Colombia defense minister looking to export security strategy and arms to Central America

Latin America and the Caribbean

Last week Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón traveled to seven different Central American and Caribbean countries to discuss security cooperation: Panama, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.

In every country Pinzón visited he discussed deals with the host governments to increase defense cooperation with Colombia. These deals included selling the countries arms and equipment, as well as having their security forces trained by Colombian police officers and military personnel to fight drug trafficking.

Colombian newspaper El Tiempo covered Pinzón’s trip, focusing on this expansion of the Colombian security model into Central America. According to the newspaper, the trip had three focuses:

  • Advising on the implementation of Colombian models for the police, the Armed Forces and defense sector sales;
  • Security cooperation so that [Colombian] national companies invest more in [Central America]
  • Gaining support for the government’s decision regarding the maritime dispute with Nicaragua.

There were several other key points to highlight from the article:

Security reform and cooperation

  • Colombia advises police reform in Honduras, Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, but has agreements to reproduce a national model against drug trafficking all over Central America, from Mexico to Panama.
  • Colombia hopes [that cooperation], for example from the various police reforms in the region, will allow for shared protocols against crime. According to Pinzón:

    “We need to be in solidarity with these countries that are facing problems similar to the ones we face. To the extent that this interrupts trafficking, it interrupts criminality and reduces the flow of resources that come to finance violence and terrorism in Colombia, so we all win.”

    This idea has become popular in the region. Honduran Minister of Security Arturo Corrales said,

    “The idea is that Honduras will join a concert of friends that will widen the spectrum against common enemies, and from the South to the North, and will construct a bridge free of narcotrafficking and organized crime. For this, we need Colombia.”

    David Muguia Payes, the Salvadoran Defense Minister, also supported the partnership, saying: “The Colombian experience is useful for us in the head-on attack against criminals.” The Dominican Republic and Jamaica also recognize Colombia as their primary ally in the fight against narcotrafficking.

  • Pinzón also told the paper that it was a mistake for some Central American countries to have reduced the sizes of their militaries after signing peace accords, saying that this “opened up spaces for organized crime.”
  • On the issue of the country’s maritime territorial dispute with Nicaragua, Pinzón said: “I found a lot of understanding for Colombia’s position to not implement The Hague’s [November 2012] ruling.”

Business interests:

Colombian companies from various industries have invested all over Central America. As El Tiempo noted, Colombia and its business community have one of the highest rates of investment in the region. Some defense-focused businesses, like armored cars and bulletproof clothing, are already widely recognized.

Colombia hopes that these trainings and agreements will boost their military- industrial complex and lead to the sale of ships, boats, guns, pistols, rifles and gun sights.

Minister Pinzón is promoting Indumil and Cotecmar, two Colombian businesses that have developed weapons such as the Cordoba pistol, the Galil ACE rifle, as well as river and ocean patrol boats. The sale of one of these boats, which cost around US$60 million to construct, is being negotiated with Trinidad and Tobago, and Colombia has just closed a deal to sell river patrol boats to Brazil.

The article then goes on to discuss the expansion of Colombian banking interests in Central America.

Continuing a problematic trend

Colombian training of foreign forces is not a new trend, but it is accelerating one. As noted in our recent military trends report, an April PowerPoint slideshow from the Colombian Ministry of Defense shows there were 9,983 recipients of Colombian training from 45 different countries between 2010 and 2012. In Panama, Pinzón noted 4,000 police agents alone have already been trained in Colombia. Between 2010 and 2012, that number was just shy of 2,500.

Just the Facts’ Adam Isacson has covered concerns about the “export” of Colombia’s training model before – for one, Colombia has yet to address the widespread human rights violations committed by their own security forces, including 4,716 alleged extrajudicial killings of civilians.

Another concern is the United States’ financial and diplomatic support for this training. The United States pays for Colombia to carry out some part of these trainings with funds from the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). However, it is not known what the content of the training courses covers, how much money the U.S. provides, or how many foreign forces are trained with its financial backing.

The State Department’s Foreign Military Training Report, the annual report that documents U.S. training of foreign forces, only documents recipients trained directly by United States personnel and fails to include those trained by Colombian personnel with funding from the United States.

For example, according to the report for 2012 that was just released, just 290 Honduran police and military received training from the United States. This number does not include, for example, Honduran police personnel trained by Colombian police as part of the U.S.-backed Honduran police reform. For Haiti, the U.S. government reports 20 trainees – this omits the training of ten female Haitian police that were trained in Colombian earlier this year, funded by the U.S. International Narcotics and Law Enforcement office.

With a reduced defense budget, having Colombia train some of these forces with U.S. funding is a much cheaper option for the United States. As Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield has said, “It’s a dividend that we get for investing over $9 billion in support for Plan Colombia.”

Going forward it is important to keep in mind what lessons are being exported. Pinzón’s comment that reducing the size of militaries was “a mistake” and linked to the rise in organized crime in Central America is a troubling message for both human rights and civil military relations, and one that the U.S. government does not necessarily share. It comes at a time when several countries like Honduras and Guatemala are already militarizing their domestic law enforcement, which is happening with some degree of U.S. funding and tacit approval.

CIP intern Ben Fagan drafted the translations included in this post