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Home Category Table ?Mission Creep? in Latin America?U.S. Southern Command's New Security Strategy
?Mission Creep? in Latin America?U.S. Southern Command's New Security Strategy PDF Print E-mail
Friday, 01 July 2005 00:00

U.S. security strategy in the Western Hemisphere has had, except in rare occasions, little or nothing to do with protecting national security and the U.S. homeland. Since the early 19th century, the pursuit of U.S. national security in Latin America and the Caribbean has largely been grounded in the pursuit of U.S. interests.

Latin American and Caribbean societies commonly accept this fact of life in a hemisphere dominated for the past couple of centuries by the United States. Few would expect the U.S. government to pursue policies that run counter to the prevailing consensus in Washington about what constitute U.S. national interests.

When projected abroad, the interests of great powers such as the United States are variously described as being colonial, mercantilist, imperial, or hegemonic. The latter term—hegemonic—can encompass any of the previous three. A further distinction often made by scholars of international relations is that some hegemons are benevolent—meaning that they exercise their hegemony with a view to the mutual well-being of their own populations and those of the countries under their sway.

Great powers commonly describe themselves as benevolent, employing terms such as “Pax Britannica,” to British imperialism, and Pax Americana, or its later version, the “American Century,” to U.S. hegemony. It is rare, however, that a dominated country conceives of foreign hegemony as “benevolent.”


Hegemony a Product of National Interests

Whether benevolent or not, what drives hegemony is not some basic instinct to exercise control but a combination of three types of interests of the hegemonic power: security, economic, and domestic political interests.1 These interests are “national interests” as defined by the government that may or may not reflect the real majority interests of the citizenry.

The interests of society and what economic and political elites define as the “national interests” don’t necessarily coincide with and rarely complement each other. More often what the elites define as the national interests run counter to and contradict the interests of the entire society.

This disjuncture between citizens’ interests and the prevailing definition of national interests is especially striking in Latin America and the Caribbean. In the case of security issues, the government claims that it is in the U.S. national interest to deploy the U.S. military and deplete the national treasury in counterinsurgency operations in Colombia.

With respect to economic interests, the U.S. government contends that more trade agreements on the NAFTA model will further U.S. economic interests. But there are sharp divides in the Washington policy community about whether such security and economic policies further U.S. national interests, and it is safe to say that the U.S. public would be hard put if asked to describe why spending billions of dollars on counterinsurgency in Colombia or facilitating corporate trade and investment is in the “national interest.”

A hegemonic foreign policy is more than the sum of security and economic interests. It is a product also of domestic political forces that have certain ideological, religious, cultural, or country-specific agendas. Backed by money or powerful sectors, these lobbies often have specific agendas that do not correspond to national interests as the majority of the population would define them. What the Cuban American lobby advocates as a Cuba policy serves its own narrow interests but U.S. citizens, if asked, may very well say that constructive engagement is a better policy than internal meddling and economic blockades.

The United States is the great power that has come closest to being a global “hegemon.” Like most hegemons, the United States of America began building its hegemonic reach in its “backyard” or what, in the more elevated parlance of foreign policy journals, is known as the “near abroad.” One might expect that U.S. hegemony would be strongest in Latin America and the Caribbean. But U.S. control is disintegrating in its own hemisphere at the very time when the Bush administration has embarked on global crusades to crush anti-U.S. regimes, combat anti-U.S. terrorism, and bolster alliances among free-market democracies around the globe. Pax Americana in the Americas—a declared foreign policy objective since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823—is no longer a sure bet.

Throughout the region, grassroots movements, opposition leaders, and governments themselves are rejecting U.S. leadership. There’s an emerging consensus that U.S. hegemony is not benevolent but rather malevolent.

The U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), which defines Latin America and the Caribbean as its Area of Responsibility (AOR), is clearly worried. With a more extensive presence in the region than any other part of the U.S. government, the U.S. military has been the first to identify in any integrated way the rising threats to U.S. hegemony.

Rather than questioning the wisdom of current U.S. foreign and military policy, the Pentagon and Southcom have resurrected traditional strategies and launched new initiatives. However, because these responses run counter to the real security needs and national interests of both the United States and the nations within its AOR, these responses serve only to fuel counter-hegemonic forces.

Washington is losing control of its backyard. If the U.S. government “stays the course” with its current foreign and military policy, as President Bush has repeatedly asserted is what’s needed to keep the country strong, the United States is on a collision course with Latin America and the Caribbean.

U.S. national security policy has evolved in recent years through a combination of “mission creep” that encompasses expanding definitions of national security, and more overt hegemonic aspirations. Leading strategists and ideologues of the Bush administration believe openly that U.S. global domination is the best and in any case inevitable form of world governance.

But at the same time this expanding scope of national security and hegemony confronts a counter-hegemonic backlash. There is a new spirit of resistance, reformism, and self-determination in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Neither Washington nor the governments of the region have yet come to grips with the interplay of hegemonic and counter-hegemonic trends. As the statements of U.S. military officials and strategy documents reveal, the Pentagon and Southcom are increasingly preoccupied by the new social and political forces emerging in the hemisphere. But equally clear is that the Pentagon and Southcom are increasingly delusional about what’s going on in the United States’ backyard.


