A New Dawn for Latin American Militaries

Across the region, militarization is on the rise, posing a major threat to democracy and justice. What can be done?

May 3, 2019

On July 26, 2018, thousands of protesters, led by the Abuelas del Plaza de Mayo, marched in Argentina to oppose President Mauricio Macri’s plans to empower the military to engage in domestic policing. In a country where a military regime killed thousands of civilians between 1976 to 1983, the prospect of the military on the streets again has opened old wounds and incited a heated debate. Macri defended the change, which was implemented by two executive decrees, as being necessary to enable Argentina to face the security challenges of the 21st century, including drug trafficking and terrorism.

The move is not a surprise. Diminished in size, underpaid, and without a clear role in society, the Argentine military has grown increasingly disgruntled in recent years. Macri campaigned on a promise to improve conditions for the armed forces, and has already implemented a 20 percent salary increase in an effort to close the gap in pay between the military, the police, and gendarmerie, while the military has welcomed the proposed expansion of its role. Traditionally the military is responsible for fighting wars and responding to external threats, the police for policing civilian populations, and the gendarmerie for border enforcement. These distinctions, however, are growing increasingly blurred.

The developments in Argentina are just part of the frightening trend of expanding military power across Latin America. Persistent security challenges, such as gang violence and drug trafficking, are so extensive and so transnational in nature that police forces are having trouble coping. Mounting public pressure for results in combating these problems has led elected civilian governments to turn to their militaries, despite the dangers of empowering the armed forces with internally-focused duties.

The shadow of the military dictatorships across Latin America in the 20th century should inform today’s political leaders. Especially during the Cold War, militaries routinely acted as the ultimate decision-makers in national politics who overthrew governments, suppressed political activity, and committed widespread human rights abuses. These regimes relied on violent repression to maintain power, including coordinating their use of state terror through Operation Condor, the multinational secret alliance among military dictatorships in South America.

Rushing to empower militaries today breaks down hard-won safeguards against repeating the abuses of the past. This has opened a Pandora’s box, and quietly but steadily the military has grown larger and more sophisticated, broadened its mission, and gained significant political influence. Today, the military enjoys a position of power in the region not seen since the Cold War, with dangerous implications for human rights and democracy.     

Growth and Domestic Policing

When new democratic governments came to power in the wake of the Cold War, few approved of the military, and their political influence was significantly lessened. Responding to the recent atrocities committed by the military, the new governments reduced the militaries radically in size, slashed their budgets, and subjected them to increased civilian oversight. Facing few external threats and with internal security now handled by civilian police, most militaries became a shell of their former selves. In addition, civilian governments revoked many of the amnesties for military officers passed by civilian governments as part of democratic transitions, opening the possibility of trying and imprisoning members of the military for past human rights abuses.    

In the last two decades, however, successes in reining in military power have been reversed. Latin America’s militaries have steadily grown to levels not seen since the 1980s. The militaries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have grown by more than 20 percent since their post-Cold War lows. The Brazilian, Bolivian, Mexican, and Venezuelan militaries have at least doubled in size. Colombia’s military has doubled, from 175,000 troops in 1990 to 336,000 today. The rest of the region’s militaries have grown in size by an average of 35 percent. At the same time, they have acquired more sophisticated weaponry and become increasingly specialized, with most countries maintaining an array of special forces units trained by the United States. 

A widespread increase in crime, gang violence, and drug trafficking has in part driven this growth. In an attempt to stem the flow of illegal arms and drugs, countries have heavily militarized their borders and regularly conduct joint military operations with neighboring countries. Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay work together to police the tri-border region [explored in more detail throughout this issue.] Peru and Bolivia closely cooperate to combat narcotrafficking. In March, a newly-formed dissident faction of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) rebel group kidnapped and later killed three Ecuadorian journalists, prompting the Ecuadorian government to send 10,000 troops to the border.

While labeled as border operations, these practices often begin well before one reaches the border, effectively providing militaries with policing powers over large swaths of their countries and bringing them into regular contact with civilians. In January, for example, Brazil activated the new 22nd Jungle Infantry Brigade to protect its northern border with Guyana, French Guiana, and Suriname. But the force also has jurisdiction over the entire states of Maranhão, Amapá, and large parts of Pará near the coast. In many other countries, including the United States, military border patrols also extend far into the interior.

Targeting areas of drug cultivation also grants the military control over large rural areas. Following the recent peace agreement with the FARC, ending a half-century of civil war, Colombia’s military is being retooled and redeployed to intensify its fight against drug traffickers, including the Gulf Clan cartel, which has grown significantly in strength. In January 2018, the government deployed the 9,000-troop Hercules task force, the largest military unit activated in two decades, to the department of Nariño, where the majority of the country’s coca is grown.

Similarly, for Peru, persistent problems such as narcotrafficking and combating remnants of the Shining Path insurgency have renewed the military’s internal security mission. The military’s primary duty is external security, but it still has a domestic role, especially in the Valley of the Apurimac, Ene, and Montero Rivers (VRAEM) emergency zone, where the military, not the civilian Peruvian National Police (PNP) are responsible for security.

Military presence in urban environments in Latin America is also expanding. As regular police forces find themselves increasingly outgunned by well-organized gangs and drug syndicates, the military has displaced the police in internal security. The mandate of the military, however, is to fight enemies of the state through applying violence, not to protect and serve civilian populations, a mandate of policing. For example, military personnel played a lead role in Brazil’s “pacification” policy in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in 2008, and military presence expanded further when the country hosted the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympic Games. The establishment of a Ministry for Public Security in February 2018, led by an army general, has further institutionalized the military’s mission in day-to-day policing. Also in February 2018, the government authorized a federal intervention in Rio de Jainero, and over 4,000 members of the military now operate in the city.

