A Tutor to Every Army in Latin America
By Douglas Farah
TARAPOA, Ecuador For two weeks in May, U.S. special operations forces used this isolated jungle region near the Colombian border to stage their biggest deployment in Latin America in years an example of what the U.S. military is doing, and would like to do much more of, throughout Latin America.
The idea was to train the Ecuadoran military to better fight two intertwined foes that frequently operate in the area: drug trafficking organizations and Marxist Colombian guerrillas. In the exercise, 143 elite U.S. troops and their 645 Ecuadoran counterparts used American-provided boats and Black Hawk helicopters in mock raids on targets such as a "narco-guerrilla camp" and a supposed cocaine laboratory. Overhead, A-37 combat jets raced after small airplanes to practice forcing down suspected drug flights.
But at the operation's closing ceremony, the Ecuadoran military blared martial music and called the troops to arms not against traffickers or guerrillas, but against their traditional rival, Peru, with which Ecuador has an unresolved border dispute.
"We will never cede even one millimeter of territory to the Peruvians," the loudspeakers boomed, as soldiers carried out their final drills alongside U.S. troops. "It is time for all of us to stand together against the enemy."
The exercise was one small window on a much larger phenomenon: America's premier unconventional forces are quietly reengaging Latin America's powerful mil itary establishments. Using Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other special operations forces, the Pentagon is conducting specialized training exercises with every army in Latin America, often avoiding effective civilian oversight or congressional restrictions that apply to other military operations abroad.
In the 1998 fiscal year, 2,700 special operations troops will be deployed to all 19 countries in Latin America and to nine in the Caribbean. On any given day, 250 military trainers are operating in 15 countries, according to the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for U.S. military activities in Latin America. The programs range from a high of 35 deployments this year in Venezuela, 30 in Bolivia, 24 in Colombia, 21 in Ecuador, and a low of 1 each in Suriname and Belize.
While some of the training has been conducted under anti-drug programs funded by the Pentagon or State Department, much of it is being done under auspices of the Pentagon's Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program. According to a 1991 law, such special operations exercises are allowed only if the primary purpose is to train U.S. troops. But many of the deployments in Latin America appear to go well beyond the intent of the law, and are used for anti-drug training and to help Latin armies prepare against real or potential domestic foes, according to civilian and military officials and Pentagon documents.
Questioning U.S. Role
Together with other U.S. military contacts, the special operations deployments are prompting questions from critics in the United States and Latin America about whether such loosely monitored involvement with the region's armies is appropriate when fledgling democratic governments are struggling to consolidate civilian rule.
U.S. commanders say that the demand from Latin American governments for training missions is far higher than they can fill, and that the special operations troops are having an important and positive impact. "We are quiet, efficient professionals," said Brig. Gen. Robert W. Wagner, until recently commander of Special Operations Command South, a branch of the U.S. Southern Command. "Our focus used to be conventional warfare and counterinsurgency. Now we are dealing with modern issues like the appropriate roles for the militaries, counter-drug and peacekeeping. We are a catalyst for regional changes. We can gain access. We can get in there."
But as the Ecuadorans' call to arms against Peru indicated, the agendas of Latin American militaries do not always coincide with that of the United States. Military officers acknowledge that in several key countries, the distinction between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency a controversial U.S. mission in Latin America in the past has nearly vanished. All of the cocaine and an increasing amount of the heroin consumed by drug users in the United States originates in Latin America, and U.S. officials have long dreamed of cutting off the flow at its source.
Special operations deployments have established or renewed U.S. military engagement with armies widely accused of corruption or human rights violations, like those of Guatemala and Suriname. And some have served to circumvent congressional oversight or legal restrictions on military aid most notably in Colombia, where a military frequently accused of human rights violations is battling drug traffickers as well as guerrilla armies.
In 1995, Congress passed measures intended to limit training of the Colombian military to counter-drug, rather than counterinsurgency exercises. Last year, under renewed congressional pressure, the Clinton administration agreed that any units to be trained in counter-narcotics methods should be screened to make sure they do not include human rights violators, and that training should be limited to troops who are operating in areas where guerrillas are known to work hand in hand with drug traffickers.
But special operations missions in Colombia, which are legally exempt from both those restrictions, have trained selected Colombian units in "shoot and maneuver" techniques, counterterrorism and intelligence gathering, even though their members have not been vetted, special operations officers and troops said.
In several on-the-record interviews, U.S. officers and troops involved in the Colombia training program said the Colombian military is not asked to provide the names of the soldiers to be trained. Several U.S. officers and troops added that they believe singling out individuals would break up the Colombian units' ability to work together.