Leading Trends in U.S.-Latin America and Caribbean Security Relations

Trends in U.S. Policy:

  • Refocusing security programs into prism of war on terrorism, despite the absence of international terrorist networks in the hemisphere or states that sponsor such networks.
  • Deepening U.S. military involvement in the civil war in Colombia.
  • Continued encouragement and support for regional military forces to involve themselves in law enforcement tasks that are customarily handled by public safety officials and police.
  • Description of multiple issues—human and drug smuggling, drug production, document forging, money laundering, militant popular activism, immigration flows, left-center governments and political movements, and guerrilla movements?as components of the regional terrorist threat.
  • Sidelining or outright dismissal of human rights concerns in U.S. foreign and military policy and in police/military aid and training programs.
  • The centrality of national security strategy and military actors in shaping U.S. foreign and military policy, thereby marginalizing attention by nonmilitary actors to deepening impoverishment, landlessness, hunger, and unemployment.
  • Southcom, like military commands in other regions, has become the principal interlocutor in the region, as the presence of other U.S. agencies declines, such as U.S. Agency for International Development, and U.S. Agriculture Department, and as its mission expands to cover responding to ?nontraditional threats,? purported manifestations of international terrorism, and internal security issues.
  • Rising U.S. concern that its historical hegemony in the hemisphere is at risk as governments and societies reject or sideline U.S. trade, security, financial, and political proposals.

Trends in Latin America:

  • Increasing autonomy of regional armed forces from the Pentagon paralleling the increasing break by governments, political parties, and popular movements with U.S. hegemonic policies with respect to trade, drug control, and national economic development strategies.
  • New military involvement in ?internal security? issues, including drug control, human trafficking, crime control, and especially anti-gang operations.
  • Resistance to Pentagon initiatives to form regional army and naval coalitions under U.S. direction.
  • Increasing intra-regional military alliances, mainly in South America, that stand outside Southcom?s hemispheric security strategy.
  • Rising popular militancy directed against traditional political parties and elites, foreign oil and gas corporations, and elected governments in the face of deteriorating socioeconomic conditions, corruption, and increasing economic polarization—resulting in deadly clashes between protestors and security forces.

The Price of Security

Since the Monroe Doctrine of 1823 the United States has regarded the Western Hemisphere as its own domain. The intent of this foreign policy doctrine was to prevent foreign powers—European colonizers, mercantilists, and financiers in the 1800s—from exercising influence that challenged the U.S. stake in Latin America and the Caribbean. The policy undermined economic development and political progress in the region for over a century. However, the precepts of the Monroe Doctrine have ensured that the Western Hemisphere remains a region that harbors no military threats to U.S. national security, albeit at great cost.

This is no small accomplishment. At least part of America’s superpower status today stems from its own geographical security—its isolation from other great powers, the absence of weapons of mass destruction in the “near abroad,” and its effective hegemony over its own hemisphere.

But this hegemony has come with a high price, predictably for the subjects of the hegemon. Even a quick glance at the political and economic conditions of some the United States’ closest neighbors—Haiti, the border cities of Mexico, Central American nations— belies the benefits of U.S. “benevolent hegemony.” In these countries, clearly geographical and political proximity to the world’s greatest power failed to yield even a minimal standard of progress.

In the name of security—both U.S. national security and the security of nations within U.S. hegemonic reach—the United States has repeatedly obstructed political and economic progress in Latin America and the Caribbean. Nearly two centuries of U.S. hemispheric hegemony has left a blood-stained legacy—one marked by a tragic history of gunboat diplomacy, military occupations, counterinsurgency campaigns, economic exploitation by companies like United Fruit and Anaconda, and support for dictators and military regimes.

If regional stagnation, instability, and growing contradictions between the United States and Latin America are the result of years of hegemony, then it is past time to find a new approach. In the search for less ideological and more effective security policies, it is worth recalling U.S. policies that offered more positive elements for a new model of constructive hemispheric relations. One such model was Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor Policy of the 1930s, and more recently certain aspects of constructive engagement by the Clinton administration.2


Bush’s “War on Terrorism” as the New Security Paradigm

In the post-Cold War years before the Sept. 11 attacks, militarists and ideologues sought new justifications for maintaining a military-industrial complex despite the implosion of the enemy empire. The purported threat of “rogue countries” such as Iraq, North Korea, Syria, Libya, Cuba, and Iran became the prevailing rationale for proposals for missile defense systems, global military presence, and high-tech “military transformation.”

In the Western Hemisphere, where Cuba provided a patently weak excuse for military build-up, the Pentagon security chiefs eventually embraced the “drug war” as part of a national security doctrine. The armed forces themselves initially resisted adopting new and nontraditional missions such as the drug war and humanitarian intervention. But U.S. Southern Command was by the early 1990s largely on board with the drug war agenda promoted by influential social conservatives, military strategists, and right-wing ideologues.

After Sept. 11 there was a major paradigm shift in national security throughout all the Pentagon’s area commands. The counterterrorism agenda soon dominated even in regions like Latin America and the Caribbean where there is no evidence (or even serious allegations) that the region is a base for either state-sponsored or nonstate international terrorism. The Bush administration has reconfigured U.S. national security policy in the region as part of its “global war on terrorism.” For its part, Southcom has readily adopted this new security framework, extending it to include not only the drug war but also such issues as human trafficking and gang proliferation.

