Armies, internal security and militarised borders: militarisation in Latin America and the Caribbean

Two masked, armoured police officers holding rifles, crouch behind a tree
The Honduran TIGRES police training with a US Special Forces group. Credit: USASOC News Service, used under a CC2.0 license
Julián Ovalle - Red Antimilitarista de América Latina y el Caribe

About Latin America

Because of the confusion of the English-speaking world when it says “America”, and so that there is no doubt over what we will talk about in this article, the Latin American people dwells in the vast territory between the southern United States and the Chilean southern Patagonia, which amounts to almost half of the Americas.

Latin Americans are a mestizo ["mixed"] people that continues to mix, and represents to the world something that is unfinished and beautiful. Varied forms of Spanish and Portuguese fragment this unity. A mestizo people that has experienced and recounted the story of the existential tearing apart caused by colonial genocide and which, despite the passing of the centuries and modern discourse about multiculturalism, is still dealing with the derision and dispossession experienced by the original inhabitants.

In line with the Latin American thinker Jesús Martín-Barbero, we can think of Latin America as a landscape fragmented by mountain ranges, jungles, plains, artificial canals, native languages, national borders, different kinds of Spanish, accents, phenotypes and cuisine. My starting point is to acknowledge the history of Latin American culture as a continuous process, subject to the colonial legacy, and which is experiencing a modernity that is more heterogeneous than universal. The modernity of Latin America resides in the particularity of the plural, in a constant crisis of national identity(s) motivated and facilitated by mobility across borders and recently by the transnational issue. It is a fragmented territory where difference coexists closely and inevitably.

Acknowledging Latin America as a region means looking at a fragmented landscape. Before outlining a general context of the militarisation of the region, it is important to point out that addressing the region as a whole means accepting the profound differences between each of the countries that constitute it. However, a common denominator among all the countries of the region is the stamp of violence, an extremely complex phenomenon that does not allow for simple or absolute explanations, but which undoubtedly has a close genealogical relationship with the colonial legacy that was imprinted on those peoples and territories as a result of the bloody homogenising enterprise that sought to make the "American world" disappear and reduced it to the pre-Hispanic.

The history of Latin America is the experience of a deep and permanent social conflict that has been related to what Martín-Barbero calls “national identity crisis rhetoric” and which Rosanna Reguillo in turn relates, among other factors, to the “intense migratory flow in Latin America, which was motivated by the horror of dictatorships and the systematic destruction of peoples and dreams” (2005).

As a starting point I want to highlight the fact that the history of Latin America in the twentieth century describes a chronic and permanent situation of cultural conflict traceable to its colonial legacy, a socio-political dispute between governments and peoples that collide in the framework of democracies. Our democracies are always subject to inter-, multi-, and trans- national policies, that value the strategy of militarisation as a “legitimate” and effective strategy not just for conflict management, but also as a form of axiological foundation of culture: the ascendancy of violent, patriarchal values. However, Latin America is a land of resistance of indomitable people, men and women who embody resistance: indigenous peoples, peasants, Afro-descendants, empowered women, urban youth, professionals, boys and girls and academics.

A still taken from the television, showing a young child wearing khaki uniform and carrying a toy gun on a a parade

This still was taken from the broadcast of one of the most popular news programmes on Colombian television. The phrase "COLOMBIANOS ACOMPAÑARON EL DESFILE (COLOMBIANS JOINED IN THE PARADE)" refers to the military parade that takes place on the 20th July in Colombia every year, to commemorate independence from the Spanish crown. This image helps us to highlight and perhaps to distinguish conceptually between militarisation and militarism: militarisation is expressed through the presence of soldiers and military devices in a military parade in urban territory, which in this case are implicit in the image. Militarism is expressed in this image in the uniformed and armed person of a child, militarism is inferred through the cultural context that resulted in the decision of his parents to dress him up as a little soldier and expose him to the public. Without the intention of making a rigorous conceptualisation, but with the intention of making a distinction, it is enough to say that while militarisation is the visible disposition of military devices (laws, soldiers, technology) militarism is the cultural basis that underlies and sustains it.