Wagner said U.S. commanders rely on the American ambassador, on an informal agreement worked out with the Colombians for self-monitoring, and on the knowledge of experienced military group officers at the U.S. Embassy to weed out Colombian troops accused of human rights violations.
"We know the units we are working with pretty well," he said.
The special operations training proceeded even in 1996 and 1997, when President Clinton had "decertified" Colombia for most military aid and assistance including the program that brings Colombian officers to the United States for training because of its failure to cooperate with U.S. anti-narcotics policy.
Officers who conduct the anti-drug training in Colombia and elsewhere acknowledge it differs hardly at all from the traditional counterinsurgency training given Latin militaries during the Cold War. The major distinctions, they said, are that the U.S. troops are called trainers, not advisers, and give the Latin American troops some human rights training.
"We decide on the ground how far we can go," one senior officer said. "We can call anything counter-drugs. If you are going to train to take out a target, it doesn't make much difference if you call it a drug lab or a guerrilla camp. There's not much difference between counter-drug and counterinsurgency. We just don't use the [insurgency] word anymore because it is politically too sensitive."
A big component of the program is what U.S. military officials call "foreign internal defense" ( FID) training, designed to help foreign nations defend against existing or potential internal threats which the U.S. Southern Command says include narcotics trafficking.
"FIDs are the heart" of the special operations forces, Wagner said. "The threat depends on the country. The term grew out of counterinsurgency, but now we are building the capabilities of the host nations in a range of things from disaster relief to combating subversion, lawlessness and insurgency."
Wagner said that while anti-drug operations are a "sustained focus" of the special operations forces' effort in Latin America, the priority mission is "military-to-military engagement."
Several U.S. military officers, diplomats and independent analysts said, however, that in the absence of a more clearly defined Clinton administration policy in Latin America, the special operations forces are setting the agenda.
"The United States runs the risk of having [Southern Command] set its own policy," said Coletta Youngers of the Washington Office on Latin America, which monitors human rights and military issues. Military training "is undermining the Latin American trend toward demilitarization, democratization and respect for human rights."
Aiding the Generals
During the Cold War years of the 1960s and 1970s, the United States working mostly through military contacts supported the military establishments of Latin America's major countries, even as those generals staged coups against civilian governments and established brutal military regimes in the name of fighting Communist subversion. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay all spent long, dark years under military rule. In Argentina alone, as many as 10,000 people were killed or "disappeared."
In the 1980s came Central America's turn. The United States advised and helped government armies fighting leftist rebels in El Salvador and Guatemala, and backed rightist rebels fighting the Marxist government in Nicaragua. Tens of thousands of people died in combat or at the hands of shadowy death squads with military backing or participation and, critics charged, at least tacit support of the U.S. military establishment.
Many U.S. officers view as a victory their involvement as advisers in that Central American war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992 and ended in a negotiated settlement between Marxist-led guerrillas and the U.S.-backed military. They view El Salvador as a milestone in learning how to engage a Latin American military to improve its combat capabilities and curb at least some of the worst human rights abuses.
"When we got involved, human rights violations by the [Salvadoran] military dropped dramatically. We kept the guerrillas from taking over and we learned how to teach the skills that were needed," said one veteran of El Salvador now regularly deployed around the hemisphere. "That is where we showed that our presence makes a difference."
As was the case in El Salvador, though, many question the commitment to human rights and democracy of the governments and, especially, the military establishments that the U.S. military is now becoming more involved with. Things have indeed changed dramatically: Every nation in the hemisphere except Cuba has a democratically elected government. But in many countries, including those where U.S. involvement is increasing most rapidly, serious problems remain and the armed forces are still at least a semi-independent power center.
To many, the biggest danger is not the training but the appearance that it is being carried on outside of any broader strategy of strengthening civilian governments or redefining the role of the militaries in the region.
Bernard Aronson, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, said the idea that "isolating the military makes you more pure is wrong. It is better to have a relationship than not."
But Aronson argued that having the special operations forces engage Latin American militaries without a broader policy objective is dangerous, and "it is not clear now there is a broader policy."
Robert Pastor, director of the Latin American program of the Carter Center and a former National Security Council expert on Latin America, said the United States is wasting a historic opportunity to change its relations with Latin America by working more closely with the civilian governments, not the militaries.
"The administration has not either formulated an overall strategy nor does it have the capacity on the ground or in Washington to do so," Pastor said. "The result could very well be a short-sighted gain for anti-drug fighters in the U.S. government and special forces on the ground but lead to a long-term failure."
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