Time to Listen: Trends in U.S. Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean

Time to Listen

The list grows longer: sitting Latin American Aid numbers do not tell the whole story. In dollar presidents, including the United States’ principal allies; past presidents; the Organization of American States; the Summit of the Americas; civil society leaders from all nations. The clamor for drug policy reform, including for a reformed U.S. drug policy in Latin America, is growing rapidly. But Washington isn’t hearing it.

The Obama Administration’s counternarcotics strategy has continued largely unchanged. In fact, over the past few years the United States has expanded its military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies’ direct involvement in counternarcotics operations in the Western Hemisphere. This has been particularly true in Central America, where it has had disturbing human rights impacts.

terms, assistance to most Latin American and Caribbean nations’ militaries and police forces has declined since 2010, as Colombia’s and Mexico’s large aid packages wind down. Today, only aid to Central America is increasing significantly. For its part, the Defense Department is facing cuts and turning most of its attention to other regions.

While the Pentagon’s current approach to Latin America does not include major base construction or new massive aid packages, however, the United States is still providing significant amounts of aid and training to Latin America’s armed forces and police.

In addition to large-scale counter-drug operations, the region is seeing an increase in training visits from U.S. Special Forces, a greater presence of intelligence personnel and drones (while countries are obtaining drones, mostly not from the United States), and rapidly growing use of military and police trainers from third countries, especially Colombia.

Much of what takes place may not show up as large budget amounts, but it is shrouded by secrecy, poor reporting to Congress and the public, and a migration
of programs’ management from the State Department to the Defense Department. A lack of transparency leads to a lack of debate about consequences and alternatives, for human rights, for civil-military relations, and for the United States’ standing in the region.

On human rights, the Obama Administration has been occasionally willing to raise tough issues with allies. It has encouraged trials in civilian, not military, courts for soldiers accused of committing gross human rights abuses, especially in Mexico and Colombia. It has supported the Ríos Montt genocide trial in Guatemala, and has sided with countries and human rights groups that seek to maintain, not weaken, the current Inter-American human rights system.

But too often, the human rights message is a negative one, as when the administration downplays drug-war allies’ abuses or promotes a greater Colombian role in foreign training. The killing of civilians during joint U.S.-Honduran counternarcotics operations in 2012, as well as the lack of transparent accountability and mechanisms to ensure such abuses are not repeated, is deeply troubling. And of course, the United States’ ability to stand up for human rights is undercut by its own flawed human rights record: the failure to close Guantanamo; the extensive surveillance programs; and a drone policy that justifies extrajudicial executions. These do not pass unnoticed by Latin America’s press, governments and civil societies. 

One very positive development is that the Obama Administration has welcomed and supported Colombia’s peace process, the best possibility in decades for bringing Colombia’s long confict to an end. That commitment must continue. But overall, looking over the last few years of U.S.-Latin American relations, we have one overriding request of our government: It’s time to listen. Time to listen to the call for a new drug policy for ourselves and for the region. 

To read this report in Spanish, click this link: http://www.lawg.org/storage/documents/Hora_de_Escuchar.pdf

Para leer este informe en español, haga click aqui: http://www.lawg.org/storage/documents/Hora_de_Escuchar.pdf