Through a Freedom of Information Act request, we obtained (heavily redacted) reports detailing U.S. Special Operations Forces’ training deployments around the world. (Reports since 2014 are here; earlier ones are at Security Assistance Monitor.)
This allowed me to update a table that ran in an August 2016 WOLA commentary about these trainings in Latin America. That piece voiced some of our concerns about this Defense Department-run training program, known as Joint Combined Exchange Training or JCET.
JCET, carried out by U.S. Special Operations Forces (elite units like Green Berets or Navy SEALs), is secretive. It barely seems to involve U.S. diplomats. It seems to lack much consideration of its impact on human rights, its effect on host-countries’ civil-military relations, or its congruence with the recipient security forces’ actual needs. (Many of us learned about JCETs for the first time in a groundbreaking 1998 Washington Post series, which spelled out these concerns.)
Our updated table of JCET training deployments in Latin America is at the top (click it for a more readable spreadsheet). I was surprised to find a sharp drop in these trainings in 2015 and 2016. Both years were below the 2007-2016 average, and 2016 saw the second-fewest JCET deployments of the past 10 years.
But this doesn’t mean that Special Operations Forces are visiting Latin America less often. The 2016 Defense Department report makes that clear (my emphasis):
“The total number of events executed in FY 2016 represented a 22 percent decrease from those executed the previous year. Despite this, the overall level of SOF [Special Operations Forces] engagements in the USSOUTHCOM AOR [U.S. Southern Command Area of Operations] increased due to other SOF training and operational support.”
What is this “other training and operational support”? Probably Defense Department counter-drug aid. JCETs, which usually pay for training in non-drug-related skills, may be getting less emphasis in favor of an aid program that the Defense Department may employ if the training’s mission can be construed as combating drug trafficking or transnational criminal organizations (TCOs).
If a “counter-drug” or “counter-TCO” nexus exists, the Defense Department can pay for Special Forces training that is very similar to JCET—but it may do so using its much larger budget for counter-drug and counter-transnational organized crime assistance. This account provides roughly US$300 million in assistance to the Western Hemisphere each year. Right now, Congress does not require that the Pentagon report on this program in the same way: while we can see dollar amounts by country and category, there is no unclassified listing of Special Forces trainings.
The JCET report, then, isn’t capturing everything or even explaining the trends properly. If U.S. Special Forces teams are spending more time in Latin America—as the report’s text asserts—you can’t tell where they’re visiting if they’re not paying for it with the JCET program.
The table above, meanwhile, seems to show some abrupt shifts in priorities. El Salvador, Honduras, and Colombia, the top three countries between 2007 and 2014, saw no JCETs in 2016. The Defense Department report notes:
“In FY 2016, in response to changes in the operational environment, U.S. SOF shifted the focus of a significant portion of the JCET program from Central America to partner nations in the Caribbean—primarily the Dominican Republic and Trinidad and Tobago.”
But it doesn’t explain what those environmental changes were (at a time when Central America was becoming, if anything, less secure), or why Colombia fell off.
Again, the shift might not be as abrupt as it looks. It’s possible that the Defense Department is now funding Special Operations Forces training in Colombia and Central America through its counter-drug account instead of JCET. The trainers may be there in similar or larger numbers, but we can’t say right now how often that is happening.