This article is concerned with presenting a context of militarisation in the Latin American region, of what is visible and quantifiable in some, not all, countries in the region.

United States Backyard

More and more civil institutions and territories are being militarised in the region. Since the twentieth century, the United States has justified its intervention in Latin American countries by arguing that they face challenges of governance, corruption and high levels of violence that smooth the path towards illegal activities (drug trafficking), migration to the USA and instability throughout America. In the current context the security perspective is the axis that shapes government policies. The global process of securitisation (the prioritisation of security policies in the face of threats over welfare policies) in Latin America is seen as a state response to the breakdown of state hegemony in the territorial and symbolic sphere, represented by the entry into the regional scene (and the strengthening) of “non-equivalent forces” such as terrorism, drug trafficking and organised crime. This commitment to securitisation is the contemporary scenario where it is the expansion of the United States military intervention in the region that drives the militarisation of organisations and territories.

The fact that the Latin American homicide rate represents 33% of the global rate is a painfully clear indicator of how social conflict escalates to brutal violence, but in turn constitutes a fact that has been useful in justifying the military intervention of the United States. Rebecca Bill Chávez, who was the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs of the United States Government and who publicises issues through her column in the New York Times, is a journalistic spokeswoman who reports that Latin America represents 8% of the world's population and 33% of the world's homicides take place in the region; that is, a rate of 21.5 homicides per 100,000 citizens, which is equivalent to three times the world average of 8. The homicide rate in Brazil reached a record in 2018 of 31 per 100,000 inhabitants; for its part Colombia has a rate of 27 per 100,000 inhabitants. Although Argentina has a much lower homicide rate, less than seven per 100,000, 27% of Argentinians claim to have been victims of a crime in the last year. These kinds of incidents and the difficulties of governance in the countries of the region are what have justified the political and military intervention of the United States in the region.

Political and military intervention has been a constant in the second half of the twentieth century. From the "Alliance for Progress" - a programme of economic, political and social assistance by the US in Latin America in the 60s, to the "Plan Colombia" between 2001 and 2016, in which the United States invested $10bn in Colombia in military aid, to the “Mérida Initiative” (2008-2014), an international security treaty established by the United States in agreement with Mexico and the countries of Central America to combat drug trafficking and organised crime , these plans and other bilateral agreements with various governments have left a history of a formal presence with US military bases throughout the region. The official US military presence in the region is decreasing; currently the official presence of US military forces is concentrated in strategic points of the Pacific and Caribbean coasts, in El Salvador (Comalpa), Cuba (Guantanamo), Aruba, Curação and Puerto Rico, while a negotiation is taking place with the Bolsonaro Government on the establishment of military bases in Brazil. However, according to Colombian researcher Sebastián Bitar (2017) there is currently evidence of a growing network of informal facilities that supports US operations in the region. The host countries allow, and in some cases seek, participation in a network of “quasi-bases”; installations that, without an official agreement with the national institutions in the host countries, permit the US military presence and operations. They exist in almost all the countries of the Pacific coast of America: Peru, Honduras, Costa Rica, Panama, Ecuador and Colombia.

Militarisation of the region

The context of securitisation, as previously mentioned, in Latin America is a response to the perceived threat that the rhetoric of governments bases on the fight against crime and drug trafficking. In the case of the countries of Central America, US intervention and securitisationhas, according to a regional report produced by the Ombudsman's Office of Costa Rica, "opened the door to militarisation for the sake of citizen security.".

