Militarization of law enforcement in Honduras

Last week, we posted a run-down of the militarization of policing in Guatemala. Today, we are looking at similar developments in Honduras, a country with a strong military tradition (pdf)

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that spent much of the 1990s trying to reduce the institution’s power. However, recent deployments of troops to the streets have highlighted concerns that the country is increasingly militarizing its fight against organized crime – and it appears as though soldiers will remain on the streets for the foreseeable future.

Earlier this month Honduran President Porfirio Lobo announced there had been nine days in 2013 (albeit not consecutive) without a recorded murder in Tegucigalpa. He lauded the statistic as “historic,” saying, “before we were always talking about two digits; there were more than 30 murders. Today we have many days at a national level with only one digit.” He attributed this to military presence and police reform, which he claimed was “pushing out those who ought to be pushed out” of the police, despite reports that only seven members of the 11,000-member force have been fired. “How am I going to take the military off of the streets if the work they have done is extraordinary?” he asked journalists.

However, it is unclear if there has been much of a change. According to the National Autonomous University Observatory of Violence, from the start of the year through May 31 of 2013 there were an average of 20 murders per day in the country. The Honduras Culture and Politics blog used this average to calculate projected murders for the whole year and found the country could expect 7,140 murders for 2013 if the rate remains constant. This would yield a murder rate of about 85 or 86 per 100,000 (depending on population growth), about the rate that the Observatory found in 2012. For 2013, the University’s Violence Observatory predicted that the homicide rate could fall by six percent, although, as InSight Crime noted, the prediction had more to do with population growth than a decrease in violence.

Some recent uses of military for law enforcement:


  • In February, the Honduran government launched “Operation Liberty” with the deployment of 1,300 troops — 800 to the streets of Tegucigalpa, the capital, and 500 to San Pedro Sula. The armed forces will remain on the streets until January 2014.Two months into the operation, an official from the 105th Brigade claimed crime had dropped 60 percent, while the police department claimed crime had fallen 10 percent. Similar claims of drops in homicides and capture of gang leaders were reported again in June. However, sources failed to explain what kind of crimes they referred to and over what time period they were reporting.
  • In early June, Honduras’ Congress approved a $4.4 million plan to add 1,000 more troops to fight organized crime, money that some members of Honduras’ Congress thought would be better spent on police.
  • Also, in June Honduras’ Congress approved the creation of an elite high-technology military police force known as the Tigers – TIGRES in Spanish and an acronym for: Tropa de Inteligencia y Grupos de Respuesta Especial de Seguridad. (Intelligence Troop and Special Security Response Groups)
  • On June 7, the line between military and police became even more blurred when the Congress merged the responsibilities of the Ministry of Defense, which controls the military, and the Ministry of Security, which controls the police. The vice minister of security is also a retired member of the military, as are a number of security advisors in the government.


Institutional implications

In addition to worries of corruption and human rights abuse, analysts have expressed concern over the institutional implications of involving the military in domestic security. The Congressional Research Service’s latest report on Honduras (pdf) highlighted worries that the military has started to play a larger role (again) in domestic politics. Before 1982 the armed forces repeatedly took control of the country and only in the late 1990s were they subordinated to civilian leadership.

The military has also played a central role in major recent political shuffles. It led the 2009 coup of President Zelaya and in December 2012, troops guarded the National Congress when it voted to dismiss members of the Supreme Court. The day after, military commanders appeared publicly with President Lobo. In 2011, members of the Honduran Congress approved a reform to the constitution allowing soldiers to assume police duties and be used “on a permanent basis in the fight against drug-trafficking and terrorism, weapons-trafficking and organized crime.” As noted above, several former military members now hold high office within the government.

Human rights concerns

Honduras’ military has been cited as worse than the police for its human rights violations, as it has been linked to extrajudicial killings, kidnappings, drug and arms trafficking and extortion. One such example can be seen in the Army’s 15th Battalion, which receives U.S. assistance, that has control over the rural Bajo Aguán region, where over 60 people fighting for campesino land rights have been killed in the past three years.

Because of the military’s history of corruption, murder, and links to organized crime, experts have warned that putting boots on the streets could increase corruption in the institution by giving soldiers greater opportunity to become even more involved in narcotrafficking. This is compounded by the fact that there is almost near-complete impunity for state security forces in a highly-politicized judicial system.

In mid-June 21, U.S. senators sent a letter to Secretary of State John Kerry asking that the State Department “conduct a thorough review to ensure that no U.S. assistance is provided to police or military personnel or units credibly implicated in human rights violations,” as it questioned the release of aid to Honduras in 2012.

As with the military, there is also substantial evidence that members of Honduras’ notoriously corrupt police force have participated in extortion rackets, are involved with organized crime, and have carried out several extrajudicial killings. According to a March 2013 Associated Press report, “Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings in the capital of Tegucigalpa, and at least 50 more in the economic hub of San Pedro Sula.”

Despite these alarming statistics, the United States continues to fund the police (and military). William Brownfield, Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, rationalized continued aid, saying, “Although the national police may have its defects at the moment, it is the lesser evil,” according to the Associated Press. The statement came following several Associated Press reports on Honduran police corruption that also document U.S. funding for police units, which has reached about $16 million this year.

Former U.S. Southern Command head, General Douglas Fraser, noted in his 2012 posture statement (pdf) that using the Honduran military for internal security “is a necessary initial step to help curb the rising tide of violence,” but maintain that such an approach “is unsustainable in the long term.”

Currently, Congress is holding up $10.3 million in funding to Honduras because of security forces’ questionable human rights record. While there is legislation that puts some human rights conditions on military and police aid to Honduras, as Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director of Latin American Working Group pointed out in an interview with Free Speech Radio News, there is a large loophole: the conditions do not apply to funding for counternarcotics assistance to fight drug trafficking and related violence. In a country like Honduras, through which 40 percent of cocaine that reaches the United States is said to be trafficked, it is difficult to classify which episodes of violence are linked to drugs and which are not.

As lawmakers in both the Senate and House debate the appropriations bill that will determine foreign aid spending for FY2014, human rights advocates can only hope that some of the above will be taken under consideration.

Memories of War and Dignity: Report on victims of Colombia’s conflict

On Wednesday, Colombia’s Historical Memory Center (Grupo de Memoria Historica) published a report on the number of conflict-related deaths and violent actions that have occurred in Colombia in the past 55 years.

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The 431-page document was the result of a five-year investigation that revealed some alarming statistics about kidnappings, deaths, and massacres carried out during the past five decades. The report, “¡Basta ya! Colombia: memorias de guerra y de dignidad,” (“Enough Already! Memories of War and Dignity”) can be download on the Historical Memory Center’s website.

This reports comes in the midst of ongoing peace negotiations with the FARC. Uponreceiving the report, President Santos said it was a “first window towards the truth that we owe to the victims of this country.”

Some key findings from the report:


  • The report found that in total, 220,000 Colombians were killed between 1958 and 2013. Of that number, 176,000 were civilians — a ratio of eight civilians for every ten deaths, or about 80 percent.
  • Since 1981, paramilitaries have been the biggest perpetrators of violence. In the past three decades, there were 1,983 massacres, which have cost the lives of more than 400 children. The paramilitaries were responsible in 59% of the cases, the guerrillas in 17%, and state officials in 8% of the cases. Victims were 60% farmers, 10% workers, and 30% traders.
  • Between 1985 and 2012, 26 people were displaced per hour. The number of people displaced by the fighting – 4.7 million — represents almost the entire population of Ireland, Costa Rica or Lebanon.
  • There were 23,154 assassinations between 1981 and 2012. In 16.8% of the cases the guerrillas were the ones responsible, while in 10% of the cases the police force carried out the assassinations.
  • The majority of kidnappings, around 27,000, between 1970 and 2010, were carried out by the FARC. Between 1996 and 2002, there were 16,040 kidnappings. Of those, the FARC were responsible for 8,578 and the ELN for 7,462. Kidnappings have occurred in 919 municipalities across the country.
  • Colombia has the second-highest number of landmine victims in the world, after Afghanistan: 10,189.
  • 5,000 reported cases of forced disappearances. Out of that number, only 689 cases were solved.


As Colombia Reports noted, Gonzalo Sánchez, director of the Historical Memory Center said in an interview with Colombian newspaper El Tiempo:

“We propose that the State take the lead. The State says it would not recognize anything until the crime is proven in the highest appeal. But if we are reconstructing what has happened and if we believe the victims, we must ask for forgiveness. This is a mechanism that facilitates the peace process.”

He added that the “biggest sin of the State” was to “fight the war without fighting the causes.”

The El Tiempo interview can be found here, an El Espectador article expanding on the report’s findings can be found here, and an English summary of the report can be found on the Colombia Reports website. Colombian magazine Semana has a selection of quotes organized by topic and an accompanying article.

Militarization of law enforcement in Guatemala

Latin American countries have a long history of using the armed forces to carry out internal security duties.

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However, these militaries also have a long history of human rights abuses. While progress has been made, many countries in the region continue to deploy their troops to combat crime as they struggle with weak public institutions, pervasive impunity, and high crime rates.