The U.S. government’s new hemispheric security strategy will neither improve the security of the U.S. homeland nor contribute to the peace and security of Latin American and Caribbean nations. The attempt to shoehorn a wide range of conflicts and deep-rooted problems into the “war on terrorism” paradigm leads to ineffectiveness against the real challenges and undermines U.S. national security. Issues from migration to indigenous militancy to the explosion of gang violence have varied causes and require targeted local, national, and regional strategies.

The threats to U.S. security resulting from the current approach to U.S.-Latin America security relations are the following:

  • By encouraging an expanded mission for the region’s armed forces, the United States is once again contributing to the creation of national security states in which the lines between public security and national security are diffused.
  • In its search for a match between counterterrorism and regional issues, the U.S. military is losing sight of the real threats to U.S. national security in other parts of the world—posed mainly by the proliferation (and lack of control) of weapons of mass destruction and by international terrorist networks that regard the United States as an enemy.
  • Whereas traditional security threats to U.S. national security are virtually nonexistent in the Western Hemisphere, there is an emerging array of nontraditional menaces that demand U.S. and regional responses. But these threats are best addressed not by the armed forces but by civilian law enforcement and public safety agencies both at national and multilateral levels. Regarding nontraditional threats—such as public health crises, international crime syndicates, and human smuggling—as military targets has proved ineffective and counterproductive, as well illustrated by the “drug war.”

The main problems for Latin America and the Caribbean resulting from the overarching U.S. approach to national security are the following:

  • By imposing its own security strategy on the region, the U.S. government has historically fostered the militarization of Latin American and Caribbean nations that face no existing or potential national security threats. The existence of overdeveloped military institutions has hampered the political and economic development of these nations.
  • Historically, the U.S. security umbrella provides little shelter for nations living under it, and in fact has proved to be among the worst threats to their security. Although the region as a whole moved from authoritarian regimes to democracies, this was largely in spite of, rather than due to, U.S. hegemony. Today the prospects for the countries of the Caribbean, Mesoamerica, and South America are not encouraging. The economic stability of many nations depends on remittances from its emigrants; crime waves are sweeping the cities and entire subregions such as Central America; the political stability of several countries is tenuous, notably Bolivia, Ecuador, and Haiti; foreign and domestic investment in productive enterprises is stagnant; and the number of poor, landless, and unemployed in an already badly impoverished region is steadily expanding even in countries with moderate or relatively high growth rates.
  • The emphasis on national and cross-border security issues as defined by the U.S. military has fed anti-U.S. sentiment and is undermining U.S. security in the region. Meanwhile, other great powers—European Union, Japan, and China especially—are consolidating political ties, military links, commercial deals, and trade agreements with the region. A new spate of intra-regional accords and successful resistance to neoliberal restructuring and IMF debt rescheduling proposals by several nations further weaken Washington’s hegemony in Latin America and the Caribbean.


Southcom’s “Theater Command Support” Strategy

The U.S. Southern Command’s stated objectives extend far beyond supporting the hemisphere’s governments in combating what it calls “narcoterrorists.” A partially declassified Southcom document lists seven objectives for U.S. national security strategy in Latin America and the Caribbean: 1

  1. Regional energy supplies will flow freely into international markets and will not be targets of aggression.
  2. Countries will exercise sovereignty over their territory.
  3. Regional partners will have both the capabilities and willingness to conduct limited maritime interception operations and other combined operations, particularly in the areas of counter-terrorism, peace operations, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance, with minimal U.S. support.
  4. Not releasable
  5. Not releasable
  6. Prevent rogue states from supporting terrorist organizations.
  7. Strengthen and maintain stable, democratically elected governments throughout the AOR [area of responsibility].

Each objective, including the “not releasable” ones, is followed by several sub-objectives. Of the 29 sub-objectives, eight are classified as nonreleasable. Together, the declassified objectives and sub-objectives reveal Southcom’s increasingly broad interpretation of its mandate to protect U.S. national security in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Included under ensuring the free flow of energy supplies—the first objective listed—is the creation of an “architecture to monitor and maintain sea lines of communication against terrorism and illicit trafficking.” Southcom also aims to improve the ability of “Partner Nation (PN) security forces to protect critical infrastructure” of the energy industry in the region.

In the last few years, the U.S. Southern Command and the Pentagon have launched a campaign to increase hemispheric security cooperation both to compensate for the U.S. military’s overextended forces and to increase U.S. influence over the region’s armies and governments. The Department of Defense (DOD) and Southcom believe that regional military cooperation is also needed to control “ungoverned spaces” along borders and in remote areas of the hemisphere.

Under its new “Effective Sovereignty” security doctrine, the Southern Command aims to exercise control over “ungoverned spaces” and “spill-over” areas through joint military and intelligence operations with its partner nations. In his March 2003 remarks at the North-South Center, Southcom’s Gen. James Hill postulated that the terrorist threat “is a weed that is planted in the fertile ground of ungoverned spaces such as coastlines, rivers, and unpopulated border areas.” According to Hill, “this threat is watered with money from drugs, illegal arms sales, and human trafficking” and “respects neither geographical boundaries nor moral boundaries.”2

Although two sub-objectives under the category of sovereignty support remain classified, the other four amply illustrate the Pentagon’s highly intrusive form of guaranteeing the sovereignty of the region’s nations. Southcom will support “Andean Ridge nations in their efforts to establish dominion over ungoverned spaces,” will assist “PNs’ bordering countries in crisis to prevent ‘spill-over’ effects,” will “help Peru ensure that Sendero Liminoso does not reestablish itself,” and will “assist PNs who are suffering critical internal instability.”

