Data Indicate Big Increase in Special Operations Training in Latin America

Latin America and the Caribbean

2009 saw 21 Special Operations Forces JCET deployments in Latin America. There were 36 in 2014.The Security Assistance Monitor database shows a decline, in dollar terms, in U.S. military and police assistance to Latin America after 2010. But as we noted in our September 2013 report Time To Listen, that decline is not uniform. Some forms of assistance are increasing.

That report predicted an increase in military training provided by U.S. Special Operations Forces, or SOF: elite U.S. units like Army Green Berets and Rangers, Navy SEALs, Delta Force commandos, and others.

Special Forces are likely to see their numbers increase despite upcoming defense budget cuts, and as the Afghanistan drawdown proceeds, there will be even more of them available to carry out missions in Latin America. … However, considering the way information is being classified, we are not likely to learn much about them. More teams will be in countries throughout the Americas teaching courses as part of Mobile Training Teams (MTTs), and organizing exercises, some of them through the Special Forces’ Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program.

This has come to pass. It has been hard to get information about SOF training deployments to the region. Freedom of Information Act requests for reports to Congress about the main SOF training program, Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET), have had their responses delayed for years: the last copy we’ve obtained is from 2009.

And the number of SOF training deployments has increased. According to the 2009 report, that year “USSOF [U.S. Special Operations Forces] executed twenty-one (21) JCETs [Joint Combined Exchange Training deployments] in fifteen (15) countries in the SOUTHCOM AOR [Southern Command Area of Responsibility—all Latin American and Caribbean countries except Mexico and The Bahamas].” That was the largest annual count of Latin America JCETs in all of the reports we have obtained.

Until now. The U.S. Southern Command’s 2015 “Posture Statement” document, released in March, tells us that in 2014, “SOCSOUTH [U.S. Special Operations Command South] used episodic engagements—including 36 Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) events—with multiple Central American, South American, and Caribbean partners to develop U.S. forces’ skills and expand partner nation capacity.”

The number of Special Forces JCETs, then, grew by more than 71 percent in five years.

Marine Special Forces and Dominican Republic commandos participate in a 2009 JCET.
Marine Special Forces and Dominican Republic commandos participate in a 2009 JCET.

What exactly is a JCET? This is the name that SOF use for their visits to other countries to perform joint training. A change in the law in 1991 allowed SOF to use their budget to pay foreign trainees’ expenses. A typical JCET lasts several weeks, involves a dozen or two SOF trainers, and dozens or hundreds of host-country trainees. These trainees get to learn new combat, technical, civil affairs or similar skills; the SOF get familiarity with the host country’s language, culture, and geography.

The JCET program first got attention in a 1998 Washington Post series that questioned whether it was getting any oversight, and whether it was in some cases working against U.S. foreign policy goals. Today, through their training deployments, principally JCETs, U.S. Special Operations Forces now train in over 130 countries each year.

The program’s rapid recent growth in Latin America is a result of an overall growth in U.S. Special Operations Forces. Before the September 11, 2001 attacks, the U.S. Special Operations Command had a staff of 33,000; today it is nearly 70,000. These SOF personnel spent much of the 2000s performing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. With the drawdown of those two wars, though, there are many more available for training missions in regions like Latin America.

“Here at the headquarters of the Army Special Operations Command,” the New York Times reported in April 2013, “planning is well under way for a significantly increased presence in Africa, Asia and Latin America for the Special Forces soldiers with the distinctive green berets who were the first American troops into Afghanistan after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.” A month later, the Times added, “the command has conducted three classified exercises to determine where it can expand Special Operations forces in regions where they have not operated in large numbers for the past decade, especially in Asia, Africa and Latin America.”

As the jump in Latin America JCETs last year would indicate, these plans are coming to fruition. The Special Operations Forces are now a major channel for U.S. assistance to Latin America’s security forces—but one that is very hard to oversee, quantify, track, or evaluate.