Recently several governments have launched military initiatives to deal with these issues. In many cases the country is undergoing a longer-term police reform that is not yielding results, or in the case of Honduras, producing more headaches.

Although international bodies and human rights organizations have pushed for the region’s governments to allow civilian police to fight crime, leaders send their militaries into high crime zones or areas with a strong organized crime presence but poorly trained local law enforcement, in order to see results in the short term, and many times with U.S. support. There are several examples of this throughout the region and in a series of posts we will look at a few of them.


When President Otto Pérez Molina assumed the presidency in January 2012, he became the first career military official to hold that office in 25 years. Guatemalan security analysts say that now about 40 percent of security-related positions are held by former members of the armed forces. After taking office, Pérez immediately calledon the army to collaborate in “neutralizing illegal armed groups by means of military power.” Since then, given the weakness and endemic corruption of the National Civil Police (PNC), Pérez Molina has relied heavily on the military to fight organized crime and contain social unrest.

In March 2012, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay expressed concernabout “reports of an increased use of the military in law-enforcement functions.” She stressed that any such participation should only be in a “police support capacity without diverting resources from the police”; must be “subject to civilian direction and control”; and needed to be “limited in time and scope.” Since then, it appears little has improved:


  • Since the beginning of 2012, the government has opened at least five new military bases and outposts.
  • Currently there are over 21,000 troops deployed for maintaining security throughout nine states: from Huehuetenango to sectors of Quiche and Alta Verapaz,from Escuintla to sectors of Suchitepequez and Santa Rosa, and from Zacapa to sectors of Izabal and Chiquimula.
  • In September, the Maya Task Force was deployed to Zone 18 of Guatemala City, with 1,200 soldiers and 100 police, representing a ratio of ten to one. A similar operation began in Zone 12 in November.
  • On June 14, 2013 1,500 members of the military reserves were deployed to Huehuetenango in western Guatemala, Escuintla in south central Guatemala and Zapaca in the eastern part of the country as part of an initiative known as the Army “Citizen Security Squadrons.” They were split into three squadrons of 503 soldiers at a cost of $15 million (119 million quetzales), according to Guatemalan news outlet Siglo 21.
  • On July 1, a new military Inter-Agency Border Unit, also known as Joint Task Force Tecún Umán (Fuerza de Tarea Tecún Umán) began operating in zones along the border shared with Mexico. On June 28th the group finished two months of training. The U.S. also in part funds the unit.


Guatemala’s army has a poor record of human rights violations and has yet to be held accountable for the abuses committed during the country’s civil war from 1960-1996, in which 200,000 people were killed and 45,000 forcibly disappeared. According to the Historical Clarification Commission, Guatemala’s truth and reconciliation commission, the Guatemalan state (military and government paramilitaries) was responsible for over 90 percent of the human rights abuses. More recently, in October of 2012, six people were killed and another 34 injured when soldiers open fired into a crowd of indigenous protestors. The military has also been tied to drug trafficking and organized crime.

For decades, the U.S. State Department has been barred from providing aid to the Guatemalan army over concerns of human rights abuses dating back to the civil war. However, this ban does not apply to Department of Defense assistance, which accounted for $26 million in antidrug assistance 2011 and 2012.

While President Perez Molina has started a police clean-up initiative, reports indicate that the effort lacks sufficient funding and political will from much of the government. Aside from the concerns about human rights, analysts have questioned the overall strategy of military deployment, saying that it does not address the need for preventative policies, such as community policing. As one analyst questioned, “What is going to happen when the military finally withdraw?” she asked. “Won’t crime just go back up?”

The Week in Review

The following is a round-up of some of the top articles and news highlights from around the region over the past week.

Entire Region


  • Brazilian newspaper O Globo released three reports this week detailing documents released by Snowden asserting that the United States has been collecting data on telephone calls and e-mails from several countries in Latin America, such as Brazil and Mexico.The reports indicate that the United States has not only been amassing military and security data, but also collecting inside commercial information on the oil industry in Venezuela and the energy sector in Mexico, which are state-run and essentially closed to foreign investment.The reports also showed that Colombia, the strongest U.S. military ally in South America, along with Mexico and Brazil, were the countries where the U.S. program intercepted the biggest chunks of information on emails and telephone calls during the last five years. Similar activities took place in Argentina and Ecuador, among others.Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff is demanding an explanation for the United States’s spying and plans to involve the United Nations in an investigation of the NSA’s actions. Brazil also said that it might contact Snowden as it investigates the matter. “Mr. Snowden’s participation in an investigation is absolutely relevant and pertinent,” said Brazilian Foreign Minister Antonio Patriota. MexicoChileColombia and Argentina are also demanding official explanations and the MercoSur trading bloc held a special session on Friday to discuss the U.S.’ espionage programs. More from the Pan-American Post.
    The New York Times featured an article on U.S. attempts to to prevent Snowden from receiving asylum in Latin America, citing a State Department official who warned that helping Snowden “would put relations in a very bad place for a long time to come.” However, according to the piece, “Washington is finding that its leverage in Latin America is limited just when it needs it most.”
  • Bolivia is accusing Spain, France, Italy, and Portugal of violating the norms and regulations of international law by impeding Bolivian President Evo Morales’ plane while it was passing through European airspace, based on a suspicion that Edward Snowden was on the plane. The OAS expressed the discontent of a large part of Latin America regarding the incident via a firm resolution condemning the European nations’ actions and demanding an apology.
  • The Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP) found there was a drop in cocaine production in the Andean region. The estimates indicate a 41 percent drop in potential pure cocaine production since 2001, from an estimated 1,055 metric tons to 620 metric tons in 2012. The largest reduction was in Bolivia, which dropped from 190 metric tons of potential pure cocaine production capacity to 150 metric tons. Unlike Colombia and Peru, Bolivia receives very little counternarcotics aid from the United States.
  • Mexico and Argentina topped the list in Latin America on Transparency International’s recently released list for the most corrupt countries in the world.Corruption is something that has become inevitable and there is no field that has been spared from its spell. Trading market is also corrupted with some swindled trading platforms and it is a caution to all the traders to stay away from such ones. Legality and authenticity are the principles followed by few binary trading applications like the HB Swiss and so people should take up trading here.The report also pointed out the most corrupt institutions in each country. While politicians and political parties held the top spot in Mexico and Argentina, the police was named the most corrupt entity in Bolivia, Venezuela, and El Salvador. More from ABC News.




  • On Tuesday, Colombia’s highest administrative court annulled a 2002 electoral court ruling preventing the Union Partiotica (UP), a left-wing Colombina party formed in 1985 during peace talks between the Farc and the government, from political participation. Although the UP’s regained legal status will allow the party to participate in the upcoming March 14th elections, changes in the political landscape since its barring mean the UP may no longer be the Farc’s main political party as it was in the 1980’s and 90’s. More from the
    Pan-American Post.
  • InSight Crime looks at how intra-urban displacement in the country’s second-largest city, Medellin, is used as an “instrument of war” between two of the main groups vying for control over the city’s underworld: the narco-paramilitary group the Urabeños and the Oficina de Envigado, which has largely held control of the city since the fall of Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel.




  • Uruguay’s legislature met on Monday and agreed to postpone the vote on legalizing marijuana for a period between 10 and 30 days. Dario Perez, the deputy, proposed postponing the vote based on concern that “it’s not the time” to vote on the initiative; a “period of reflection” will take place before the vote, which will be on Wednesday, the 31st of July.




  • Nearly half of Mexico’s 31 states held elections for a mix of local parliaments and municipal governments on Sunday. Focus was on the tight race in the election for governor of the key Mexican border state of Baja California. According to Huffington Post, both the National Action Party (PAN) and the Institutional Revolutionary Party (PRI) were claiming victory following preliminary results. Sixty percent of voters abstained from the elections, reported El Proceso magazine.Fears of violence accompanying the elections are on the rise in the border state of Baja California. Experts say it is more effective and less risky for cartels to control or intimidate local governments, leading gangs to target and intimidate local officials to yield tangible results. “Their thinking is that ‘we are going to support the candidates who sympathize with us or whom we can negotiate with, and if there is a candidate who might win who won’t make a deal with us, we’ll tell him not to run or attack them, or even kill them.”
  • Mexico’s Secretary of National Defense Salvador Cienfuegos Zepeda announced the reinstallation of five generals who were released from prison last Friday. They had been incarcerated under former President Felipé Calderón over accusations of alleged ties to drug traffickers. A judge dropped the charges citing insufficient evidence. According to El Proceso, this was the first time in the history of the military that high ranking military officers who had been accused of having ties to the drug trade have been given back their positions after being exonerated.




  • In a prominent speech before legislators at one of parliament’s twice-annual sessions on Sunday, Cuba’s President Raul Castro scolded his countrymen for all kinds of bad behavior, including corruption, loud music, theft, public swearing, illicit logging, unauthorized home construction, and the acceptance of bribes. “When I meditate on these regrettable displays, it makes me think that despite the undeniable educational achievements made by the Revolution… we have taken a step back in citizens’ culture and public spirit.” More from the Washington Post.




