Blurring the Lines: Trends in U.S. Military Programs with Latin America

Blurring the LinesThe U.S. military relationship with Latin America decisions through a top-down, hierarchical structure is evolving rapidly, as the “war on terror” replaces the cold war and the “war on drugs” as the guiding mission for Washington’s assistance programs in the region. Though U.S. attention is fixed on other parts of the world, the scope of military aid is steadily increasing in our own hemisphere.

The upward trend owes little to post-September 11 initiatives to protect the homeland from international terrorist organizations. Instead, much of the increase comes from ongoing Colombia, counternarcotics and military-training programs that largely resemble the military assistance the United States has offered for decades.

The number of Latin American personnel trained by the United States increased by more than 50% from 2002 to 2003. Almost all of the increase comes from a sharp rise in Colombian trainees as Plan Colombia becomes fully operational and evolves into a larger counterinsurgent effort.

The United States continues to encourage military practices, programs and doctrine that promote a promote a confusion of civilian and military roles, especially the creation of new military missions within countries’ own borders. This trend raises an increasingly urgent question: What happened to the line between civilian and military roles?

This is not an academic question. It goes to the heart of democracy—which includes a clear division between the civilian and military spheres. In most functioning democracies, the military—which makes focuses on external security and leaves politics and development to elected civilians.

Blurring this distinction—for instance, by having the military carry out crimefighting or other roles that civilians can fill—risks politicizing the armed forces, which in turn leads the military to use (or threaten to use) its monopoly of arms whenever it disagrees with the civilian consensus. Utilizing the armed forces in police roles can lead to excessive use of force. Too often in Latin America, when armies have focused on an internal enemy, the definition of enemies has included political opponents of the regime in power, even those working within the political system such as activists, independent journalists, labor organizers, or opposition political-party leaders.

Traditional civilian-military roles are being blurred not only overseas, through programs for Latin American militaries, but here at home, in the formation of foreign policy. Resources and responsibilities are shifting from the State Department to the Pentagon, and the clout and profile of the U.S. Southern Command are increasing as a result.

The Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 stipulates that the State Department, not the Pentagon, sets policy and makes decisions governing military assistance programs, which are subject to a number of human rights and democracy conditions. As the Pentagon and U.S. Southern Command increasingly set the priorities for U.S.-Latin American relations, human rights and broader foreign policy considerations are likely to be sidelined. 

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