The Southern Command’s goal of supporting combined operations covers nine sub-objectives, the first of which is enabling “PN capabilities to interdict illegal migrants.” This commitment to hemispheric security cooperation includes a determination to develop or improve regional information-sharing forums and capabilities, including the Cooperative Nations Information Exchange System, the Partner Nation Network, the Inter-American Naval Telecommunications Network, and the Combined Regional Information Exchange System, among others. Southcom also aims to promote “interoperability” among security forces in “unilateral/multilateral operations against terrorist organizations and other contingencies.” Military officials cite the special urgency of establishing interoperability among the armed forces of “ Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Paraguay, and Uruguay.”

The hemispheric cooperation objective also includes working with regional disaster relief organizations. Promoting “de-mining, environmental, and healthcare activities,” according to Southcom, supports “PN security forces efforts to promote an image of social responsibility.”

However, the deep structural problems that obstruct the hemisphere’s political, social, and economic progress are largely ignored. Both the Southern Command and the region’s militaries participate in nonmilitary missions to provide disaster assistance, humanitarian aid, and even some environmental protection programs, but the explicit objective of such programs has little to do with addressing structural issues or solving problems. Rather, as stated in the sub-objectives, the aim is to “improve the image” of Latin America’s armed forces.

Under the two main strategy objectives that are classified, Southcom does include the unclassified sub-objectives of promoting the “regionalization of the security of the Panama Canal” and supporting Argentina, Brazil, and Paraguay “in disrupting and destroying elicit [sic] terrorist networks that operate from the Tri-border Region.”

In Southcom’s view, the hemisphere includes rogue states. Its strategy to counter these unnamed rogue states includes two unclassified objectives: “Prevent the influence of countries that threaten U.S. and PN security interests” and “Pressure rogue states into abstaining from sponsoring and harboring terrorist fugitives.”

As part of its strategy to “maintain stable, democratically elected governments,” the U.S. Southern Command states that it will “assist PNs in establishing a National Military Strategy (NMS) and a National Security Strategy, which define security concerns that threatened stability and democracy.” Southcom also acknowledges its responsibility—as mandated by various congressional amendments to the DOD’s annual defense authorization bills—to encourage respect among Latin America’s security forces in order to enhance democratic governance and human rights. Other objectives include fostering cooperation among armed forces through the development of regional “security institutions and events” and working with PNs to promote collaborative responses to “common challenges.”

1) USSOUTHCOM Theater Security Command Strategy, August 13, 2004.

2) Remarks by James Hill, Commander of the U.S. Southern Command, North-South Center, March 3, 2003, at: http://www.globalsecurity.org/security/library/

Washington Struggles to Define Its Western Hemisphere Security Goals

In his testimony to Congress on March 2, 2005, Assistant Secretary of State Roger Noriega stated: “We cannot strengthen democratic institutions, promote a prosperous hemisphere, and invest in people without bolstering security.”3

What seems a reasonable assessment—one which the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations readily accepted—rests on three questionable assumptions that underline U.S. policy in the region:

1) U.S. security concerns are coincident with the security concerns of our Latin American and Caribbean neighbors;

2) Armed forces, both those of the United States and its “partner nations,” are the primary instruments for addressing security concerns;

3) The United States has the right and responsibility to involve itself in the internal safety and security issues of other nations.

Linking these assumptions together is an expansive definition of U.S. national security, not just in terms of its extensive geographical reach but also in terms of the “threats” that now come under the cover of security.

Since the George H.W. Bush administration (1989-93), U.S. national security strategy with respect to Latin America and the Caribbean has gone through multiple transitions. During the Cold War, evaluations of U.S. national security in the Western Hemisphere were almost exclusively linked to assessments of the advance of leftist political movements, popular organizations, and guerrilla forces. In the 1990s the U.S. Southern Command gradually began redefining its mission to include defense against what were described as “emerging” and “nontraditional” security threats, mainly drug trafficking. The 1989 Defense Authorization Act stated that the U.S. Defense Department should begin to play a major role in narcotics interdiction.

Whereas the geographical focus of Southcom and U.S. military strategy in general in the 1980s was Central America and to a lesser degree the Caribbean, by the late 1990s the Andean nations, particularly Colombia, had become the priority. At first, increased economic and military aid, logistical support for the armed forces, and the direct involvement of U.S. military, CIA, private contractors, the FBI, U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), and the Drug Enforcement administration (DEA) was predicated on a strictly defined mission to stop the production of illegal drugs at their source.

As drug policy moved to a central place in security policy, foreign economic policy seemed to overtake diplomacy and traditional foreign policy. In the 1990s, it was widely observed that the U.S. agencies responsible for international economic policy, such as the U.S. Trade Representative Office and the Commerce and Treasury Departments, would become the prime actors in U.S. foreign policy. In the interim decade—between the end of the Cold War and the onset of the war on terrorism—foreign policy increasingly became foreign economic policy.