  • In response to continuing protests and discontent in Brazil, President Dilma Rousseff has proposed a package of political reforms which she says would reduce corruption and make politicians more accountable. However, as the Economist noted, whether the reforms pass hinges on Brazil’s Congress, in which 191 of Brazil’s 594 senators and deputies are currently under investigation for offenses ranging from minor administrative offences to drug trafficking and murder. Rousseff also announced Wednesday that an additional $1.3 billion would be spent on healthcare and education.
  • On Thursday there was a one-day nationwide general labor strike. Mass protests resumed in several major cities by workers calling for better labor conditions and improved social services. According to the New York Times, the mobilization had mixed success “with some cities and states disrupted severely and others largely unaffected.”
  • Henrique Eduardo Alves, the leader of Brazil’s House of Representatives, said Tuesdaythe proposed plebiscite that is among President Dilma Rouseff’s key responses to waves of mass protests is unfeasible. Top politicians and congressional party leaders who have also cast doubt on the feasibility of the plebiscite favor drafting political reform legislation and submitting it for a popular referendum instead, which would allow citizens to vote yes or no to a series of proposals, with legislation to be drafted based on the results.


El Salvador


  • Tim’s El Salvador Blog and Central American Politics both look at a spike in violence in El Salvador. This week there were over 100 homicides, prompting questioning of the stability of a year-long truce between the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) gang and rival gang Barrio 18. Truce mediator Raul Mijango asserts that the surge in killings is a response to changes in government policy, such as new restrictions on imprisoned gang members. However, there has been little analysis of the murders or the victims, and many questions are left open as to whether the end of the truce is really nearing and why.
  • InSight Crime has a post outlining the five biggest differences between the troubled Salvadoran truce and the emerging Honduran truce. The article asserts that “The one area where Honduras may have an advantage is on the mediation front,” as the agreement is being brokered by a unified Catholic Church as opposed to a divided one.
  • report (PDF) by United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) highlights the political connections of two drug trafficking organizations confirmed to be operating in El Salvador, according to an article in La Prensa Grafica and translated by InSight Crime. The report found that the effectiveness of the cocaine trafficking and organized criminal operations of the Perrones and the Texis Cartel is owing to protection and lack of investigation from the state.
  • The Centre for Humanitarian Dialogue published a new report entitled “Mediating Criminal Violence: Lessons from the gang truce in El Salvador.” (PDF) More from Armed Groups and International Law.


INL Assistant Secretary Brownfield’s trip to Honduras and Costa Rica

Last week Assistant Secretary of State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) William R. Brownfield traveled to Costa Rica and Honduras to discuss the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and collaborative counternarcotics and security strategies. While there he announced funding for upcoming initiatives in both countries.


In Honduras, Assistant Secretary Brownfield met withVice President María Antonieta Guillen de Bográn, Foreign Minister Arturo Corrales, Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla, and Defense Minister Marlon Pascua.

Brownfield announced the U.S. would be providing $16.3 million to combat crime in the country: $6 million to create a special police unit to combat large-scale crimes (to be called the Major Crimes Task Force), and another $10.3 million to equip and train police and prosecutors.

Recently, two troubling Associated Press reports have linked U.S. funding to Honduran police units carrying out “death-squad style” killings. In August the United States froze about $30 million in aid to Honduras over concerns that its police director, Juan Carlos ‘El Tigre’ Bonilla, had been involved in extrajudicial killings and disappearances. The United States has since released some of the money under strict conditions, saying it only would go to specially vetted units not under Bonilla’s control, in accordance with the Leahy Law.

The AP investigation revealed that under Honduran law, all police units are in fact, under Bonilla’s control. Some of the aid announced by Brownfield “will go to the Gang Resistance Education and Training program under the director of community policing, who also told the AP that he reports directly to Bonilla,” according to the AP.

In an interview with the AFP, Brownfield insisted that the U.S. does not have relations with Bonilla and would not offer him “neither a dollar nor a cent.” He recognized that as director Bonilla is responsable for all units, but that not all “15,000 or 16,000 members of the Honduran National Police report directly to the director.” To give “two degrees of separation” between U.S. funding and individuals and units accused of human rights abuses, Brownfield said the U.S. would also give no support to the 20 officials directly below Bonilla.

Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta Jacobson, has also refuted the claims, saying the U.S. is monitoring individuals and institutions receiving the funds and that aid will continue to flow into Honduras.

For 2013, the U.S. Congress approved around $36 million for programs in Honduras, $26 million of which was marked for police and security initiatives, according to Brownfield. Of this funding, Congress is reportedly withholding $11 million over human rights concerns.

Brownfield estimated police reform in the Central American country could take five to ten years. He noted the U.S.’ current strategy “is to support the process over the years and at the same time work with small, specialized units” of vetted officers that would be monitored. He also added that the U.S. was looking to create specialized anti-gang and anti-drug units that would work with the FBI and DEA.

These reports follow last year’s revelations that Honduran citizens had been killed during U.S.-funded counternarcotics operations by specially vetted security force units.

Speaking at a recent event at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas in Washington on Central American security, Assistant Secretary Brownfield said, “We do not need to create law enforcement ‘paradise’ in Central America. What we need to do is improve capabilities by 10 or 15 percent. That will drive up the cost for the trafficking organizations of doing business in and through Central America.”

Costa Rica

While in Costa Rica Assistant Secretary Brownfield met with Anti-Drug Commissioner Mauricio Boraschi and Public Security Minister Mario Zamora. He announced the U.S. government would provide $6-$7 million to fight drug trafficking. The funds, he said, would provide for “training of prosecutors and investigators, the professionalization of police corps, for border control tasks, and for supporting anti-drug police units during land and sea operations.”

Brownfield also revealed another $1.6 million would be provided to government institutions and NGOs to fight domestic violence.

A recent Associated Press article notes that in 2012 the U.S. spent more than $18.4 million in direct security in Costa Rica. The article discusses increased U.S. involvement in the country and is definitely worth a read. It cited risk-analysis firm Southern Pulse director Sam Logan as saying Costa Rica was “the closest the U.S. has to a protectorate in Central America.”

In the past few years, Costa Rica has been threatened by rising domestic drug consumption, increasing levels of violence and expanding presence of Mexican drug cartels.

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Organized crime is also on the rise. As President Laura Chinchilla and Brownfield have both noted, Costa Rica is a “victim of its geography,” located between cocaine producing countries in South America and the region’s number one consumer – the United States. The country has become a more attractivetransit country for traffickers as counternarcotics operations targeting more traditional routes have shifted smugglers’ tactics.

According to the U.S. State Department’s 2013 International Narcotics Strategy Report, law enforcement agencies in the army-less country are under-resourced and have limited capacity. In 2012, Costa Rica increased its police budget by 11% to $351.5 million, which the Wall Street Journal pointed out was slightly less than the Baltimore police force’s budget.

In a radio interview while in Costa Rica, Brownfield warned the situation is likely to worsen. He said tackling crime would “require more force, more collaboration between the United States and Costa Rica during the next two to three years” and that more focus on maritime interdiction and border and port security would be required. He underscored the importance of creating opportunity but also the need for the threat of legal consequences for those involved in drug trafficking.

During the interview, Brownfield said that the argument that the United States’ role as the main consumer in the region creates the problem is “up to a certain point, stuck in the 1990s,” citing that cocaine and methamphetamine consumption has dropped considerably in the past seven years.

The White House just announced that President Obama will be traveling to Mexico and Costa Rica May 2-4. In Mexico he will meet with President Peña Nieto to discuss border security, trade, and immigration, among other topics. In Costa Rica he will meet with President Chinchilla and other leaders of countries part of the Central American Integration System (SICA), also to discuss trade and security.

Six observations about last week’s Southern Command “Posture Statement”

Marine Gen. John Kelly, the commander of U.S. Southern Command since November, gave his first testimonies last week in the U.S. Congress. Before the Senate and House Armed Services Committees, he presented the annual “Posture Statement” for Southcom the “regional combatant command” that manages all U.S. military activity in the Western Hemisphere (excluding Canada, Mexico and the Bahamas).

Gen. Kelly took command just in time for “sequestration,” the deep cuts in federal spending, including Defense spending, that went into effect on March 1. As Latin America is clearly a lower U.S. national security priority than other regions of the world (Middle East, Pacific Rim, Europe), these cuts are hitting Southern Command disproportionately. Its Miami headquarters is trimming 26 percent from its budget, Gen. Kelly testified. These cuts’ effect, in fact, was the central theme of his testimonies last week.

  • 1. Reduced drug interdiction. Due to budget cuts, Gen. Kelly foresees a sharp drop in the number of planes and boats available to look for drug-smuggling and other trafficking activity along Central America’s coasts and in the Caribbean. He raised the possibility that the U.S. Navy may resort to “stopping all naval deployments to the Caribbean and South America,” something that would leave Southcom’s naval component, the 4th Fleet, with little to do.