In general terms, Central American countries have seen an increase in military budgets without this having an impact on an improvement in the state of internal security: El Salvador increased its budget from $191 million in 2008 to $271 million in 2016, while homicides increased from 2,594 cases in 2012 to 6,656 in 2015 to 5,280 in 2016. In Honduras, despite a growing military presence on the streets, murders were not significantly reduced; according to the Violence Observatory of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, the budget of the armed forces in that country went from $2.2 billion in 2008, to 342 million dollars in 2016; In spite of that, murders only dropped from 5,265 in 2009 and 6,239 in 2010, to 5,148 in 2015 and 5,150 in 2016.

Throughout 2018, the Government of Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua carried out a military crackdown in urban centres with the aim of exercising territorial control through the repression of a population that protested in the streets because of the increase in the cost of living, acts of corruption in government and actions against freedom of expression. In its analysis of the Central American region, the report of the Ombudsman's Office of Costa Rica points out that the “revitalisation of the armed forces and their increasing participation in civil activities, coupled with the chronic weakness of the system of administration of justice and the detection of new and serious cases of corruption in several countries, pose risks for the democratic exercise of power”. The report pointed out that the increase in the size and capacity of armies "may affect the effective protection of human rights."

Continuing this path through Latin America to the south, however, may be the opportunity to point out emphatically that in Central America there is a war against the people that is invisible. The phenomenon of militarisation is widespread in Latin America. At present, a trend has been identified in the region in which governments are increasingly handing over police functions to the army. The Governments of Brazil, Argentina, Mexico and Colombia have resorted, to a greater or lesser extent, to their armed forces in search of internal security.

In Brazil, President Michel Temer signed a decree in February 2018 that put the army in charge of the security of Rio de Janeiro, stating "you know that organised crime has nearly taken over in the state of Rio Janeiro. This is a metastasis that is spreading in our country and threatens our people." In the media this action has been recorded as an extraordinary measure that seeks to restore order in the second largest city in the country and, in general, in the state of Rio in the midst of an epidemic of violence. It is the first time, since the return to democratic rule, that a government in Brazil has ordered a military intervention in a State. With the advent of Bolsonaro militarisation is continuing. Although the total number of violent deaths in the State has increased, surveys indicate that a large majority of the inhabitants of Rio support military intervention.

For his part, Mauricio Macri, as President of the Government in Argentina has made a regulatory change to the functions of the military: he has said that it is important that they “can co-operate with internal security, mainly providing logistical support in border areas and participating in activities of a strategic nature.” The regulatory change he proposes is due to an absence of a strong political consensus in Argentina since democracy returned after more than thirty years of dictatorship: he announced a reform to the Argentine Armed Forces aimed at the army addressing "current challenges" and referring to the threats of terrorism and drug trafficking, but this reform will also allow military intervention in internal security.

In the case of Colombia, the strengthening of the military establishment does not seem to be stopping despite the peace agreements drawn up with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). The continuation of the conflict is in the midst of a breach in the agreements and in the midst of a resumption of arms by dissident sectors of the FARC guerrillas, a rearmament that is taking place in the context of a resurgence of selective paramilitary violence against community leaders and where there is not a glimpse of a negotiated solution with armed actors such as the National Liberation Army (ELN), People’s Liberation Army (EPL) and FARC members who have refused to move forward with the mobilisation process motivated by the lack of guarantees for their safety and compliance with the implementation of the agreements.

The Law of Internal Security was passed in Mexico in 2017. This has created the conditions for an increased dependency on the armed forces for internal security, at the same time as bringing about an integration of the armed forces into a National Guard. Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission notes that "When the Army has been deployed on operations in a municipality homicides increase by 9%", this clearly shows that militarisation endangers the protection of human rights and can actually exacerbate citizen insecurity... In the book In the Fog of War (2015) Andreas Schedler notes that "the annual murder rate in the country has again exceeded the threshold for endemic violence as defined by the World Health Organization by more than double." In this context, the legislative branch has approved the Law of Internal Security that regulates the presence of the Army and Navy on the streets, as if they were police forces. Since the presentation and before the approval of the Law, more than 750,000 members of the Army and Navy have replaced the police in hundreds of municipalities throughout the country. Based on this new regulatory framework, the National Guard has begun operations in 2019 on the southern border of the country where it has been intensifying efforts to curb the flow of migration to the United States, and has specifically deployed more than 20,000 troops to work together with the National Institute of Migration, in line with a demand by Donald Trump.