Because trade and investment seemed the only path forward toward political and economic progress in the age of economic globalization, the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development were cut back, and the U.S. Information Agency (USIA) dismantled. At the same time, however, the U.S. military commands were steadily increasing their overseas roles in training foreign militaries, engaging in nation-building and humanitarian interventions, and assuming the lead position in the drug war and counterterrorism.4

With the State Department fading, the new directions in U.S. foreign and military policy during the 1990s set up the twin pillars of economic policy and military presence as the foundations of policy for the region. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the U.S. military became the primary face of U.S. foreign policy. With a team of more than 1100 officials in the region, Southcom became the main interlocutor of U.S. foreign and military policy in Latin America and the Caribbean, dwarfing the regional presence of the U.S. Commerce, Treasury, Agriculture, and State Department representatives.

By the latter half of President Clinton’s second term, the Pentagon and the executive branch began justifying the U.S. military mission in Latin America in more traditional terms, arguing that increased military aid and U.S. military presence in the region were needed not only as part of the drug war but also to support counterinsurgency programs against the “narcoguerrillas.”

In 2002 Congress approved a “mission expansion” for the U.S. Southern Command operations in Colombia. Aid and training formerly limited to counternarcotics operations could henceforth be used to combat “terrorism” in Colombia. Southcom officers and congressional budget requests now frame military aid as part of the war on terrorism, which in this hemisphere is largely waged against what U.S. military strategists call “narcoterrorists.”

As the guerrilla organizations in Colombia gained renewed momentum and public outcries about the U.S. drug problem continued to mount, Clinton put his weight behind a U.S. version of the Colombia-initiated Plan Colombia that prioritized counternarcotics aid to the country’s military and police. Proposed as a five-year plan that would wipe out the narcotics industry in Colombia—the main supplier of cocaine and heroin to U.S. consumers—the reworked Plan Colombia was launched in 2000 and has now come to the end of scheduled life.

But there’s little to show for it other than $3.8 billion in aid—80 percent which has been channeled to the military and police. After five years, Washington’s version of Plan Colombia cannot demonstrate any measurable progress in reducing supplies, raising prices, lowering the purity of illegal drugs that originate in Colombia, or even reducing coca production in this “source country.”

No matter. The Bush administration and the U.S. Southern Command have reaffirmed the war against “narcoterrorists.” In 2003 Southcom described its new priority as “to successfully prosecute the war on terrorism in its Area of Responsibility.” Reflecting the expansive definition of the Bush administration’s “global war on terrorism,” Southcom says it “combats terrorism primarily by supporting a determined Colombian government in their fight against narcoterrorist groups.”5


What’s New, What’s Different

The war on terrorism has replaced the Cold War as the U.S. government’s overarching framework for its foreign, economic, and military policy. While there are many similarities to U.S. Cold War and counterterrorism war policies in Latin America, there are also major differences.

Although the Cold War prism did distort U.S. relations with the region, it did not mean that U.S. foreign policy was exclusively focused on military and security matters. Especially following the Cuban Revolution of 1959, Washington recognized that U.S. economic and security interests in the region were not always best served by close ties with oligarchs and dictators.

In the 1960s the Alliance for Progress was, in essence, a counterinsurgency, counterrevolutionary program that included police and military training but that also initiated development programs that focused on alleviating social problems considered the breeding grounds for communism. During the Cold War in the Western Hemisphere, the Soviet Union or socialism weren’t regarded as the primary national security threats but rather endogenous political movements and popular organizations that were regarded as threats to U.S. hegemony and client regimes—no matter their legitimacy, democratic credentials, or level of grassroots support.

Yet in sharp contrast to current U.S. policy in Latin America, the Alliance for Progress realized that the challenge to U.S. hegemony was primarily political, not military. So, the U.S. government sought to have it both ways. At the same time it was maintaining its alliances with the military, political, and economic elites, the U.S. government was also fostering alliances with workers and peasants as part of a ham-handed attempt to address structural causes.

A priority for the Alliance for Progress was addressing the plight of poor rural producers on a continent that was still largely rural four decades ago. Through its land reform initiatives and support for peasant cooperatives, the Alliance for Progress did succeed in winning hearts and minds and unwittingly contributed to popular movements that contested state power.

By the late 1960s the U.S. government had mostly backed away from supporting reformism in Latin America and instead directly or indirectly supported “dirty wars” by military regimes threatened by the rise of socialist, social democratic, and popular movements, including leftist guerrilla forces. In South America, the armed forces were able to crush these movements—including the democratically elected government of Salvador Allende in Chile—without overt U.S. intervention. By the mid-1970s, and especially during the Carter administration (1977-81), concerns about the human rights violations by U.S. supported police and military sparked a spate of new restrictions on U.S. support to the region’s security forces and military regimes.

The pendulum swung back to more hard-line policies after 1979 when the leftist Sandinista coalition deposed U.S. ally Anastasio Somoza and guerrilla forces surged in Guatemala and El Salvador. Covert counterinsurgency and counterrevolutionary aid was supplemented by large flows of U.S. military and economic aid, as well as military training and intelligence and logistical support. While winning hearts and minds through food aid, pacification programs, and agrarian reform were still part of U.S. strategy, they were too closely linked to military efforts to be effective as pacification programs or to have any reformist impact.