As a result, Gen. Kelly foresees a drop in the number of tons of cocaine that Southcom will seize in Central America and the Caribbean, from 152 last year to 90 this year. (See the chart below, which is also interesting because it contends that U.S. interdiction dropped after Ecuador refused to renew a U.S. presence at its Manta airbase in 2009.).

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The cuts will spell the end of “Operation Martillo” (“Hammer”), a surge of U.S. interdiction boats and planes that began last year along Central America’s coastlines. Two Navy frigates currently participating in the operation will return to port soon. The 90 tons of expected seizures this year, however, represent only a modest drop from the non-Martillo level of 117 tons measured in 2011.

  • 2. Trafficking appears to be moving westward, to the Pacific. The Posture Statement offers these estimates of how trafficking activity has shifted as a result of “Martillo.”
    • 21% drop in aircraft smuggling to Central America (mainly Honduras).
    • 57% drop in aircraft smuggling to Hispaniola island (mainly Haiti).
    • 36% drop in boats smuggling near Central America’s Caribbean coast.
    • 38% drop in boats smuggling on Caribbean high seas near Central America.
    • 71% increase in 2012, but 43% drop so far in 2013, in boats smuggling near Central America’s Pacific coast.
    • 12% increase in 2012, and 51% increase so far in 2013, in boats smuggling on Pacific high seas near Central America.

The “balloon effect,” it would appear, continues to illustrate illicit trafficking activity in the region.

  • 3. Southcom is cutting back on exercises, military-to-military contacts, and Special Forces training deployments in 2013 as a result of “sequestration.” The command, Gen. Kelly says, has been forced to “scale back deployments of Civil Affairs and Special Operations Forces teams to the region.” Southcom has chosen to scale back the annual “Panamax” canal-defense exercise, and to cancel the following exercises:

The Posture Statement also says that the National Guard’s “State Partnership Program,” a series of smaller deployments, has canceled more than 90 events. In 2012, this program alone carried out 223.

Exercises that appear to have survived the cut include the “Beyond the Horizon” series of humanitarian exercises, UNITAS, the Southern Partnership Station series of naval events, and the Caribbean exercise Tradewinds.

  • 4. Iran’s efforts aren’t getting traction in the region. “I share the Congress’ concerns over Iran’s attempts to increase its influence in the region,” General Kelly says. However,

“The reality on the ground is that Iran is struggling to maintain influence in the region, and that its efforts to cooperate with a small set of countries with interests that are inimical to the United States are waning. In an attempt to evade international sanctions and cultivate anti-U.S. sentiment, the Iranian regime has increased its diplomatic and economic outreach across the region with nations like Venezuela, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Argentina. This outreach has only been marginally successful, however, and the region as a whole has not been receptive to Iranian efforts.”

Southcom nonetheless remains vigilant, Gen. Kelly says, even though its “limited intelligence capabilities may prevent our full awareness of all Iranian and Hezbollah activities in the region.”

  • 5. China is now being explicitly cited as a competitor. Gen. Kelly notes “an unprecedented three naval deployments to Latin America since 2008, including a hospital ship visit in 2011” from China. Whether three deployments in five years should be cause for concern is unclear, but the Commander, mindful of his congressional audience, contrasts them with the current budget cuts:

“China is attempting to directly compete with U.S. military activities in the region. I believe it is important to note that sequestration will likely result in the cancellation of this year’s deployment of the USNS Comfort [a U.S. Navy hospital ship] to the region, an absence that would stand in stark contrast to China’s recent efforts.”

  • 6. The document’s annex provides a glimpse of current assistance to Colombian forces fighting in that country’s armed conflict. Note these fragments from the section on Special Operations Command South (SOCSOUTH), the Southern Command’s Special Forces component.
    • “SOCSOUTH elements provided assistance to the Colombian Special Operations Command, the new joint interagency task forces that are conducting operations against key FARC concentrations. SOCSOUTH also provided counternarcotics, small unit tactics, and riverine training to Colombian National Police and military forces.”
    • SOCSOUTH supported Colombian War Plan ‘SWORD OF HONOR’ by helping build intelligence collection, analysis, and dissemination capacity in newly established joint interagency task forces fighting the FARC.”
    • “In 2012, SOCSOUTH provided subject matter expertise to enable key Colombia partner units to establish a sustainable weapons-repair capability and initiate the development of an aerial delivery capability.”
    • “By partnering with academia, SOCSOUTH seeks to build critical thinking skills of key partner unit leadership, helping them to better confront complex irregular warfare challenges. In 2012, SOCSOUTH sponsored a “Counter FARC Ideological Activities” seminar in Colombia, and a “Counterterrorist Operations Planning” seminar in Peru in support of counter narco-terrorist operations.”

Vigilante justice in Mexico: A state-by-state guide

Citizens’ self-defense groups, or vigilantes calling themselves “community police,” are now active in 13 states and 68 municipalities across Mexico.

Although many rural parts of Mexico have a tradition of self-policing that dates back a decade or longer, there has been a surge in the formation of new groups in recent months due to the spread of organized crime into these areas, including increases in extortion and kidnappings.

The spike in violence in places like the state of Guerrero, combined with the minimal presence and weakness of police in rural areas, as well as the low level of public confidence in state institutions, are all contributing factors to the rise
of self-defense groups. “We want to escape the yoke of organized crime,” said one vigilante leaderabout the movement’s motivations. “They were charging us protection payments, extortion.”

While supporters of the groups say they are providing much-needed security, there are growing concerns they may turn into paramilitary groups or become involved with criminal groups. Raúl Plascencia, head of Mexicos Human Rights Commission, has warned, “there is a very thin line between these self-defense organizations and paramilitary groups.”

Here is a state-by-state breakdown of vigilante activity:



  • The recent self-policing phenomenon first began in Cherán, Michoacán in April 2011, when a group of residents took up arms to defend their forests against loggers with ties to drug cartels. Vigilantes set up roadblocks and night watches to fight back against unauthorized logging.
  • Self-policing groups also exist in Tepalcatepec and Buenavista Tomatlán, towns in the western part of the state that have been overrun by organized crime. According to official reports, about 400 masked men, some armed with AK-47s and dressed in matching printed T-shirts, set up checkpoints at the entrances to Tepalcatepec.
  • Authorities recently arrested 31 members of the Buenavista Tomatlán “community police” force in northern Michoacán and 34 members of a similar group in La Ruana. A few days later, another 17 vigilantes were arrested in La Ruana. The groups were accused of being fronts for drug trafficking. “The intelligence we are working with, the type of arms confiscated and other elements, indicates that these are people armed by organized crime groups that operate in Jalisco, Michoacán, and Colima,” explained Eduardo Sánchez, Assistant Interior Secretary, regarding the La Ruana arrests.
  • Four new self-defense groups emerged in the municipalities of Cherato, Cheratillo, 18 de Marzo, and Orúscato, all in central Michoacán.




  • The new vigilante movement that took off in January has grown most prominently in Guerrero recently. According to the New York Times, this spike builds on a long-standing tradition of citizen police forces in the rural regions of the state. Before the outbreak, vigilante groups already claimed to be patrolling the streets of 77 towns and villages in Guerrero.
  • The Regional Coordination of Community Authorities (CRAC), which began as the Community Police in 1995, has a deep history in the region. CRAC works in 60 communities in 10 municipalities to “stop common crime through surveillance by community police and the reeducation of those detained.”
  • On January 5, the Union of Towns and Organizations of the State of Guerrero (UPOEG), originally formed to protest high electricity prices, emerged as a self-policing group in Ayutla de los Libres. It is now present in 41 towns across Guerrero.
  • There have been two recorded killings thus far by the groups: the first on January 22, in the
    town of Tixtla, where a suspected criminal was shot to death when he refused to stop for inspections at a roadblock. The second took place on February 20 in the community of Refugio, in Ayutla de los Libres, when vigilantes opened fire on a group of five armed suspects, killing one.
  • Following a popular trial that began on January 31 in the town of Ayutla de los Libres, vigilante groups turned over 20 of the suspected criminals to state authorities. The vigilantes freed over 20 others following a “re-education process.” They now claim they have either freed or turned in all of the 54 detained criminals.
  • On February 24, vigilante leaders announced that 20 self-policing groups from villages around Acapulco and Coyuca de Benítez will unite into one front. Spokesman Carlos García Jiménez said that the “community police force” would be setting up checkpoints the following week, and claimed the group was working toward official recognition from the government.

According to an investigative report by the Toward Freedom website, Marines were unofficially deployed to Guatemala for Martillo in July, just two days after a SOUTHCOM-led military interaction/humanitarian exercise known as “Beyond the Horizon” ended in Guatemala.

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    • At the request of rural farmers and ranchers, some 60 residents of Mapastepec, on the southern coast of Chiapas,

banded together

     to form a Rural Forces Squad (PFR) to work in collaboration with local authorities.

