Adam Isacson

Still trying to understand Latin America, my own country, and why so few consequences are intended. These views are not necessarily my employer’s.

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Civil-Military Relations

Bukele’s gang crackdown has imprisoned nearly 1 percent of El Salvador’s population

In March, after a violent weekend likely caused by a secret truce’s breakdown, El Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele declared all-out war on the country’s MS-13 gang.

This isn’t the first time a Salvadoran president has announced a “mano dura” (iron fist) policy against MS-13, Barrio 18 and other gangs that have made daily life in El Salvador dangerous for a generation. But Bukele’s campaign is the broadest and most indiscriminate.

As of late August, over 51,800 people had been arrested and jailed since March 26 when, in a 3:00 AM meeting with security officials, Bukele gave an order for sweeping arrests. Every day, families surround one of the country’s main prisons, awaiting news about loved ones seized off the streets or even from their homes, as Jonathan Blitzer detailed in a September 5 New Yorker profile of Bukele.

A September 12 investigation by the Salvadoran daily La Prensa Gráfica includes new information about the draconian policy’s origins. “They told us to go that very day and capture all the MS gang members that were identified. They told us: you have to bring in the heads of the gang; you have to touch the gang’s finances. The order was to surround them, to surround their family members, their acquaintances,” an official present at the March 26 meeting said.

The police chiefs were told that they would not have to “worry about the Attorney General’s Office.” According to the sources, the instruction, which was later passed on to all active police officers in the country, was that “the Attorney General’s Office is going to receive the MS gang members that we send them. Without much proof.”

There was no officer or anyone in that room who did not know that they were asking us to go against the law, but that was the order: to bring this to an end,” said one of the sources.

“During the state of emergency, the military performs public security tasks, an assignment that the Salvadoran Constitution gives only to the police,” reads the caption of this image from La Prensa Gráfica photojournalist Luis Martínez.

This is not entirely a police operation. El Salvador’s military, a significant recipient of U.S. military aid, plays a robust role as well. The initial 3:00AM meeting “was not attended by Armed Forces commanders,” La Prensa Gráfica reported, but “military and police officials consulted said that they received orders at another meeting called by Minister Merino Monroy,” referring to the country’s defense minister, René Francis Merino Monroy, an active-duty vice-admiral.

A veteran police agent told La Prensa Gráfica:

This state of emergency has been the first time that he has seen, for example, soldiers patrolling on their own, soldiers detaining civilians, with the freedom to act as if they knew anything about public security tasks. The Minister of Defense has assured that some 18,000 military operatives are carrying out tasks that the Salvadoran Constitution entrusts to the PNC [Civilian National Police].

The newspaper’s investigation continues:

To date, human rights organizations in El Salvador have counted more than 3,000 complaints of human rights violations for the same number of detainees under the state of emergency. The cases analyzed for this investigation confirm a common denominator: the Attorney General’s Office, more than 150 days later, is still unable to prove the gang membership of hundreds of detainees, and in dozens of cases the link between the detainees and these structures is based on informants, the “public voice,” or supposed police records of the detainees, about whom the same arrest records indicate that they had no criminal record or records in databases.

Today, “In El Salvador, having tattoos, being drunk, acting nervous or just looking suspicious are enough reason for police to arrest people.”

If Brazil goes “January 6,” what will its military do?

Brazil’s first-round presidential election is just over three weeks away (October 2). A consensus view is that right-populist President Jair Bolsonaro, who trails former president Luis Inacio Lula da Silva in every poll, will reject the result if he doesn’t win, setting up Brazil for a sort of January 6 scenario.

If that happens, what will Brazil’s military do? The country’s powerful armed forces ceded power and allowed civilian rule less than 40 years ago, in 1985, and many officers are believed to be admirers of Bolsonaro, a former army captain. A 2021 decree allowed active-duty officers to hold public office. Bolsonaro pushed to give the armed forces a role in detecting possible electoral fraud vulnerabilities, and the officers on a special “election transparency commission” reported finding some.

