(2,245 words, approximate reading time 8 minutes, 58 seconds)

At work, my title is “director for defense oversight.” Work is the Washington Office on Latin America, an effective, growing think-tank-advocacy-organization. It promotes human rights and democracy in U.S. policy toward the Western Hemisphere.

That means I pay attention to the whole region, not a single country. It means I focus on issues that concern the region’s security forces. This is a hemisphere of young democracies, many of them a generation out from military rule. These democracies all include institutions that carry guns and are authorized to use lethal force. I care about how these military, police, border, and intelligence forces get put to use. I care about what happens when they come in contact with populations. I care about how elected civilians manage to direct them, fund them, and hold them accountable. And I care about the role of the United States, by far the region’s number-one provider of military and police aid.

From that perspective, looking over the region from 30,000 feet as a new year approaches, here’s what I’m seeing.

Illiberal democracies

That’s the term (first coined by Fareed Zakaria 20 years ago) to describe populist leaders who maintain the forms of democracy, like regular elections, but are weakening checks and balances and eroding freedoms. Illiberal democrats are on the march in Latin America, and the U.S. role in countering them is uneven and uncertain. (And as countless commentators are pointing out, the United States itself is in a struggle to avoid becoming an illiberal democracy.)

Chávez-Maduro, Evo Morales, and Daniel Ortega are in that category, but so are non-leftists like Honduras’s Juan Orlando Hernández and candidates like Peru’s Keiko Fujimori or Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro. (I’m reserving judgment because he governed Mexico City in a technocratic fashion, but it’s easy to find analysts who’d add candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the list.)

Honduras, Chile, and Argentina just had recent presidential or legislative elections. Seven more countries are to have such elections next year, including four of the five largest (assuming Venezuela actually holds elections). Six more will hold presidential votes in 2019. Illiberal candidates will be prominent in some of these.

Honduras should have been a place to make an early stand against this wave of quasi-authoritarians. There, irregularities in voting benefited a pro-U.S. leader who has weakened checks and balances and created a personally loyal military police force. Here, the OAS got it. But the United States has dropped the ball in a big way.

Militaries as police

Throughout Latin America, armed forces play an internal role that would be unthinkable for the U.S. military at home, except in the worst of emergencies. Constitutions allow the armed forces to fight crime, supporting and even supplanting police. But because soldiers receive a different sort of training—the kind necessary to defeat an enemy with maximum force—countries have tended to use them sparingly on the streets.

That’s changing. Mexico’s passage of an internal security law reinforcing the military’s policing role was the most visible in a series of steps taken region-wide to give armed forces more internal security duties. 2017 saw moves in the same direction in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Venezuela, and I’ve got an eye on post-conflict Colombia. (Guatemala may be moving in the other direction.) Militaries behaving more like police are a “thing” in Latin America, and we have to start talking about it like the region-wide trend that it is.

At this rate, 20 years from now Latin America will be full of institutions that call themselves “armed forces”—and have military training and prerogatives—but in fact are national constabularies. De facto carabinieri or gendarmes. There are many risks associated with this. Soldiers, untrained to “protect and serve,” will use excessive force against populations who aren’t a military “enemy.” Soldiers will be just as susceptible to corruption, especially organized-crime corruption, as police. Governments will neglect crucial civilian police functions like community/hotspot policing, criminal investigations, non-abusive interrogation techniques, rules of evidence, and witness protection. And there will be politicization, especially by illiberal-populist leaders, of military hybrid forces mixed in with the population.

Along with policing, we’re also going to see more military involvement in crowd control. As armed forces play more internal roles, they’re going to be confronting more demonstrations, marches, sit-ins, road blockades, and similar. These will respond to corruption scandals, governments’ failures to fulfill promises, episodes of police brutality, land or resource disputes (especially around extractive industries), and disputed elections. Many of the most serious recent state abuses in the region come from tactics used by units charged with crowd control (Venezuela’s National Guard, Colombia’s police ESMAD, Honduras’s PMOP). Militaries’ training offers little guidance for maintaining the peace during these legitimate exercises of freedom of speech and association. Too often right now, forces engage protesters as though they were an enemy.

As the region’s main military aid provider, the United States must (breaking with a long history) discourage the increasing use of militaries as police. Posse comitatus, an 1878 law keeping the military out of internal security except in major emergencies, has served the United States well. We must maintain it at home, where some would give our military more border security, anti-drug, and counter-terror roles, and where some police units are coming to resemble militaries. And we should not aid military units carrying out policing in Latin America.

Confronting “legal” nodes on the transnational organized crime network

U.S. defense and security officials say that transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) are the main security threat in Latin America today. And they usually describe TCOs as a loose “network,” which is probably right. This leaderless, amorphous criminal network crosses borders and includes drug traffickers, migrant smugglers, insurgent groups, street gangs, and others who extort and kidnap at home, and move drugs, migrants, and potentially—some officials speculate—terrorists toward the United States.

TCOs are responsible for most abuses committed against civilians right now. Governments have a duty to protect people from them. Human rights groups monitor and denounce abuses that state forces commit when they do that. This is dangerous work.

Even more dangerous, though, is monitoring and denouncing state forces’ collusion with TCOs. Rights groups contend that TCOs get much of their power from the tacit or active support of people in government and other “legitimate” power centers. That can be the security forces, usually at a local level. It can also be local politicians, landowners, judicial officials, extractive industries, and others operating within “legality.”