  • With only 60 municipal police serving a population of 50,000 in the town and 200 surrounding communities, the town was previously ill-equipped to fight crime, particularly cattle theft, according to La Jornada. The Rural Forces Squad has been sworn in and armed by the government, but apart from thefts, they are required to refer any crime to authorities.


    • Self-defense groups are

now patrolling

     in two communities in the eastern part of Morelos: Tetelcingo, in the municipality of Cuautla, and Tenextepango, in Ciudad Ayala. The groups formed in response to a surge in criminal acts, including vehicle theft, homicides, and attacks on storekeepers and credit holders at banks.

  • In the indigenous community of Tetelcingo, the group has hung banners over streets and bridges to advise residents to remain vigilant for crime, and to warn criminals that they will be “put to death by the people” if they are apprehended in the area. State Secretary Jorge Messeguer Guillén said that the government is aware of the situation and that it “rejects any public use of force by one’s own hand.”
  • In Tenextepango, a recent attack on an elderly woman in her own store riled up the anger of the community, which then began to organize to put an end to such crimes themselves.



  • Residents of Santos Reyes Nopala formed their own self-policing group and declared themselves in rebellion against abuses of the army and members of the state police. After being sworn in by Mayor Fredy Gil Pineda Gopar, a member of the PRI, the 500 vigilantes took up rifles, shotguns, and machetes and set up the first roadblock at the entrance to the community. The governor of Oaxaca has vowed to dissolve the group.




  • In two municipalities, Ascención and Galeana, members of the Mennonite and Mormon communities have taken up arms to end the kidnappings, murders, and acts of extortion that members of their families have experienced at the hands of organized crime groups.
  • In the community of Obrera, in the capital city, residents have set up guards and taken up
    homemade arms to stop thieves, though the local police intervened.


Estado de Mexico


  • The Secretary General of the State of Mexico, Efrén Rojas Dávila, acknowledged that self-policing groups operate in the towns of Amatepec and Tlatlaya, in the southern part of the state.




  • The only known self-defense group in Tabasco is People United Against Crime (PUCD), which emerged in Villahermosa in order to “clean” the city of organized criminal groups like Los Zetas. Governor Arturo Núñez Jiménez has denied the existence of PUCD, and claims to have “no evidence” that the group exists.




  • On February 11, municipal leaders met with representatives of the state government, the military, and several indigenous groups, including 150 members of the indigenous Nahua group, in Cuautitlán de García Barragán to announce their decision to create a self-defense group. Town leaders have been faced with an increase in illegal mineral extraction and logging as well as organized crime.




  • The vigilante movement has also spread to Veracruz, where there are self-policing groups in three different regions of the state, including Ciudad Mendoza, Acultzingo, and the northern region. The communications coordinator for the state of Veracruz, Gina Domínguez Colío, has denied that such groups exist in the state and claimed that the reports mistook protesting peasants in Acultzingo for vigilantes.


Today, the Mexican news website Animal Político reported the results of a public opinion surveyconducted by Parametría. The study found that approximately 6 out of 10 Mexicans approve of the self-defense groups. About 50% of those surveyed believe that the groups are “a way of helping authorities solve the problem of crime,” as opposed to 25% who responded that they constitute “taking justice into one’s own hands.”

Click the map below for an interactive version with more details. Animal Político also has a thorough map of self-defense groups across the country.

Selected Self-Defense Groups in Mexico

Operation Martillo: What is it?

Since January 2012, the United States, in partnership with various European and Latin American nations, has been conducting Operation Martillo (Martillo = Hammer), a multi-national, interagency and joint military operation to combat aerial and maritime drug trafficking off Central America’s coasts. It began in January 2012 and has no end date, though its end is believed to be a few months away.

Who are the key actors?


  • Operation Martillo is led by U.S. Southern Command’s Joint Interagency Task Force South (JIATF-S), with strong support from the Departments of Homeland Security (particularly the Coast Guard), Treasury, State, Justice and Defense.
  • Headed by a Coast Guard rear admiral and based in Key West, FL, JIATF-S is a 600-person multiagency task force that monitors air and sea traffic headed toward the United States across Central America and the Caribbean. In addition to JIATF-S, Southcom provides the ships, sailors and aircraft of the U.S. Navy’s 4th Fleet.
  • Fourteen partner nations in Europe and Latin America work with JIATF-S on the mission: Belize, Britain, Canada, Colombia, Costa Rica, El Salvador, France, Guatemala, Honduras, the Netherlands, Nicaragua, Panama and Spain.
  • Martillo is run from JIATF-S’ intelligence fusion center in Key West, where intelligence agencies and officers from partner nations join U.S. government officials and officers. From the fusion center, JIATF-S cues engagement for the 4th Fleet (US Naval forces southern command), Coast Guard and partner nations.
  • U.S. Customs and Border Protection contributes to the mission with long-range patrol aircraft that operate from Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Florida and NAS Corpus Christi, Texas.


How is it funded?

  • Most of the costs of the United States’ military contribution to the operation are largely funded by the Department of Defense, with some covered by Homeland Security. Central American countries’ participation in Operation Martillo is funded through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), managed by the U.S. State Department.
  • CARSI, funded under the State Department’s Western Regional program, provides equipment, training, and technical assistance to seven Central American nations: Guatemala, Belize, El Salvador, Panama, Costa Rica and Honduras. For 2013 President Obama requested $107.5 million for CARSI.
  • Assistance goes to civilian and judicial institutions as well as military and police forces. CARSI supports anti-corruption, judicial reform, anti-gang, community policing, crime prevention, law enforcement and counternarcotics programs in Central America.

What does it do?


  • The operation targets drug boats before they land in Central America where the cargo is then divided and sent to the U.S. As part of Operation Martillo, four frigates patrol in two zones off the Pacific and Atlantic coasts of South America, and two transshipment points in Guatemala and Honduras. Partner nations also contribute dozens of smaller boats. Numbers from the State Department’s 2013 International Narcotics Control Strategy Report indicate that about 80% of drugs headed to the U.S. initially travel through Central America.
  • For 2013, the mission plans to focus on targeting types of transport vessels beyond go-fast boats and semi-submersible submarines, like container ships. In an interview with the Southern Command-sponsored InfoSurHoy website, JIATF-S director Rear Admiral Charles D. Michel said the mission has recently stood up a container intelligence cell at its Florida headquarters.
  • Operation Martillo directly seized or assisted in the capture of 127 metric tons (279,987 pounds) of cocaine in 2012, according to InfoSur Hoy. After seizing a large cocaine shipment, Joint Interagency Task Force-South headquarters raises a flag with a large image of a cocaine snowflake with a larger red “X” across the center.


How will U.S. federal budget cuts affect it?

On March 1, $85 billion in automatic federal government budget cuts went into effect. This year the Navy’s budget for operations was cut by $9 billion. In response, the Navy has announced it is suspending some deployments supporting the drug war in Latin America and the Caribbean.


  • The Navy will not be replacing two frigates (USS Gary and USS Thach) once they return in the end of April. Instead they will focus with even greater intensity on the departure points for most drug shipments in the region: the coasts off of Colombia, Ecuador, and Venezuela, the Associated Press reported.
  • According to a recent article in Wired Magazine, SOUTHCOM’s director of operations, Coast Guard Rear Adm. Vincent Atkins, has told his troops, “The fight we were in yesterday is not the fight we are in today, and we have to go and figure out how we are going to do this job.” According to JIATF-S, the mission will have to depend on partner nations.
  • The Wired article also described how the Navy has been testing much of its new technology in fighting drug traffickers in Latin America before deploying it to other parts of the world, like Afghanistan and Africa. According to the report, this will likely no longer be the case.


Critiques and concerns

U.S. involvement in counternarcotics operations

Operation Martillo is part of a growing trend of U.S. involvement and investment in counternarcotics military missions in Central America and the Caribbean.

Although no participant in Martillo has been involved in civilian deaths, citizens in places like Guatemala, where armies have recent histories of gross human rights abuses, are wary of U.S. military training their home country’s troops for internal missions.

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The overall increased U.S. military presence, particularly around Central America, has drawn attention to the region.

Notable Operation Martillo activity in Central America:

According to an investigative report by the Toward Freedom website, Marines were unofficially deployed to Guatemala for Martillo in July, just two days after a SOUTHCOM-led military interaction/humanitarian exercise known as “Beyond the Horizon” ended in Guatemala. The same article reported that two days after Operation Martillo soldiers left, members of the U.S. Navy construction battalions came to Coban, Alta Verapaz for a security cooperation mission with local troops.

  • The first phase of Martillo focused on the Honduran Gulf before it shifted to Guatemala, where 171 Marines and four helicopters were sent last August, making it the largest Marine operation since the United States first stopped giving the country U.S. military aid in 1978. Although aid to the army is still suspended (this suspension goes back to 1990) to Guatemala, the ban does not apply to the country’s navy or air force or Department of Defense assistance, which is why the U.S. can still fund Operation Martillo (and other operations) there.
  • The deployment came just two months after four civilians were killed in a U.S-backed counterdrug operation in Ahuas, Honduras by DEA agents.
  • “This is the first Marine deployment that directly supports countering transnational crime in this area, and it’s certainly the largest footprint we’ve had in that area in quite some time,” Marine Staff Sgt. Earnest Barnes told the Associated Press of the deployment.
  • Of note: SOUTHCOM signed two contracts in September for a “shoot house” and “improvements” at the training base for Guatemala’s elite Kaibil Special Forces unit in Petén. The Kaibiles have a violent reputation marked by human rights abuses and brutal training.