Few foresee a military coup. But it’s not clear whether the high command will go along with other undemocratic behavior.

Here are a few things that journalists and analysts have said this week in English-language media, as Bolsonaro headed some very politicized Independence Day celebrations on September 7.

Miguel Lago of Columbia University at the New York Times:

There’s a lot we don’t know about how that might come about. But it’s clear that if a contingent of supporters, armed and determined to keep Mr. Bolsonaro in power, burst into Brasília, the capital, it would create chaos. In many major cities, it’s not impossible to imagine an insurrection led by police forces — while truck drivers, overwhelmingly pro-Bolsonaro, could block the roads as they did in 2018, creating havoc. Evangelical pastors, whose congregants by large margins support the president, could bless those efforts as part of the fight for good against evil. Out of such anarchy, Mr. Bolsonaro could forge dictatorial order.

Who will stop him? Probably not the army. Mr. Bolsonaro, after all, has many supporters in the military and over 6,000 military personnel working in his government, filling civilian roles. For its part, the army seems to be relatively relaxed about a possible takeover and has — to put it mildly — no special attachment to democracy. There is no sign, as far as can be seen, that the armed forces could be protagonists of a coup. But neither is there a sign that they would resist an attempt at revolution.

Marcia Reverdosa and Rodrigo Pedroso at CNN:

[Guilherme Casarões, professor of political science at Getulio Vargas University and coordinator of Brazil’s Far Right Observatory] told CNN that that he foresees a “real risk” of a Jan. 6-type event in Brazil if Bolsonaro’s leftwing rival, Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, eventually claims victory at the polls.

“I don’t think we’re going to have a coup in the classic sense with the military on the street, like what happened in 1964,” he said, referring to the historic overthrow that led to two decades of military dictatorship in Brazil.

What I think is more likely to happen is an attempted coup, some kind of subversion of democracy … or any attempt to delay the electoral process by introducing doubts about the legitimacy of the process.”

Agence France Presse:

“There’s not the slightest chance (the military) will play any role outside the one established in the constitution,” said reserve general Maynard Santa Rosa, former secretary for strategic affairs under Bolsonaro.

Even though Bolsonaro enjoys close ties with top military figures, such as Defense Minister Paulo Sergio Nogueira, and has picked former defense minister Walter Braga Netto as his running mate, Fico, the military history expert [Carlos Fico, a military history expert at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro], said those two “have no troops under their command.”

“There is no generalized movement by active duty service members worried about verifying the electronic voting system,” he said.

Fico added that any election-related unrest from the security forces was more likely to come from the police, a group “very influenced by ‘Bolsonaro-ism.'”

John Otis at National Public Radio:

Bolsonaro has not clearly stated whether he would leave office peacefully if he loses. If Bolsonaro is defeated by Lula, then tries to cling to power, analysts say he would lean on the military for support. And some of his supporters are OK with that.

…Fears that the armed forces will intervene in the event of a Lula victory have also been fueled by Bolsonaro’s close ties to the armed forces. He’s a former army captain. His running mate is a retired general, while his government is filled with ex-military officers. Meanwhile, Bolsonaro has spent the past year bad-mouthing Brazil’s electronic voting system and claiming that the military should help oversee the vote count. What’s more, authorities recently raided the homes of several Brazilian businessmen who, in text messages, appeared to back a military coup to keep Bolsonaro in power. But some Bolsonaro supporters on the beach, like Patricia Monerat, claim that would never happen.

At Razón Pública: Iván Velásquez, ministro de Defensa: por qué y para qué

The Colombian publication Razón Pública today published a new piece by me about the defense and security challenges the country is facing, six days before it swears in a new president. That president will be the first leftist politician in Colombia’s modern history, and his choice to lead the Defense Ministry, Iván Velásquez, is one of Latin America’s best-known anti-corruption fighters.

I argue here that Velásquez is a good choice because he at least stands a credible chance of making progress on three urgent security priorities:

  • Combating corruption within the officer corps;
  • Increasing government presence in abandoned marginal rural areas where armed groups and coca thrive; and
  • Deeply reforming and civilianizing the police.