There are two kinds of corruption: graft, like the Car Wash and La Línea scandals; and collusion with organized crime, like the Ayotzinapa or “para-politics” affairs. The first is a historic stain on Latin America’s politics. The second contributes to the deaths of thousands of people per year.

We see this collusion or acquiescence with TCOs, for instance, all along the cocaine transshipment chain: drug seizures are curiously scarce on land in Colombia’s Pacific coast, in Honduras, or in Mexican border states like Tamaulipas. (Local human rights advocates could tell you why, if they haven’t been obliterated already.) We know Brazil’s PCC owes much of its existence to corruption in the São Paulo police and prison system.

There are many more examples, but denouncing and documenting them are dangerous. Whistleblowers, human rights defenders, and judicial officials trying to do so should be upheld as the vanguard in the fight against TCOs. Too often, though, “counter-TCO” forces’ relationship with them is adversarial.

Worse, when the U.S. government considers a country to be “friendly,” it rarely talks about this dangerous organized-crime corruption. But we need to be talking about it.

Proving that peace processes are worth pursuing

An international diplomat involved in global peacemaking recently commented to me that insurgent groups involved in armed conflicts around the world are watching Colombia closely right now. They ask, did it make sense for the FARC to disarm first? Is Colombia’s government going to honor its commitments to protect them, reintegrate them, and guarantee transitional justice, political participation, and investment in the countryside? Or is the government going to, in effect, dash out of the restaurant without paying the check? If this happens, what consequences might the government suffer? And if there aren’t any, is a negotiated end to conflict even worth pursuing in their own countries?

Peace processes are messy. None has worked so well that other countries should emulate it exactly. Still, every one that has “stuck”—ended fighting and demobilized combatants—has been superior to the alternative of slogging through a stalemated conflict.

The question of whether it’s wiser to negotiate or keep fighting everywhere doesn’t exactly hang on what happens in Colombia. But the Colombian case will heavily influence how peace processes are regarded from now on. The prognosis is cloudy: with legislative and presidential elections and a growing elite backlash against the FARC accord, 2018 is going to be a strange and difficult year for Colombia’s peace effort.

I have urgent concerns about Colombia’s accord implementation right now: the government is running badly behind in many areas, and failing to fill territorial vacuums in historically FARC-influenced regions. But these concerns are not an argument to abandon the process. Instead, I worry that without more resources and political will—in Washington as well as in Bogotá—the accord won’t “stick.”

Governing ungoverned territories

Colombia’s formerly-FARC-influenced zones need a state presence. So does Peru’s Apurimac Ene and Mantaro Valley (VRAEM), home to what’s left of the Shining Path. Same for Honduras’s far eastern coast, where tons of cocaine shipments easily make landfall. The poppy-growing highlands of Guerrero, Mexico. Rio de Janeiro’s favelas and other urban slums region-wide. Remote border zones. The rapidly deforesting Amazon basin.

Areas like these are where most of Latin America’s violence happens. They are the drug trafficking corridors. They’re havens for armed groups. They’re where migrants get assaulted, rivers get poisoned, and gangs terrorize populations. They produce most illicit crops, most illicitly mined precious metals, and most illicitly logged timber. They’re where most migrants leave from, and where most small farmers, indigenous people, and Afro-Latinos are displaced from.

They’re places that governments haven’t bothered to govern. And when they have, it’s mostly been though a sporadic presence of uniformed, armed personnel and the occasional corrupt local political boss.

What is it going to take to get a functioning government presence into these territories? Colombia’s “Consolidation” program and Rio’s “Favela Pacification” effort both stumbled because they ended up being largely military/police affairs. For the most part, the rest of the government—and the basic services it provides—failed to show up.

How can future approaches go beyond security to provide roads, land titles, clean water, education, health, and a safety net? How can politicians be made to care about these territories even though they have so few voters and donors? How can local communities best be included in the plan, so it’s not just handed down from the center? How can the justice system guarantee that government representatives, once present in these zones, don’t engage in corruption and abuse human rights with impunity? How to make sure that people who live there will have the skills and resources to govern without a constant need for “outside experts?”

Colombia right now is where these issues are immediate. The FARC are off the map, offering a historic window of opportunity to bring government into vast territories without a fight. And the peace accord offers at least a rough blueprint for establishing what some in the Santos government call “territorial peace.” Anyone interested in the “governing ungoverned territories” question should keep a close eye on post-accord Colombia.

Ending unnecessary and large-scale human suffering caused by deliberate policies

That’s the best way I can think to describe this. Four phenomena come immediately to mind, in which deliberate action by humans in power is causing great harm to other humans:

  1. The Trump administration’s current immigration and border security policies, and the even worse ones it’s proposing. These deliberately seek to tear parents away from children, to deny protection to people fleeing for their lives, and to pack corporate-run detention centers with human beings.
  2. The Venezuelan government’s corrupt misrule. Children dying. Police executing thousands. Hunger, blackouts, shortages, and inflation. And any efforts at peaceful change thwarted.
  3. A drug policy that continues to pack prisons with low-level offenders, to penalize impoverished farmers for growing certain plants, and to artificially jack up products’ prices. The high prices go on to enrich criminals, who come to power by being more brutal than their rivals, or by being more effective at corrupting and undermining institutions.
  4. Any list of “suffering caused by deliberate policies” should also include human-caused climate change, which isn’t quite a regional defense issue right now, but could become one soon.

That’s a full enough list. It promises to be a tough year for my “defense oversight” work in Latin America. The exercise of writing this was helpful for me, though. Addressing challenges sometimes requires climbing to a higher perch, looking down, and naming them. That’s done now, at least in the rough-draft form of this post.