Operation Martillo has changed drug traffickers’ approach and apparently pushed drug trafficking routes towards the eastern Caribbean:


  • A map from a testimony at a House Homeland Security Subcommittee hearing last June showed a decrease in cocaine flows in most areas, particularly the Caribbean. It also showed a significant uptick in cocaine trafficking in the eastern Pacific, with most of the boats leaving Colombia’s Pacific Coast.
  • Since that time however, SOUTHCOM intelligence in September showed drug traffickers shifting back to using Caribbean sea routes in response to the increased pressure on trafficking in Central America. A U.S. Congressional report released in September found the amount of drugs passing through the Caribbean is against on the rise.
  • The U.S. Coast Guard testimony at a February 26 House hearing included a mapshowing the sites of major 2010-2012 drug seizures. According to the image, Puerto Rico has had the highest density of major seizures in the region recently.
  • According to InSight Crime, in 2009 many drug flights “flew directly from South America to Honduras. In the last two years, however, flights have increasingly gone via Caribbean islands with shipments later sent to the isthmus.”
  • This all supports a December 2011 testimony by William R. Brownfield Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs that predicated the Combination of Merida (U.S. assistance initiative in Mexico and CARSI would push the flow of drugs back towards the Caribbean:

    “In the 2000s, the Merida Initiative has, in turn, pushed the cartels increasingly into Central America. Although 90-95 percent of the cocaine from South America now transits the Central America/Mexico corridor, it is likely that the combined efforts of Merida and CARSI will force the traffickers to once again use the Caribbean as a conduit to the U.S. market.”


Recent activity

SOUTHCOM’s Operation Martillo page can be found here, but the mission’s most recent reported activity is as follows:


  • On January 24, 2013, the Coast Guard intercepted 1,400 pounds of cocaine, an estimated wholesale value of more than $17 million from a go-fast vessel in the southwest Caribbean Sea, Jan. 24, 2013.
  • On January 20, 2013, a frigate, the Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Thach (FFG 43), with a crew of 220 sailors was deployed for 6 months to conduct Counter Transnational Organized Crime (C-TOC) operations. The deployment consisted of the ship’s Visit, Board, Search and Seizure (VBSS) team, U.S. Coast Guard Law Enforcement Detachment and Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) and is being supported by an embarked helicopter detachment, HSL-49, Det. 2 based at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego, CA.


With and without U.S. aid, Colombia’s training of other security forces increases

Chinese Army participants in a marksmanship course pose with their Colombian instructors last August (source).

In its public statements aboutColombia lately, the Obama administration has praised the South American country as a “security exporter.” As a June 2012 Defense Department release put it, “Colombia now serves as a regional training base to help other nations in their counterdrug efforts.”

Colombia is now not only the Western Hemisphere’s largest recipient of U.S. military and police assistance. Its security forces are also training, advising and otherwise assisting those of third countries. “Colombia, for example, offers capacity-building assistance in 16 countries inside and outside the region, including Africa,” according to an April 2012 Defense Department news release. Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón told the Miami Herald recently that his forces have trained more than 13,000 individuals from 40 countries since 2005.

This trend is accelerating. As part of an ongoing “High Level Strategic Security Dialogue,” in early 2012 the U.S. and Colombian governments developed an “Action Plan on Regional Security Cooperation,” through which they intend to coordinate aid to third countries. According to a joint press release:

“Both countries will develop complementary security assistance programs and operational efforts to support hemispheric and international partner nations afflicted by effects of transnational organized crime.

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Increased coordination of U.S. and Colombia defense and security support activities, which are aligned with efforts by both countries to strengthen civilian law enforcement capacity and capabilities, will support whole-of-government strategies and produce a greater effect throughout the hemisphere and West Africa.”

We don’t know the extent of these “defense and security support activities,” or what portion of them are funded by the United States (probably the majority). However, a combination of primary and secondary sources yields the following examples of what has been happening.

With funding from the State Department-managed Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), Colombia’s National Police participate in a Central America Regional Police Reform Project. “[T]he Colombian National Police provides training and assistance in such topics as community policing, police academy instructor training, and curriculum development in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Costa Rica, and Panama,” reads an April 2012 joint press release. “To complement this police training by Colombia, the United States trains prosecutors in these countries.”

“Colombia sends mobile training teams to El Salvador, Panama and Costa Rica,” the commander of U.S. Army South, a component of U.S. Southern Command, noted in June 2012. Colombia trains police in Honduras and Guatemala, a senior U.S. defense official said in April 2012.

That month, members of the Colombian Navy’s new Coast Guard Mobile Training Group traveled to Honduras for its first foreign training mission, with 47 Honduran military students. In July 2012, this unit gave an 11-day course to 37 members of Panama’s National Police, National Border Service, and Institutional Protection Service. According to a July 2012 release from Colombia’s armed forces, the Navy Training Group planned to offer similar courses to the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Guatemala, and again Honduras during the second half of 2012.

In November 2012, 12 enlisted men from Panama’s security forces were receiving training alongside fifty counterparts from Colombia’s army in Tolemaida, Tolima, the Bogotá daily El Tiemporeported. The Panamanian government paid the training costs for some, while others received grants, El Tiempo indicated, without indicating these grants’ origin. “The militaries of Ecuador, Argentina, and Central American nations have requested spaces [in this course],” the director of the Colombian Army’s Non-Commissioned Officers School (Escuela Militar de Suboficiales), Col. Juan Felipe Yepes, said. “We’ve now had more than 100 [students] from other countries, and more requests keep coming.”

In May 2012, the Tolemaida army base graduated 22 members of Panama’s National Border Service who took part in “International 81-Millimeter Mortars Course No. 02.”

Colombia is also offering training to some neighbors in South America. In August 2012, Peru sent two naval officers to Coveñas, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, for an explosives technician course. “The Navy of Colombia has invited the Navy of Peru to send Navy personnel to participate in several courses, among them the Marines course, during the 2012 academic year,” reads a Peruvian government resolution [PDF]. That month, seven Colombian Special Forces and Army helicopter pilots paid a visit to Junín, Peru for a 15-day “exchange of experiences” with about 90 representatives of that country’s security forces. In October 2012, the commander of Peru’s army paid a visit to the Colombian Army’s Tolemaida base, where he “highlighted the training, capacities and skills that his men acquire” there, according to a Colombian Army release.

The U.S. government has encouraged Peru to work more closely with Colombia. “The United States stands ready to work with Peru on joint planning, on information sharing, trilateral cooperation with Colombia to address our shared security concerns,” said outgoing Defense Secretary Leon Panetta during an October 2012 visit to Lima.

In January 2013, the director of Ecuador’s military academy paid a visit to the Colombian Army’s Tolemaida base “to learn about the academic procedures the Colombian Military uses to educate and train its own soldiers.” In October 2012, the commanding officers of the Marine Corps of Ecuador visited Colombia’s Marine Training Base, where they viewed a demonstration of some of the training that the facility offers. The release from Colombia’s Navy did not indicate whether Ecuadorian personnel have received, or will receive, training at this base.

Training of forces from the Caribbean has included the Colombian Naval Academy’s December 2012 graduation of two cadets from the Dominican Republic.

Colombia’s training relationship with Mexico is quite extensive. It has included the instruction of “thousands of Mexican policemen,” as the Washington Post reported back in January 2011.

“Early one morning shortly before dawn, Colombian police commandos barked orders like drill sergeants at six Mexican policemen and two Mexican soldiers during a mock attack here outside Cajica, a town on a frigid mountain in central Colombia. The target in the training exercise: a heavily defended rebel camp.

It was the tail end of four months of training that included lessons on how to carry out operations in the jungle, jump from helicopters, defuse bombs and conduct raids on urban strongholds.”

“Colombian service members have trained more than two dozen Mexican helicopter pilots” as of April 2012, a U.S. Defense official said in a Pentagon news release.

Sixteen Mexican students — 15 federal police and one army soldier — participated in the grueling 19-week course given by the Colombian National Police’s (CNP) elite Jungla commando unit between July and December 2011. Also taking part in the course, at the Jungla base in Tolima department, were about 58 students from ten other Latin American countries: Belize, Bolivia, Brazil, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, and Paraguay. (Not all of them graduated.) “This Colombian initiative is supported by the U.S. Embassy through its Narcotics Affairs Section (NAS) and the DEA,” reads a U.S. embassy press release. “Since 2007, the NAS-financed CNP National Training Center in Pijaos has trained nearly 300 international students. NAS has allotted nearly 8 million dollars in the construction of the training center’s initial phase, inaugurated in 2008.”