We’ll be adapting some of the language in this column for a WOLA commentary later this week, which will have an English version.

Reuters: In Brazil, Biden’s defense chief to call on region’s militaries to respect democracy

From Reuters today:

U.S. President Joe Biden’s defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, is expected to call on militaries to respect democracy at an Americas-wide defense gathering this week in Brazil, a senior U.S. defense official said.

Those expected remarks – while not specifically directed at Brazil – are likely to turn heads there ahead of its Oct. 2 election, where Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro formally launched his re-election bid on Sunday by saying “the Army is on our side.”

This is the right, and really the only possible, move. Otherwise, a Defense Ministerial meeting in Brazil just 68 days before the presidential election risks appearing like a commercial for Bolsonaro.

The Wrong Man at the Wrong Time

After about 2 1/2 years, the commander of Colombia’s army, Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro, is leaving. This is not a bad thing. His exit is long overdue.

Why overdue? I can’t speak to the corruption allegations President-Elect Gustavo Petro hints at here, in a June 25 interview with Colombia’s Cambio magazine.

Rather, Gen. Zapateiro has been most problematic because of his public messaging on human rights and civil-military relations.

The General posted this charming tweet, a video of slithering snakes, the day after Colombia’s transitional justice tribunal (the Special Jurisdiction for Peace, JEP) published findings that the armed forces had killed 6,402 civilians between 2002 and 2008, falsely counting most victims as armed-group members killed in combat.

The investigators and JEP personnel denouncing “false positives,” you see, were reptiles.

Here’s the General, at one of the most intense moments of Colombia’s 2021 National Strike protests, calling the feared ESMAD riot police “heroes in black,” urging them to “keep working in the same manner that you have been.” At the time, the ESMAD were killing many protesters, and maiming dozens more.

Following a March 2022 raid in which soldiers likely killed at least 4 non-combatants, the General said, “This isn’t the first operation in which pregnant women and minors get killed.”

When candidate Petro, on Twitter, accused officers of colluding w/ the neo-paramilitary Gulf Clan, the General made a highly irregular foray into electoral politics, reviving an accusation that Petro had taken a cash bribe (charges were dropped in 2021).

Gen. Eduardo Zapateiro sent damaging messages on human rights. His public statements made the armed forces appear improperly aligned with a specific political ideology.

Meanwhile, Colombia’s insecurity measures worsened, and armed groups proliferated. So no, I won’t miss him.

Military-to-Military Relations with Mexico on Twitter

Even as Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador boycotts the Summit of the Americas, knocking the bilateral diplomatic relationship further sideways, the U.S.-Mexico military-to-military relationship seems to be all hugs and smiles—judging.

That’s the impression you get, at least, looking at these tweets posted over the past 3 weeks.

Video: “New Militarism in Latin America?”

(In Spanish) This was a very good 2-panel seminar, recorded on April 21 and hosted by Spain’s Fundación Carolina.

Some of Latin America’s smartest analysts of the current moment in civil-military relations. And also me, talking about the U.S. role over a slideshow, with my New Jersey Spanish accent.

Does this actually work?

A sound truck drives slowly through a neighborhood in a small city in west-central Colombia. A soldier aboard plays a recorded audio message, jacked in from his phone, encouraging members of armed groups to turn themselves in and demobilize.

This seems like an empty exercise. These messages, broadcast by radio, may sometimes work on homesick guerrilla recruits in remote jungle encampments, convincing them to disarm. But in the middle of a population center like Chaparral, Tolima, any armed-group members are likely to be un-uniformed and mixed in with the population. The promise of returning to one’s home and family, who are probably right there in town, doesn’t make particular sense.

What we know about the March 28, 2022 military raid in Putumayo, Colombia

A new analysis at colombiapeace.org tries to explain in English what looks like a serious case of human rights abuse committed by a U.S.-aided military unit in the part of Colombia where “Plan Colombia” began 21 years ago.