During the Cold War, U.S. economic aid to the region substantially outpaced military aid flows. Today, however, U.S. economic aid and military aid are running about equal, as economic aid flows decline and military aid increases. No longer does U.S. economic aid support structural reforms (as it did in the 1960s) that favor the disadvantaged. To the contrary, only if recipient nations agree to structural reforms that benefit the capitalist sectors, particularly those in export businesses, are aid and trade agreements signed.

Another major difference is the new focus on regional cooperation and the interoperability of the region’s armed forces, whereas U.S. military aid was previously focused almost exclusively on bilateral collaboration. Although this new emphasis on U.S.-led cooperation stresses the central role of civilian and democratic political leadership, the various forms of this military-to-military cooperation—drug and migrant interdiction, counterterrorism, anti-gang campaigns, and forming strategies to meet common internal challenges to political stability—contribute to the reinforcement of the armed forces as the most powerful institutions in many Latin American countries.

The recent efforts to foster regional cooperation under military auspices not only builds ties among U.S. and regional military leaders but also brings nonmilitary sectors, such as public safety officials and police, into collaborative relations with the armed forces. This represents a reversal of national and international efforts over the past 15 years to remove law enforcement agencies from military control.

Another salient feature of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America that results from the primacy of the U.S. military role is its failure to prioritize human rights concerns—despite the fact that rhetoric about human rights and democracy is now a standard feature of Southcom declarations. Fortunately, Congress has resisted Bush administration attempts to remove all human rights conditionality on U.S. military programs in Latin America and elsewhere.

The administration has aimed to sideline human rights concerns in its defense authorization bills by specifying that the defense secretary may override human rights and other considerations if necessary to meeting security objectives. What’s more, the administration has dramatically cut the reporting requirements that formerly obligated the State Department and the Pentagon to ensure Congress that its human rights provisions were respected in practice.6

Similar to the security doctrine that guided the Cold War era in the region, Southcom points to a vague external threat to the national security of all nations. During the Cold War, the purported objective of the Soviet Union was to force or persuade countries to become part of the evil empire as colonies or satellites. Yet there was no evidence that the Soviet Union (or any other communist nations) had territorial ambitions beyond its near abroad or that its foreign policy was shaped by a strategy to gain global hegemony and militarily defeat capitalist powers.

Today, the external threat as described by Southcom is international terrorism. To a certain extent, the Latin American and Caribbean nations have accepted that international terrorism represents a threat to both their national and collective security. Immediately after Sept. 11, the Organization of American States (OAS) expressed its solidarity with the United States with a statement that committed member states to “deny terrorist groups the capacity to operate in this hemisphere.” At least in that instance, the OAS declared: “This American family stands united.”

In addition to positing a common external threat, the Pentagon—both during the Cold War and since September 11 th—has argued that the security forces of Latin America must also confront internal threats that are closely allied with the external ones. These range from narcoterrorists to criminal gangs to radical populists.

In Southcom’s view, terrorists are not just international terrorists that attack other nations and peoples but an array of internal actors as well that represent no discernible threat to the U.S. homeland. Painting a region-wide proliferation of terrorist threats, Southcom’s former commander Gen. James Hill declared: “Terrorists throughout the Southern Command’s area of responsibility bomb, murder, kidnap, traffic drugs, transfer arms, launder money, and smuggle human beings.”


New Views from Southcom

There’s no choice but to take seriously the national security perspective of those in charge, despite the delusional and deceptive characterization of our hemisphere’s “security.”

The “posture statements” of two Southcom commanders to the House Armed Services Committee in 2004 and 2005 are aptly named, as they seem to be little more than posturing by generals fighting imaginary wars in unknown territories. That such statements are taken seriously by congressional representatives in charge of the military budget is another sign that the U.S. national security has strayed dangerously far from reality in its assessments of the region.

A revealing look at how Southcom perceives security issues in Latin America and the Caribbean was provided by Gen. James Hill, Southcom’s former commander, in his “posture report” to Congress in March 2004.7 Hill alerted the House Armed Services Committee that in addition to the terrorist threats in the region, the security climate was also threatened by widening political and social instability.

According to Hill, the United States is facing two types of threats in the region: traditional and emerging. Leading the traditional threats are the “narcoterrorists and their ilk” followed by “a growing threat to law and order in partner nations from urban gangs and other illegal armed groups.”8

The central emerging threat, according to Hill, is “radical populism in which the democratic process is undermined to decrease rather than protect individual rights.” He claims that radical populists are emerging throughout the hemisphere and gaining in force by “tapping into deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected goods and services. By tapping into these frustrations, which run concurrently with frustrations caused by social and economic inequality, the leaders are able to reinforce radical positions by inflaming anti-U.S. sentiment.”

Current Southcom commander Lieutenant General Bantz J. Craddock blames the usual suspects—”anti-U.S., anti-globalization, and anti-free trade demagogues”—for political instability in the region. In the context of addressing regional security threats, Craddock said that these sectors that are “unwilling to shoulder the burden of participating in the democratic process and too impatient to undertake legitimate political action,” thus decide to “incite violence against their own governments and their own people.”