Sources reveal several other multi-country training events. The Colombian Army’s Lancero Special Forces unit, similar to the U.S. Army’s Rangers, now offers an international course at the Tolemaida base. Colombia’s armed forces report that 581 trainees from 18 countries have taken the Lancerocourse including, in December 2012, 15 graduates from Brazil, Canada, Ecuador, El Salvador, France, and Peru.

The Colombian Armed Forces’ Superior War College hosted the April 2012 Inter-American Naval War Games, in which representatives from Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, the United States, Mexico, Peru, and the Dominican Republic participated in threat simulations to coordinate joint action.

In June 2012, Colombia hosted Fuerzas Comando, an annual competition between Latin America’s Special Forces sponsored by U.S. Southern Command. Those competing at the Colombian National Training Center in Tolemaida included the Bahamas, Belize, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Trinidad and Tobago, the United States, and Uruguay.

Another multi-nation event took place in Cartagena in June-August 2012, where Colombia’s Navy trained officers from Argentina, Chile, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panamá, Paraguay, Peru, and the United States. They received coast guard instruction, according to a Notimex article: “maritime interdiction procedures, maneuvers, exercises with interceptor craft, defense and survival techniques.” Since this course’s inauguration in 2012, Notimex notes, Colombia has given it to 114 students from 24 Western Hemisphere countries. A new session of this two-month Coast Guard course began in September 2012 with the participation of 14 trainees from Belize, Canada, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Jamaica, Mexico, Panama, and Peru.

In October 2012, Colombia’s Army hosted a “First International Doctrine Symposium” in Bogotá, with the presence of representatives from Brazil, Chile, China, Spain, the United Kingdom, and the United States.

Colombia is also training some personnel from outside Latin America. “People’s Republic of China Colonel Deng Yubo said that [Chinese personnel] have been in Tolemaida for a month receiving marksmanship training,” reported Colombia’s Colprensa wire service in August 2012. The ten-week course took place at the Colombian Army’s Lancero School.

Police from ten African countries were in Santa Marta, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, in January 2013 to take part in a Colombian National Police-hosted port and airport security seminar. According to an April 2012 Pentagon news release, “[T]he Defense Department is looking to Colombia and Brazil, both of which already have deep ties to Africa and now provide assistance there, to help U.S. Africa Command with peacekeeping and other efforts there.”

Even as they face their country’s own unresolved armed conflict and organized crime challenges, Colombia’s security forces will be increasing their training of other countries’ militaries and police. This will often happen with U.S. support. This was a chief topic when top officials from both countries met in Bogotá last November to continue the U.S.-Colombia “High Level Strategic Security Dialogue.” An unnamed Defense Department official said in October, “we’re building a detailed action plan where we and the Colombians will coordinate who does what … so we leverage … the resources and capabilities we have to effectively do capacity building and training and other things in Central America and in other places.”

While Colombia has a lot of experience with the type of operations that police around Latin America must carry out today — organized crime investigations, drug interdiction, efforts to arrest kingpins — the expansion of its training raises concerns, especially when the U.S. government is paying the bill.

  • What human rights messages are Colombian trainers conveying, both inside and outside the classroom? Colombia’s armed forces continue to confront allegations, including judicial cases, of thousands of abuses in the past 10-20 years. Some of the most prominent are a wave of extrajudicial executions during the mid-2000s and widespread collaboration with murderous paramilitary groups in the 1990s and early 2000s. Colombian military officials frequently express disdain for, or outright anger at, the country’s judicial system and non-governmental human rights defenders, and their institution recently pressed successfully to reduce civilian courts’ jurisdiction over them in human rights cases.
  • Especially when the U.S. government is paying, what assurances do we have about the quality and rigor of the training and education being provided? Colombian officers have long experience in combat and fighting organized crime, but their ability as trainers and the quality of their instructor courses is unknown.
  • When the U.S. government is paying, how can citizens and congressional oversight personnel get information about courses given, recipient countries and units, the identities of trainers, the number of trainees, and the overall cost? Training by U.S. officials generally shows up in the State Department’s annual Foreign Military Training Reports, but the work of U.S.-funded Colombian trainers rarely, if ever, appears in these reports. This raises a critical transparency issue.
  • When the U.S. government is paying, and information about training events is unavailable or difficult to obtain, how can we verify that human rights conditions in foreign aid law are being respected? How can we be sure that the units and individuals giving and receiving the training are clear of credible allegations of past abuse?

Drones in Latin America

The military use of robotics, especially unmanned aerial vehicles or “drones,” is growing worldwide, and Latin America is participating fully in the trend.

Robots and robotic operations are not just for the military operations and for assistance at the labs and offices, replacing the work of the human force; but they have also found a fecund space in trading. Fintech ltd. allows automated binary robot`s operations wherein a trader can enable and trade automatically completely without his presence and assistance online.

Countries are purchasing drones, and even developing their own, for a variety of purposes. For the most part, they are doing so without U.S. involvement.

Using secondary sources, WOLA Intern Anna Kroos put together this list of recent drone-related activity in the region.


Brazil leads the way on global commercial drone boom,” – John Otis, GlobalPost, January 6, 2013

Brazil, which spent $350 million for 14 Israeli drones in 2010 to monitor Amazon rainforest and border regions, “is now grappling with both the benefits and the Big Brother concerns.” For now, Brazil has suspended plans to use drones to monitor crime in favelas, due to air traffic control concerns.

Brasil utiliza aviones no tripulados en la frontera” – La Razón (Bolivia), October 19, 2012

For the first time, the Brazilian air force used drones to patrol its border with Bolivia. Brazilian police used images provided by the UAV to intercept a suspicious vehicle that tried to run an army roadblock. Part of the larger Operation Agata VI operation, the UAVs assist 7,500 soldiers deployed to reinforce Brazil’s borders with Bolivia and Peru against drug trafficking and smuggling. The troops are deployed for two weeks.

Por Primera vez Brasil usa aviones no tripulados para vigilar frontera con Bolivia” – Xinhua (China), October 19, 2012

The Brazilian air force used drones for the first time in a training mission near the border-zone town of Cáceres. Two drones were used in a training mission implemented by the Federal Highway Police as part of Operation Agata VI, a joint army, navy, and air force mission in which fighter jets, combat helicopters, patrol boats, soldiers, and now drones are used to patrol the Brazilian borders with Peru and Bolivia.

Brasil utilizará mas aviones no tripulados en sus fronteras” – Agence France Presse, October 21, 2012

Brazil’s Minister of Defense, Celso Amorim, announced the end to Brazil’s two-week operation in which troops and drones were deployed along the Peruvian and Bolivian borders. The Minister reported the seizure of 1.1 tons of cocaine, 14 vehicles, 221 boats, and 8 arrests.

Brazil Tests Drones to Monitor Rio Favelas” – Victoria Rossi, InsightCrime, Sept. 11, 2012

Brazil is trying out drones that could be used to track criminal activity in favelas. Drones, manufactured using Israeli technology, would be used to clear drug gang controlled favelas before the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. Brazil has also donated drones to Bolivia to help find illegal coca plantations.

Brasil comenzara a operar aviones no tripulados desarollados en el pais” – Xinhua (China), July 25, 2012

Brazil is beginning to operate 4 drones that were developed and constructed by engineers from the Istituo Militare Ingenieria (IME). Three will be used for security, surveillance, and remote monitoring while one will be used for environmental surveillance. The drones cost Brazil 180,000 reales (US$90,000). They plan on selling the models to other countries.

Argentina y Brasil quieren fabricar en conjunto avion no tripulado” – Associated Press, April 17, 2012

The foreign ministers of Argentina and Brazil are cooperating to produce drones to be used in the fight against drug trafficking and to protect borders. Using technology from Israel’s Elbit Systems, Brazil and Argentina will develop and sell drones.


Chile está fabricando aviones no tripulados” – El Sol (Mendoza, Argentina), November 27, 2012

The Chilean government announced that it will begin manufacturing drones, embarking on the next “generation of drones.” It plans to have 18 unmanned aircraft operational for the Chilean Air Force by March 2014. Authorities were reluctant to release this announcement, fearing that Peru and Bolivia will become threatened by this new tool of war. The drones will be used for military objectives but also for the search and rescue of people, and a tool in aiding forest fires. Chile already has an aircraft purchased in 2010 from Israel.

Chile se lanza a la carrera regional para fabricar aviones no tripulados” – Carlos Vergara, La Nación (Argentina), November 27, 2012

The Chilean military successfully tested the first drone developed in the country. It will be used for rescue tasks, monitoring rivers, volcanoes, and disasters. Funds are also being allocated for the development of 18 additional drones, operational by March 2014. The government has handled the news discreetly given the controversy with the United States’ use of drones in the Middle East, in addition to Bolivia’s apprehension about a stronger Chilean military. Though worry surrounds Chile’s new development, drones are becoming prominent in the region with Brazil’s purchase of 2 Hermes drones from Israel, and an expected 14 Heron to be completed before the World Cup and Olympics. Ecuador has 6 Heron, Venezuela 2 Iranian Mohajer. Possible legislation has been discussed that would force Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Chile to use drones only for peaceful purposes.

