Adam Isacson

Defense, security, borders, migration, and human rights in Latin America and the United States. May not reflect my employer’s consensus view.



Sheridan Circle Today

Chile President Gabriel Boric right now in Washington’s Sheridan Circle, at today’s memorial of the 1976 state terrorist attack here that killed Orlando Letelier and Ronni Karpen Moffitt.

You Can’t Buy Prosperity With Murder

At the Financial Times, Martin Sandbu punches a hole in the myth that Gen. Augusto Pinochet’s long dictatorship (1973-1990) guided Chile’s economy to prosperity with a series of market-fundamentalist economic reforms.

“In terms of economic prosperity, the most generous description of the dictatorship’s achievement is ‘erratic,'” Sandbu writes, pointing out that the economy took nosedives in 1974-5 and 1982-3. By 1990, real GDP per capita was only slightly more than what it was in 1973.

The real prosperity came later, during Chile’s democratic period, averaging 4 percent per year from 1990 to 2010, as this masterfully named chart makes clear.

The Chilean Military’s Conspicuous Absence

Chilean Presidency photo

Yesterday, outside the La Moneda presidential palace in Santiago, Chilean President Gabriel Boric held a dignified commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the September 11, 1973 military coup that replaced elected president Salvador Allende with military dictator Gen. Augusto Pinochet.

No leader of Chile’s armed forces deigned to attend.

From Chile’s La Tercera, in an article entitled “The government’s frustrated attempt to involve the Armed Forces in the commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the coup”:

As an official activity, the Executive was expecting the presence of the Army, the Navy and the Air Force (Fach), but they did not arrive.

General Javier Iturriaga, commander in chief of the Army; Admiral Juan Andrés de la Maza, of the Navy; and the head of the Fach, Air General Hugo Rodríguez, were invited by the government to the ceremony in La Moneda, but all three, in unison, declined to attend.

The three branches of the Armed Forces excused themselves from attending, through the Ministry of Defense, to which they sent their refusal to participate in the event. When this ministry was consulted about the reasons given by the armed institutions, and about the specific absence, it did not mention them.

50 Years After the Pinochet Coup, Deep Divisions in Chile

At the 50th anniversary of Chile’s bloody military coup, the pollster CADEM found a nation that remains divided, at times sharply. Of Chileans surveyed:

  • 47% believe that September 11 is a relevant date, 13 points less than in June of this year, while 16% think that it is somewhat relevant and 35% (+13pts) that it is not very or not at all relevant.
  • 46% think that the coup was avoidable, compared to 51% who believe it was inevitable.
    • By political segment, 69% of those identified with the right say it was inevitable and 73% of those identified with the left believe it was avoidable.
  • Regarding responsibility for the coup, 44% believe that Augusto Pinochet and the Armed Forces are the main actors responsible for what happened on September 11, 1973, followed by Salvador Allende and the UP government, with 39%; leftist politicians, with 30%; the U.S. government, with 29%; businessmen and the media, with 19%; and right-wing politicians, with 17%.
  • 57% refer to the Pinochet government as a dictatorship, while 41% call it a military government.
  • 57% say that during Augusto Pinochet’s government human rights were systematically violated, 18% agree somewhat with that statement and 24% agree little or not at all.
  • Only 33% believe that justice has been done in cases of human rights violations committed during the dictatorship, compared to 25% who believe that some justice has been done and 41% who believe that little or none has been done.
  • 84% think that at present September 11 is a very or somewhat divisive issue.
  • Chileans consider that former presidents Michelle Bachelet and Sebastián Piñera are the figures who have collaborated most in making Chile a reconciled country, with 53% and 52% respectively.
    • Meanwhile, only 36% see collaboration from the Army, 33% from President Boric, 31% from José Antonio Kast and the Republican Party, 24% from the Frente Amplio and 23% from the Communist Party.
  • 75% consider that September 11 is a date that should be remembered so that human rights are never again violated in Chile, but at the same time 60% think that it should be left in the past.
  • In the case of military prisoners for human rights crimes who are seriously or terminally ill, 60% think that they should not have benefits and should serve their sentences regardless of their age or health.

At least there’s some rhetorical consensus here:

  • For 95% it is important that all political sectors, left and right, commit themselves to democracy and respect for human rights.

Chile votes

Chilean voters in May 2021: *electing mostly left-leaning members to Constitutional assembly* “Go write a new constitution.”

Constitutional assembly: *writes a left-leaning constitution*

Chilean voters now: “No, not like that.”

Links From the Last Month About: Civil-Military Relations in Latin America



  • Colombia’s Congress is nearing approval of a transitional justice system to try war crimes committed during the long conflict with the FARC, as envisioned in the peace accords. Retired Colombian generals are pushing hard to guarantee that this law waters down the definition of “command responsibility” for war crimes They want language that allows former commanders to claim that they did not have effective control over troops who committed atrocities. Although this low standard might run afoul of the International Criminal Court, the bill that passed the Colombian Senate on March 13 included it.
  • As part of Colombia’s post-conflict transition, the Nudo de Paramillo Joint Task Force, a 4,500-person unit in northwestern Colombia, is to become a “Stabilization and Consolidation Command” focusing more on economic development projects, like building roads, than on combat.


  • President Rafael Correa abruptly fired Army Chief Gen. Luis Castro, after the general made public comments implying that soldiers were impeded from controlling the “chain of custody” of ballots cast in the February 19 first-round presidential election. (The military plays a leading role in election logistics in Ecuador.) Gen. Castro’s comments cast doubt on the integrity of voting, which yielded an 11 percentage-point margin—but not a majority—to Correa’s former vice president and political ally, Lenín Moreno.
  • Gen. Castro was the fourth top-ranked military leader whom Correa has fired in the past year amid deteriorating civil-military relations.


  • While on a trip to the United States, Mexico’s leftist frontrunner for the 2018 presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, repeated a charge—made by many of the victims’ families—that Mexico’s Army was involved in the 2014 Ayotzinapa massacre of 43 student teachers in Iguala, Guerrero. This earned him attacks from Interior Minister Miguel Ángel Osorio Chong, who is one of the most likely choices to oppose López Abrader as the ruling PRI party’s 2018 candidate.
  • President Enrique Peña Nieto continued to direct highest praise at the armed forces, calling them “the institution of institutions” whose members devote their “body and soul.”
  • Human rights lawyer Juan Méndez, who as UN special rapporteur on torture had some tense exchanges with Mexican officials in 2015, returned to the country in mid-March. While there, he called on Mexico to reduce the armed forces’ participation in public security functions.
  • “We’re not going to pull out” of crimefighting in the streets, Mexican Defense Minister Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos said. “It’s the people who don’t want us to go, and it is an order from the President of the Republic.”
  • Indeed, when asked, “Whom would you prefer to have guarding the streets, the Police or the Army?” Mexican respondents to a Parametría poll went with 60 percent Army, 20 percent “neither,” and 18 percent Police. That 60 percent for the Army is down from 66 percent in 2008.
  • Gen. Cienfuegos is actively supporting a draft Internal Security Law that will make permanent the Mexican armed forces’ internal crimefighting role. A movement of NGOs calling itself #SeguridadSinGuerra (“Security Without War”) has formed to oppose this fundamental policy change.
  • In Culiacán, the capital of Mexico’s violence-riven state of Sinaloa, state and municipal police held a protest march to demand the federal military police force’s removal from the state. They criticized the soldiers for not acting until they receive explicit orders, and for “hindering” local police.
  • A contributor to Small Wars Journal believes that Mexico’s Marines, which play a large internal crime-fighting role, are “a modern military force postured to defeat hybrid threats.”
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