The solution, according to Craddock, is “building capabilities of the security forces of our region … because a secure environment is a non-negotiable foundation for a functioning civil society.” Asking for increased congressional budgetary support for Southcom in March 2005, Craddock warned: “We cannot afford to let Latin America and the Caribbean become a backwater of violent, inward-looking states that are cut off from the world around them by populist, authoritarian governments.”9

What was especially striking—and alarming—about Southcom’s description of emerging populism was that it was described not just as a new political phenomenon but as a U.S. national security threat. A similar description of populism by the U.S. Agency for International Development, Commerce Department, State Department, or Office of the U.S. Trade Representative might even be considered a positive sign that U.S. government was finally reflecting on the failure of its economic and political agendas in Latin America and the Caribbean. Instead, rising popular protest is being used to justify increasing levels of U.S. military and police aid to the region as well as to bolster the already considerable presence of the U.S. military.

Few would disagree with Southcom’s description of Latin American and the Caribbean as a region that is “generally marked by weak institutions and struggling economies,” and that “the resulting frailty of state control can lead to ungoverned or ill-governed spaces and people.” But there is good reason to question his conclusion that the U.S. Southern Command merits increased budgetary support to respond to traditional and emerging threats. According to Southcom, it is essential that the United States deepen “military to military contacts as a means of irrevocably institutionalizing the professional nature of those militaries with which we have worked so closely over the past several decades.”

General Craddock is not as outspoken as his predecessor but does have equally imaginative descriptions of national security threats emanating from Latin America. General Craddock told the Senate Armed Services Committee that his highest priority will be to “prosecute the war on terrorism in the Southcom’s Area of Responsibility.” Other priorities he listed in his July 2004 testimony included the need to “enhance regional security cooperation to counter transnational threats,” and to “closely coordinate in assisting partner nations’ efforts to address the threats they face in maintaining effective democracies.”

With regard to Colombia, and the neighboring “spill-over” countries of Venezuela, Ecuador, Peru, and Bolivia, the new Southcom commander told Congress that the terms “insurgents” and “guerrillas” are less applicable than they were a few years ago. He said he believes the “term narcoterrorists is more appropriate” given “the incredible financial support they get from illicit drug trafficking.”10

Never, however, does the Southcom leadership provide evidence for its claims that the two major guerrilla groups in Colombia are either international terrorists that threaten U.S. national security, or that they are involved in the “entire process of growing, processing, and trafficking illegal drugs.” Although there is no doubt that the guerrilla organizations do benefit from the illegal drug production, mainly from taxing the production and domestic transport of illicit drugs, there is little evidence that their activities have been absorbed by the major cartels involved in the transit and sale of cocaine on the international market.

Clearly, some Latin American guerrilla groups, including the ELN and FARC in Colombia, have committed terrorist acts. However, neither Southcom nor the U.S. government itself has made the case that they are international terrorists that threaten U.S. national security and the U.S. homeland.

Southcom has proved adept at integrating such issues as the interdiction of drugs and migrants into its defense mission, although oftentimes the military language to describe these “threats” is stretched beyond the limits of credibility. In the new context of the war on terrorism, Southcom’s Brigadier Gen. Benjamin Mixon told Congress: “We at the U.S. Southern Command view drugs and their movement into the United States as a weapon of mass destruction.”11 Given that illegal drugs are not just a source of social problems but more importantly a direct threat to U.S. national security in Southcom’s view—linked as they are the “narcoterrorists” populating the region and constituting a “weapon of mass destruction”—the U.S. military has become the lead actor in drug law enforcement throughout the region. What’s more they have encouraged and financed their military partners to embrace this mission proliferation.

But given the lack of extraterritorial security threats to the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean and the absence of national security threats to the United States coming from the region, it would be more appropriate to call for downsizing rather than expanding Southcom operations.

There is little doubt that political stability and personal security in the region is threatened by the rise of criminal gangs and international criminal syndicates. Although counterterrorism offers a politically appealing framework for increased U.S. aid and presence in the region, the U.S. government is wrong to conflate crime prevention with the war on terrorism. Moreover, neither the armed forces of the United States nor those of the Latin American nations are the most appropriate institutions to address what are public safety, not national security, issues. By contributing to the expansion of the mission of Latin American armed forces, the U.S. government is helping to ensure that the military remains a dangerously powerful institution in virtually all the nations of Latin America.

In his “posture statement” of April 2005, Craddock told the Armed Services Committee that Southcom aims to be “the recognized partner of choice and center of excellence for regional security affairs within a hemisphere of escalating importance; organized to defend the homeland and deter, dissuade, and defeat transnational threats; focused on achieving regional partnerships with nations to promote commitment to democratic values for human rights, territorial security and sovereignty, and collective regional security.”

His posture statement described the region seething with threats to U.S. national security, listing for the law makers the following “threats:” “transnational terrorism, narcoterrorism, illicit trafficking, forgery and money laundering, kidnapping, urban gangs, radical movements, natural disasters, and mass migration.” For each of these threats, Southcom has charted out a response as part of its “mission and vision” for its area of responsibility.

In his congressional testimony, Craddock asserted—and the committee apparently accepted—his assessment that “to understand the sources of instability and insecurity, it is helpful to categorize them as threats, which U.S. and partner nation security forces must actively combat in order to protect citizens and property” and as “challenges which complicate our cooperative security effort, and the underlying conditions of poverty, corruption, and inequality.” In his vision of a “cooperative security effort,” Craddock did not raise the possibility that U.S. “partner nation security forces” should also be involved in addressing similar “threats” with the United States.

