to nearly $90 million in 2002. Work with Venezuela’s National Guard will increase significantly as well. (Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez has nonetheless made a point of saying “no” on occasion, barring drug surveillance aircraft from Venezuelan airspace and removing the U.S. Military Group from its rent-free presence in Caracas’ Fuerte Tiuna military headquarters.)

Military assistance and cooperation is increasing beyond the Andes as well. Mexico is to see a moderate rise in counterdrug aid, though military cooperation is still down from the levels of 1996 and 1997, when a large U.S. program helped create Air-Mobile Special Forces Groups (GAFEs) in Mexico’s army. As drug smuggling shifts away from Mexico and toward the Caribbean, U.S. aid will increase in that region—although nowhere near the levels of aid to the Andes, as the Bush administration has shown no intention of changing its predecessor’s “source zone” anti-drug approach.

Elsewhere in the Caribbean, controversy continues to rage over the future of the U.S. Navy’s bomb-testing range on the island of Vieques off the eastern coast of Puerto Rico. While the Bush administration has not publicly opposed a November 2001 referendum that will officially decide the facility’s future, it has also done nothing to discourage Congressional Republicans from inserting language in the 2002 defense-budget appropriations bills that would nullify the referendum before it can take place. The backlash against closing Vieques may be fueled by the United States’ declared war on terrorism.

The United States is busy upgrading three new overseas military sites. Forward Operating Locations, seen as substitutes for the old Howard Air Force Base in Panama, are now functioning at Aruba and Curaçao in the Netherlands Antilles, at the Manta airbase in Ecuador, and at the Comalapa airport in El Salvador. Host countries have signed and ratified ten-year agreements for the sites’ use. The U.S. military’s return to El Salvador is to be accompanied in 2002 by a quadrupling of assistance to the Salvadoran security forces.

In post-war Central America, a region with few national-security threats, a robust U.S. program of humanitarian military exercises helps retool armies to defend against threats posed by the weather, tectonic plates and poverty. Along with aid for counternarcotics—essentially a law-enforcement mission—the Humanitarian and Civic Assistance (HCA) program of infrastructure-building and medical projects encourages Latin American militaries to take on internal roles that could otherwise be filled by skilled civilians. Such programs guarantee the region’s armed forces relevant missions in an era of diminished threats, allowing them to avoid ceding power and resources to civilian leaders.

U.S. arms-sales policies threaten to exacerbate civil-military tensions in South America’s relatively wealthy “Southern Cone.” Chile is purchasing ten F-16 C/D series fighter aircraft and other equipment from the United States for about $700 million, the largest arms sale ever to Latin America and the first high-tech weapons sale since a twenty-year policy banning such sales was lifted in 1997. Concerns of an arms race between this region’s traditional rivals have increased with Brazil’s announced intention to buy 24 fighters of its own. U.S. relations with the militaries of this region remain quite close, particularly with Argentina. The State Department’s 2002 aid request declares that military assistance to Argentina “continues our policy of supporting Argentina, as a major non-NATO ally, at a time when fiscal austerity has drastically shrunk Argentine defense spending.”

The growth of military programs along so many fronts may disturb many who are familiar with the history of U.S. support for abusive Latin American regimes. But the trends—all expected to continue or accelerate under the Bush administration—also carry risks for the way the United States relates with Latin America today.

Propelled by these programs, the U.S. military—an institution designed for war, not statecraft—is playing an increasing role in foreign policymaking. While military engagement has been growing in the region, State Department and foreign aid budgets have fallen or stagnated. The U.S. military presence in the region already rivals that of civilian diplomats. Meanwhile in 2000, for the first time since before the Alliance for Progress, total security assistance to Latin America actually exceeded total economic assistance (roughly $900 million versus $800 million). The result is that priorities and programs in the region may increasingly be determined according to strategic, not political, criteria. It also means that U.S. decisionmakers probably have greater access to information and recommendations from Latin American officers than from the region’s civilian leaders.

As the United States prepares for war—and terrorists come to occupy a place held earlier by Communists and drug lords—the U.S. military programs already in place offer a springboard for a further strengthening of the region’s armed forces. It is a turn of events wholly unforeseen and potentially disastrous for the hemisphere. When the Berlin Wall fell over ten years ago, Latin Americans had reason to hope that a new world was imminent—a world in which democratic participation, economic well-being and the rule of law might finally trump the primacy of security interests. The fall of the World Trade Center is an ominous sign that those hopes may be dashed for a long time to come.

Kate Doyle is a senior analyst of U.S. policy in Latin America for the National Security Archive. She lives and works in Mexico City.

Adam Isacson, a senior associate at the Center for International Policy, coordinates a program that monitors and seeks limits on U.S. military assistance to the Western Hemisphere.

1. Transcript PBS, “The News Hour With Jim Lehrer,” September 11, 2001.
2. Transcript of a Department of Defense News Briefing, September 12, 2001.
3. Lizette Alvarez, “Spying Terrorists and Thwarting Them Gains New Urgency,” The New York Times, September 14, 2001.
4. Mark Benjamin, “Assassination Ban Debated,” United Press International, September 18, 2001.

Tags: US foreign policy, George W Bush, US military, militarization, war on terror, drug war

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