The Guardian called it a “botched army raid.” An Indigenous group called it a “massacre.” The commander of Colombia’s army insisted that it took place “with strictest observance of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

Early on the morning of March 28, dozens of people were gathered in a communal space in the town of Alto Remanso, near the Ecuador border in Colombia’s southern department of Putumayo. They had been partying all night, the ground littered with beer cans. Speakers were still blasting music. It was the third day of a community “bazaar,” a festival to raise money to pave a nearby stretch of dirt road.

Just after 7:00 AM, shots rang out. Community members say that men dressed in black, shouting “we’re not the security forces,” fired at the gathering. Some people at the bazaar—almost certainly members of an ex-FARC dissident group active in the area—returned fire. Shooting continued for at least an hour and a half. At that point, helicopters arrived, and the townspeople were shocked to find out that the black-clad invaders were Colombian soldiers.

The piece addresses 14 questions:

  • What happened?
  • What was the human toll of the operation?
  • Were those killed combatants, or civilians?
  • What is the security situation in Putumayo?
  • Do the military units involved receive U.S. aid?
  • Did this operation violate International Humanitarian Law?
  • Did the soldiers wear black outfits and say they weren’t the Army?
  • Did the Army delay or deny urgent medical assistance?
  • Was the scene tampered with?
  • What happened to the money and the whiskey?
  • Are credible investigations happening?
  • What is the humanitarian situation now for community residents?
  • What does this mean for politics and civil-military relations in Colombia?

Read it here.

The growing, and dangerous, politicization of Colombia’s security forces

Here’s translated English of a brief Twitter thread from Sandra Borda, a political science professor at Bogotá’s Universidad de los Andes, which sounds right to me.

  1. The security forces’ problem is one of civilian leadership: a government that encourages abuses against the citizenry to exercise control, and is incapable of preventing or at least sanctioning misconduct for the sake of keeping the military and police on its side, is a government responsible for every outrage.
  2. Uribismo has politicized the security forces in order to use it as an extension of their campaigning, to place them on their side and against those who they perceive to be their enemies. The continuity of this policy, at the direction of their candidate, is a threat to democracy.
  3. The project that we must seek is one of security forces that are on citizens’ side, and not on the side of a particular political project; a professional force that the people trust. This is the only way to keep us safe. We need leadership, not complicity.

During the past four years in Colombia, the current military and police leadership’s identification with the country’s main right-wing party has gone hand in hand with an increase in human rights abuse events.

This should worry the U.S. government, which continues to invest heavily in its relationship with Colombia’s security forces. The danger is that this investment evolves into an investment in one particular party’s worldview, one that I don’t believe most officials in the Biden administration share.

Lecture video on Latin America’s militaries

Here’s video of a full-length lecture I gave (virtually) two weeks ago, on November 15, at Syracuse University’s Moynihan Center. It’s called “Beyond ‘Soldiers as Police’: The Military’s Growing Role in 21st Century Latin American Democracies.” With no strict time limit, I got to go through:

  • the region’s post-1980s transitions to democracy,
  • the subsequent move to use soldiers as police,
  • how ineffective that turned out to be against organized crime,
  • increased politicization of militaries starting circa 2018-19,
  • how this overlays with authoritarian populist leaders,
  • how the pandemic affects all this,
  • use of militaries for crowd control, and
  • where this might all be headed.

VIew it below, or at Syracuse University’s site.

The United States’ Influence on Latin America’s New Militarism

At WOLA’s website, find the English version of an article I wrote for Spain’s Fundación Carolina, which published it on November 16, 2021 as Análisis Carolina no. 28: “Estados Unidos y su influencia en el nuevo militarismo latinoamericano” (https://doi.org/10.33960/AC_28.2021).