Chile adquirió aviones no tripulados para vigilar frontera con Peru” – El Comercio (Peru), October 6, 2011

Chilean Minister of Defense Andrés Allamand confirmed Chile’s purchase of UAVs from Israeli company Elbit Systems. Allamand noted the drones will be used for border control, particularly on the Peruvian and Bolivian borders. They will be used to defend, but also to combat drug trafficking. Jorge Montoya, the former Chairman of the Peruvian joint chiefs, said this is important considering the drones’ ability to fly undetected and the ability to equip them with cameras and explosives.


Colombia vende hasta aviones no tripulados” – Revista Dinero (Colombia), October 31, 2012

Brazil and some Central American and Caribbean countries have expressed interest in acquiring Colombian drones and technology. Juan Carlos Pinzon, Colombia’s minister of defense, made the announcement at Expodefense, an international security exhibition in Bogota drawing 100 domestic and foreign companies. Previously drones were only used to protect economic infrastructure, like pipelines; now they will be able to adapt to military attacks as well. Colombia first acquired drones from the United States in 2006 to help find 3 U.S. citizen contractors held hostage by the FARC.

Colombia celebra Expodefensa con ‘drones’ y radares en fase de constucion” – EFE, October 30, 2012

Expodefense, in its third year, brought in 67 international and 27 Colombian vendors in attempts to establish itself as a reference in Latin American defense technology. The exhibition provided the context for Colombia to announce its future use of drones for military. Colombia’s security budget reflects this desire for development, with $14,426,000 allocated to defense and security. Colombia wishes to develop its drone technology similar to Korea’s and Israel’s development.

Colombia to develop its own drone program to combat drug trafficking” – Fox News Latino, October 26, 2012

Colombia announced its intention to begin developing drones for military use. Up to this point, drones were used strictly for civilian missions like monitoring pipelines often attacked by FARC, hostage rescue efforts, and general surveillance. The government was vague on whether the drones are fully equipped for combat operations.

‘Drones’ – Laura Gil, *El Tiempo (Colombia), May 1, 2012; English translation by Douglas Myles Rasmussen

Noting the use of U.S. drones in Colombia in 2006 for use in a U.S. hostage situation, the article documents the recent use of the drones to gather information on FARC and to track drug traffickers. Moving from civilian use of drones to military use, Colombia looks to the Israeli firm Elbit to purchase $50 million armed Hermes 900.

Colombia considers purchase of Israeli unmanned drones” – Marc Hall, Colombia Reports(Colombia), April 17, 2012

Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón and Ehud Barak, Pinzón’s Israeli counterpart, met in April to discuss Colombia’s purchase of drones from Israel. Pinzón discussed the desire for drones as an effort to “continue strengthening the military capacity of Colombia.” The drones will be used to fight transnational crime.

Israel estudiará la venta de aviones no tripulados a Colombia” – EFE, April 12, 2012

Pinzón and Barak are negotiating Colombia’s possible purchase of drones from Israel. Limitations and restrictions are being placed on the possible transaction. The two defense ministers are also working to create a “strategic dialogue, share information, share doctrine, and have a dialogue more permanent than a business relationship.”

Colombia quiere aviones no tripulados en lucha contra las FARC” – Sergio Gomez Maseri, El Tiempo (Colombia), March 30, 2012

U.S. and Colombian officials are negotiating Colombia’s attainment of drones and spy helicopters. Colombia justifies their need for drones as the quickest and most effective way to implement “Espada de Honor,” a strategy to combat FARC. Colombia wants 10 Black Hawk Helicopters and an uncertain number of drones. The U.S. government is reluctant, and Colombian officials must convince Washington that the drones are necessary.

WikiLeaks: Colombia began using U.S. drones for counterterrorism in 2006” – Karen DeYoung, The Washington Post, March 23, 2011.

The United States supplied Colombia surveillance drones for counterterrorism, then-U.S. Ambassador to Colombia William B. Wood states in documents released by WikiLeaks. The drones were initially sent to support U.S. hostage rescue efforts but the document noted that they could also be used to combat terrorists and interdict drugs on rivers.

Dominican Republic:

Napolitano’s visit heralds drones over Dominican skies” – Dominican Today (Dominican Republic), July 16, 2012

Janet Napolitano, U.S. secretary of homeland security, visited the Dominican Republic in July to sign an agreement allowing the Dominican Republic to use drones to track drug cartels who cross Dominican territory to transport drugs to Puerto Rico.

RD tambien usara avion no tripulado contra narco” – El Día (Dominican Republic), July 4, 2012

The Dominican Republic will be using drones to monitor and fight drug trafficking. Monitoring the maritime region between Venezuela/Colombia and the Dominican Republic, drones will promote maritime vigilance similar to technology used on the U.S.-Mexico border. Local staff will be trained by U.S. specialists.


La nueva apuesta de la Semar: aviones no tripulados en Mexico” – Guillermo Guerrero, Milenio(Mexico), Aug 28, 2012

Mexico is building drones, similar to the ones the U.S. government uses to monitor the border. The drones will be used in floods, natural disasters and to combat organized crime. So far they have 3 aircraft with the latest technology and are designing two models, a larger model with an undercarriage and a mini model to be used in the field.


El primer avión no tripulado de Perú” – Perú21 (Peru), December 14, 2011

Peru’s air force (FAP) has developed an unmanned aircraft with electronic warfare using 100% domestic technology. It will continue to develop drone technology in 2012 hoping to develop an autonomous aeronautics industry. The FAP hopes to develop 12 more aircraft and continue developing drone technology to strengthen its deterrent capability, allowing for civic action flights to remote villages on the Amazon and the border; the FAP also hopes to use this development in a technology transfer.

Conozca los drones peruanos aviones no tripulados fabricados en Peru” –, July 12, 2012

Peru has developed three different kinds of drones for use in intelligence gathering. The FAP, under Carlos Ocio, began its own research in 1999 successfully developing one prototype before unsuccessfully crashing another. The program was revived in 2004 under the name Condor Project developing a FLIR (forward-looking infrared) system, equipped with four cameras. The program lacked funding so it wasn’t until CONCYTEC and Comando Conjunto formed an association before all 3 models were successfully developed.

Peru construirá aviones no tripulados” – TV Perú (government of Peru), Auguast 2, 2012 (video)

The Peruvian air force (FAP) will coordinate with the National Council for Science and Technology and Technological Innovation (CONCYTEC) to begin producing drones. They hope to mass produce the drones with the hope of financing the venture.


Venezuela detecta con avion no tripulado una avion en frontera Colombia” – EFE, September 26, 2012

President Hugo Chávez announced that Venezuela had captured a plane, presumably carrying drugs, on the Colombian border; the plane was detected by a drone Venezuela developed with Iran. The government highlighted the use of the drones, saying it “helped a lot.” The drone was built in June for the “defensive power of the nation” and as Julio Morales Prieto, president of Cavim (Venezuelan military industrial corporation) noted, it is the second best in South America and will be used for reconnaissance.

Aviones no tripulados venezolanos: Defensa, soberania, y revolucion” – Anais Lucena, Radio Mundial (government of Venezuela), June 27, 2012

In cooperation with Russia, China, and Iran, Venezuela developed 3 drones, manufactured in the country with training and technology from Iran. The drones, equipped only with cameras, are for the purpose of safeguarding national security and to monitor rivers. President Chávez and the government highlight the benefit of drones in dangerous or inaccessible places and note the necessity of modernizing the military. Venezuela joins other South American countries Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, and Colombia, which have contracted to obtain drones, as well as Argentina, Mexico, and Peru which developed their own. Chávez denounces the United States’ criticism of this development, noting the double standard in American use of armed drones in Afghanistan.

Venezuela fabrica avion no tripulado con apoyo de Iran” – Reuters/EFE, El Universo (Guayaquil, Ecuador), June 15, 2012

The announcement of Venezuela’s development of drones comes at the same time the U.S. government seeks to limit Iran’s influence in Latin America. The Venezuelan drones, developed with Iranian technology, were being investigated by the U.S. prior to Chavez’s announcement on June 13, 2012. Venezuela maintains the use of the drones is solely defensive.

Chavez presentó el primer avión no tripulado fabricado en Venezuela” – DPA, June 14, 2012

Venezuela contracted with Russia to develop drones, among other defense projects funded with US$4 billion in credits from Russia, said Gen. Julio César Morales, head of the state defense industry corporation (CAVIM), the drones’ manufacturer. President Chávez expressed the need to consolidate defensive power in order to ensure the independence of Venezuela.

Chávez muestra primer avión no tripulado para uso militar” – Agénce France Presse, June 14, 2012

Chavez announced that with the support of Iran, Russia, and China, Venezuela has its first drone for military and civilian use, and affirms that it will begin exportation. They have already manufactured 3 drones and will continue to manufacture for defense, reconnaissance, and to protect pipelines, forests, roads, and dams. The parts are made in Venezuela and assembled by military engineers trained in Iran.