Although threats and challenges to security abound, Craddock, as did his predecessor, to the House Armed Services Committee painted a glowing picture of the progress Southcom was making “to achieve U.S. strategic objectives,” glossing over facts familiar to even the most casual observer of Latin American and Caribbean affairs. The self-deception, delusion, and deceit of Southcom’s description of U.S.-Latin American security relations pervaded the posture statement. A few examples:


Southcom is supporting “Colombia’s successful prosecution” of its wars against terrorist organizations.

“Many of our partner nations … are threatened by regional terrorist organizations that are supported by and funded by illegal drug trafficking and other forms of criminal activities.”

“We have detected a number of Islamic Radical Group facilitators that continue to participate in fundraising and logistical support activities such as money laundering, document forgery, and illicit trafficking.”

“In performing our intelligence mission, we continue to emphasize the U.S. government’s commitment to treating detainees [at Guantanamo] humanely, and to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity, in a manner consistent with the principles of Geneva.”

Reality Check: There’s no evidence of “regional terrorist groups” with the exception of those in Colombia and they don’t threaten neighboring countries or the United States. Violent attacks, repression, and human rights abuses continue unabated in Colombia, and there is no sign that the joint U.S.-Colombian counterinsurgency operation is close to ending the decades-long civil war. Despite intense investigation, focused on the tri-border region where Argentina, Paraguay, and Brazil come together, there is no evidence that “Islamic Radical Groups” operate in the region. The human rights abuses and violation of international law at Guantanamo have been so outrageous that even congressional supporters of the war in Iraq are calling for the military to close down this international embarrassment.


Southcom is committed to “a broad-based interagency approach to dealing with Venezuela in order to encourage functioning democratic institutions.” It is working to “preserve gains in professionalizing and democratizing Latin American and Caribbean militaries.”

Southcom “has played a key role over the past 25 years” in fostering democratic transitions throughout the region.

Reality Check: Over the past quarter century, Southcom has forged close relations with death squads, authoritarian and military regimes, and armed forces implicated in consistent patterns of gross abuses of human rights, and has sided with elites against popular and democratic forces.

Drug War

Southcom “directly contributed to the seizure of 222 metric tons of cocaine.” Southcom has “made significant gains in attacking the illicit narcotics industry that provides nearly all of the world’s supply of cocaine and about half of the U.S. supply of heroin.”

“The eradication program in Colombia has had another record year.”

Reality Check: Despite six years of a multi-billion dollar drug war in the Andes, the region continues to supply the United States with a bounty of illegal drugs. The quality of drugs from this region remains high, and prices on the U.S. market have not increased—indicating a complete failure of the source-country strategy of decreasing illegal drug use in the United States. While drug eradication programs increase the number of acres of coca production destroyed, coca production in the region has not diminished.


“The rapid reaction of our troops and those of our partner nations saved the lives of innocent Haitians, prevented mass migration during a time of rough seas, and fostered regional and international cooperation to assist a nation in need.”

Reality Check: It is commonly accepted by both supporters and critics of U.S. policy in Haiti that the United States didn’t react quickly to the rise of political violence in Haiti. Instead, Washington aided the rebels by its refusal to support the Aristide government, and the subsequent and ongoing peacekeeping operations have failed to stop the political, economic, and social disintegration in Haiti.

National Security

“Southcom is providing substantial resources to this military campaign,” which has “been vital to the success of Colombian Plan Patriota efforts to date and will continue to be needed into the future.”

“The first combatants to demobilize are currently in the sunset phase of their demobilization and reintegration process and are ready to reintegrate themselves into Colombian society.”

The U.S.-supported Colombian Civil Affairs Program is “to develop policies and plans to ensure a coordinated and expeditious response that will reestablish government presence and services in territory reclaimed from narcoterrorists.”

Reality Check: The Plan Patriota campaign has stalled and has been discredited by a pattern of human rights abuses and the continued cooperation between the military and paramilitary units. The demobilization of the right-wing paramilitary armies has not been accompanied by a government commitment to try and prosecute those guilty of gross human rights abuses. The Colombian government has never had a presence in large parts of rural Colombia, and the new control has been accomplished by force and repression, setting the stage for yet another phase in the civil war.


Rumsfeld’s Latin America Security Agenda

The Pentagon and Southcom have adopted new language that is designed to construct a strategic bridge between the war on terrorism and its other security concerns in the region. Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Southcom officials are spinning out a new logic for U.S. interventionism in the region that rationalizes a new role for the U.S. military and the armed forces of partner nations in asserting “effective sovereignty” over “ungoverned territories” through U.S.-led joint operations.

During the November 2004 meeting of hemispheric defense ministers in Quito, Secretary Rumsfeld sketched out the distinguishing features of Washington’s revised “national security state” doctrine for Latin America. Although U.S. military aid and intervention in Latin America has long been criticized for associated human rights abuses, including massacres, death squads, and systematic torture by aid recipients, Rumsfeld spoke not a word about the need to respect human rights. Indeed, the U.S. delegation oppos

Last Updated on Sunday, 24 July 2005 10:18

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