Summary: U.S. military assistance has long encouraged armed forces to take on internal roles, complicating civil-military relations. This kind of aid declined, however, during the post-cold war period, as the U.S. “wars” on drugs, terror, and organized crime brought reduced, more focused aid and some reluctance to expand military roles. The U.S. pullback from encouraging militarization may be reversing in the 2020s, though, as Washington’s defense strategy shifts to great-power competition. We can expect more U.S. military support for governments that work with the United States and deny access to China and others. This may happen even if recipient governments are authoritarian-trending and use their militaries internally to confront “hybrid threats” within the population. Avoiding this outcome will require the United States to do more to protect and support the region’s increasingly vibrant, but often misunderstood, civil society.

Read the whole thing at WOLA’s website. O lea el español en el sitio de la Fundación Carolina.

Video of today’s event on militaries and the war on drugs

Congratulations to my colleagues in WOLA’s Drug Policy Program for organizing this successful October 29 event to discuss how nearly 40 years of counter-drug missions have distorted civil-military relations in the region. I was honored to be able to participate on this panel, covering U.S. military assistance.

Book chapter on U.S. policy and Latin American civil-military relations

The Friedrich Ebert Foundation (FES) just published a new book (free PDF in Spanish) about the current state of civil-military relations in Latin America. It’s edited by a longtime expert in the field, Wolf Grabendorff, and has a who’s-who of experts writing about how the civil-military balance has been shifting in the countries they cover.

I’m pleased to have contributed a region-wide chapter discussing how recent U.S. policy has impacted civil-military relations.

I find that, in fact, U.S. influence has been reduced: military aid is down, the Obama administration actually took steps to minimize harm, and the Trump administration left most things on autopilot for four years. Still, some U.S. agencies have continued to send inappropriate messages, and the United States remains by far the largest supplier of security assistance to the hemisphere.

I drafted the chapter in August-September 2020, when we didn’t know who would be elected president here. Despite that detail, the chapter holds up: it’s not like U.S. security policy toward the region has changed that drastically since January.

Why does Honduras have a military in 2021?

U.S. Southern Command’s online magazine yesterday ran an interview with the general who heads the Honduran armed forces’ Joint Chiefs of Staff. The article is headlined “Honduran Armed Forces in the Fight Against Crime.”

Gen. Tito Moreno lists the following missions currently occupying his military:

  • fighting against organized crime
  • fighting against narcotrafficking
  • fighting against common crime
  • aerial drug interdiction and “destruction of clandestine landing areas”
  • countering illicit activities in border areas
  • rescuing people in cases of natural disaster

Honduras, a poor and unequal country that Freedom House classifies as “partly free,” maintains a military at no small cost in resources ($280 million in 2017), human rights, and political involvement. But do any of these roles require the maintenance of a military?

  • fighting against organized crime or narcotrafficking: military tactics only necessary if the country has allowed the situation to deteriorate to the extent to which civilian police are “outgunned”
  • fighting against common crime: this is the foundational role of a civilian police force, and is not a military role
  • aerial drug interdiction: could be performed by either an air force or a police air wing
  • countering illicit activities in border areas: elsewhere, frequently performed by police, civilian border patrols or gendarmes
  • natural disaster search and rescue: could be performed by a civilian emergency corps, though militaries are often the only institution with inactive assets, like helicopters and personnel, that can be “surged” in a disaster

Notably missing from Gen. Moreno’s list is “defending against external aggression” or “combating internal insurgents.” That makes sense, since Honduras faces no credible scenarios in either category right now.

“The Honduran armed forces are still undergoing a crisis of identity and cannot decide whether their role is to defend territorial sovereignty and integrity, protect the state from real or fictitious threats, or else continue performing law-enforcement duties,” the most cited of Honduran civil-military analysts, Leticia Salomón, wrote in 2012, three years after a coup in which Honduras’s military played a central role. The above list indicates that nothing has changed since then.

Two of Honduras’s neighbors, Costa Rica and Panama (which both have Freedom House scores as high—or higher—than that of the United States), confront these threats with police forces that are better trained and resourced than Honduras’s. While those forces have units that occasionally use heavier weapons, particularly near coasts and borders, they retain their civilian character and are not significant political actors.

The interview at Southcom’s magazine fails to make the case for maintaining a military in a small country like Honduras, with few traditional defense threats and enormous development and democratic deficits.

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