The new neo-liberal right-wing government in Chile has strengthened the militarisation of its police, the Carabineros, essentially a military police force. The commitment, in this case is technological and judicial: new weapons and armoured transport, investment in programmes of virtual espionage and carte blanche repression of any kind of social protest throughout the country, particularly the Mapuche people and the environmental disputes caused by large-scale toxic pollution in the coastal areas of the country.

In Venezuela, despite the economic embargo and a diplomatic blockade by the right-wing governments of the region, the militarisation of the state has intensified since Hugo Chavez was in power, of the last 15 Interior Ministers, twelve (80%) have been military officials. The current government of Nicolás Maduro is based essentially on the power that the military provides for him and that counters the coup attempts of the opposition.

Border militarisation

The cross-border transit areas of peoples in continuous migration through ancestral territories, which existed before the Nation States, remain militarised. In the Amazon, the largest planetary reserve of fresh water, in November 2017, the Initiative, Amazon Log 2017, took place. This was an exercise in military coordination in the tri-border region between Colombia, Peru and Brazil involving the participation of the armies of the countries of the area.

In Central America, borders are migratory filters to stop migration to the United States. Those who manage to reach the Mexico/United States border meet heavily armed soldiers playing the role of the wall they have yet to build but have already constructed militarily. After the announcement of the controversial wall on the border with Mexico, in 2018 the Donald Trump government signed a proclamation announcing the mobilisation of troops from the National Guard to the border with Mexico to combat illegal immigration. In this regard, Trump pointed out that “the lawlessness that continues at our southern border is fundamentally incompatible with the safety, security and sovereignty of the American people,” therefore 600,000 troops from the National Guard were mobilised as an initial measure in compliance with the government order.

Venezuela is becoming more and more militarised every year, ceding participation to its armed forces in the economy, security, intelligence and generally in all areas of decision and administratio. This militarisation eliminates the possibility of a civil, negotiated solution to the permanent state of crisis that the country has been experiencing for five years now. One of the regional consequences of this crisis is the significant increase in Venezuelan economic and political migration, which has been responded to by the region from a position of poverty and solidarity, although local right wing movements have taken the opportunity to popularise xenophobic, racist and discriminatory responses, both social and administrative.

In Venezuela, obtaining a passport presents serious obstacles. The cost has increased by 124%, and applicants face delay and corruption in the processing system. These complications are increased by restrictions that other Andean countries are introducing: “A restriction by Peru for Venezuelan immigrants came into force hours after the Court of Justice in Ecuador suspended the same measure in the neighbouring country and gave the Ecuadorian Government a 45-day deadline to present a contingency plan if it wanted to continue applying the measure." In Colombia sectors of the extreme right are putting forward arguments about why an intervention should be made in Venezuela. This, while they are making their debut as an extraordinary partner of NATO.

Furthermore, the historic and permanent strengthening of the military apparatus and the approach of preparing armies to be responsible for, or at least active in, internal security, and the ongoing militarisation of borders creates an apparent tension with the perspectives posed by the strengthening and financing of the police. The deployment of troops by Brazil to the border with Venezuela after the xenophobic outbreaks is an example of this.

The Latin American region is experiencing a period of an intensification of regional militarisation.The effects - including the normalisation of violence, arms trafficking, armed gangs disputing and dividing territories with the police, who are militarised in turn by the formation of armed special police groups (such as the "Lynx" in Paraguay) are being felt by local communities across the region. The region lives in an endless spiral of lethal violence, and the military and the police are a constituent element and not the solution.


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Police militarisation theme

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