Jair Bolsonaro, the controversial new president, boasts rhetoric that typically extols the use of unrestrained force in the fight against street crime In his first week of office alone, Bolsonaro appointed six active or former members of the military to his cabinet, giving the institution more political influence than it has had since it governed the country in the 1980s. In January, he deployed troops to Fortaleza and ten other cities across the state of Caera in response to a rise in gang violence.

Meanwhile, in Mexico, then-President Felipe Calderón first deployed the military to fight drug gangs in 2006, and it now operates in 27 of Mexico’s 32 states. The 2017 Law on Internal Security strengthened the military’s role in policing, going so far as to “subordinate civilian law enforcement operations to military authority in some instances.” Under this law, the military was granted new powers, including the ability to conduct its own investigations. It also classified information on military operations, thereby restricting civilian oversight. In November 2018, the Supreme Court ruled this law to be unconstitutional on the grounds that it was too ambiguous in defining the appropriate use of force. Mexico’s internal security questions will continue dominating the political debate as the new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), finds his footing in office. The Supreme Court ruling came just hours after he announced his own security plan, which looked very similar to that of the outgoing administration, with army and navy personnel deployed in policing duties across the country.

Using the military for domestic policing carries significant risks. As highly lethal and insular forces, militaries are more likely to use deadly force and operate with little oversight. Nowhere is this more visible than in the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, which have some of the highest crime and murder rates in the world. The region’s largest gangs—the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and Barrio 18—are estimated to have as many as 85,000 members combined. In response, countries have militarized the problem. In 2016, El Salvador created a new military task force, equipped with helicopters and assault weapons, to fight criminal gangs. In 2018, an investigation revealed that senior members of the Salvadoran military were operating a secret death squad to execute suspected gang members, raising the ghosts of military abuses during the country’s civil war.

Public Pressure and Civilian Empowerment

In contrast to much of the military behavior of the 20th century that Latin American countries have sought to put behind them, in this new era of remilitarization it is often democratically-elected leaders themselves who are looking to the military for solutions to intractable national problems, often at the behest of the civilian population itself.

As countries democratized in the 1980s, citizens had high expectations that quality of life would improve under democracy, but many elected governments performed poorly in the ensuing years. Neoliberal economic policies have led to increased inequality and poverty, while corruption is rampant and many citizens fear for their safety. The majority of respondents across the region feel that their country is “governed for the benefit of the powerful” and disapprove of how the government of the day is running their countries, according to a 2017 survey by the polling organization Latinobarómetro. Asked to identify the most important problem facing their country, crime tops the list for almost every country, with unemployment and corruption typically close behind. In El Salvador, over half of respondents said they are concerned about being a victim of a violent crime all or almost all of the time. In Brazil, that figure is 68%.

Civilian politicians must respond to public demand if they are to stay in office, and failures in performance imperil democracy itself. In an environment of high crime rates, gang violence, and poor public security, citizens may be ready to defect from democracy entirely. Latinobarómetro consistently finds that sizable numbers of respondents feel ambivalent about democracy. In 2016, 23% believed regime type did not matter and a further 15% felt that “under certain circumstances, authoritarian government can be preferable to a democratic one.”

In countries facing the most intense problems with violent crime, dissatisfaction with democracy is even more severe. In Brazil and Northern Triangle countries, nearly 60% say they “wouldn’t mind a non-democratic government in power if it could resolve problems.” These data alone suggest how a figure like Bolsonaro was able to connect with sizable numbers of Brazilian voters in the 2018 presidential campaign through authoritarian-style appeals and promises to meet national challenges with violence.

The military, in contrast, enjoys much higher rates of confidence. Despite the dark histories of military rule, the military is often the most-trusted national institution in Latin American countries. For example, 55% of Brazilians express “a lot” or “some” confidence in the military according to Latinobarómetro; in Mexico that number is nearly 60%. In Guatemala, the gap in public confidence is most striking. Support for the military (44%) is nearly double that of the civilian police (24%). Latinobarómetro reveals that citizens perceive civilian police and judiciaries to be corrupt and ineffective. The public is thus increasingly demanding that the government look to the military to solve major social problems.

No case better illustrates this pattern than Uruguay. The government reported a 66% increase in homicides in the first half of 2018 from the same period the previous year, with blame attributed to an increasingly active network of criminal groups. The government plans to expand the budget for security operations, and in May it authorized the military to engage in domestic policing operations on the border. So far, President Tabaré Vázquez has resisted efforts to expand the jurisdiction of the military any further. In May, he denied a request by the mayor of Lavalleja to deploy the military, proclaiming that “Uruguay is not in a situation of war.”

Yet public pressure is mounting. In a recent poll, three out of four Uruguayans support allowing the military to work with the police to combat crime. Nationalist senator Jorge Larrañaga’s “Live Without Fear” campaign gathered over 375,000 signatures to force a plebiscite on a series of anti-crime measures, including one that would create a new National Guard composed of military personnel that would work in conjunction with police in an internal security role.

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Brett J. Kyle is Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nebraska-Omaha where he is a member of the Office of Latino/Latin American Studies (OLLAS) and the Goldstein Center for Human Rights. He is the author of Recycling Dictators in Latin American Elections: Legacies of Military Rule (Lynne Rienner Books, 2016).

Andrew G. Reiter is Associate Professor of Politics and International Relations at Mount Holyoke College. He is the author of Fighting Over Peace: Spoilers, Peace Agreements, and the Strategic Use of Violence (Palgrave Macmillan, 2016) and co-author (with Tricia Olsen and Leigh Payne) of Transitional Justice in Balance: Comparing Processes, Weighing Efficacy (United States Institute of Peace, 2010).

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