Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Military and Police Roles in the Americas

Practice what you preachAmerican citizens enjoy a legal concept that many na- tions do not. Domestically, the United States has a clear separation between the uses of its military and the uses of its law enforcement agencies. U.S. law gener- ally restricts the military from use against its citizens. While this separation does not guide U.S. operations in battleground environments like Iraq and Afghanistan, it remains very strong at home.

In Latin America, where democracies have struggled mightily to exert civilian control over their armed forces, the reality is different. Most nations lack a similar principle of clear military-police separation. The region’s circumstances hardly ever require armies to defend citizens from foreign invaders, but leaders often call upon them to defend some citizens – or the state – from other citizens. Today, many governments are calling on militaries to enforce laws and to combat domestic crime.

Choices made in Washington can have a strong impact on this. The U.S. government is by far the largest provider of military and police aid to Latin America and the Caribbean. Arms and equipment transfers, training, exercises, presence at bases, and military-to- military engagement programs send strong messages about military and police roles. So do diplomatic inter- actions with the region.

Instead of exporting the principle to which the United States adheres, though, these efforts often do just the opposite: encourage Latin American govern- ments to use their militaries against their own people. This is a longstanding tendency in U.S. policy toward Latin America, though it rarely gets framed in terms of the United States’ much different domestic model.

That is what this report will do. The following pages highlight U.S. practices that encourage Latin America’s armed forces to take on internal security roles that the U.S. military cannot legally play at home. They go on to point the way toward policy changes to end these practices.

Section I reviews the U.S. experience with Posse Comitatus, an 1878 law that became a cornerstone of U.S. democratic stability by making U.S. citizens’ inter- actions with on-duty soldiers very rare, and causing the institutional character of the country’s defense and law-enforcement forces to diverge dramatically. Sec- tion II looks at Latin America’s far different history of civil-military relations, with a focus on the military’s use against citizens internally, in a climate of few external security threats. Section III lays out the United States’ persistent, century-long tendency to help the region’s

militaries take on internal security roles; this tendency, it argues, continues with today’s “wars” on drugs, ter- rorism, and organized crime.

Finally, Section IV offers recommendations for Latin American governments seeking to protect their populations while at the same time consolidating their democracies; for the executive and legislative-branch architects of U.S. policy toward Latin America; and for the United States at home, as it seeks to secure its citi- zens and borders against 21st century threats.

These recommendations can be summarized simply. Militaries should not be used for internal security and law-enforcement roles, and the United States should not encourage such use, either at home or abroad. While exceptions may exist under extraordinary circumstances – and then, only with sev- eral safeguards and institutional reforms in place – the Posse Comitatus model works, and should guide future U.S. security interaction with Latin America. 

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