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

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.

The hyper-politicized Honduran military

Here’s the great Leticia Salomón of the Centro de Documentación de Honduras, who has been studying Honduran civil-military relations since the 1980s, excerpted in criterio.hn’s coverage of a conference:

“The 2009 coup d’état opened the door for the military to leave the barracks and invade political space, but the National Party [of President Juan Orlando Hernández] turned the military into an armed wing of the governing party,” said sociologist Leticia Salomón during a forum held Tuesday on the anti-military struggle of Berta Cáceres.

Moreover, President Juan Orlando Hernández “in his legal and illegal presidential terms” turned them into “guardians of a personal political project impregnated with corruption and drug trafficking,” the sociologist also said at the virtual event organized by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation and the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (Copinh) with the participation of analysts from Honduras, Guatemala and the United States.

The military are also “executioners” of a new version of the “old enemy”, as the defenders of territory and resources are seen, who must be “fought, imprisoned or killed.”

Salomón reflected that “it seems that the old positions of the 80’s are always being revived and that they are there hidden, dormant and always ready to come out at any moment to regain space and to try to impose a vision that is extremely harmful and damaging for the country.”

This reconceptualization of the “old enemy” introduces the concept of criminalization, which has three components. The first, the military and police ready to repress; the second, churches and the media ideologizing the conflict “and introducing a Manichean vision” that turns into good and evil those who are fighting for or against the defense of territories and resources; and the third, the use of the justice system against defenders, in which prosecutors and judges play a fundamental role.

These three instances became the executors of “a conservative, repressive, Manichean and anti-democratic political project”, and explain the role of the military who have specific functions, which, in addition, “they carry out with great enthusiasm”, said the sociologist.

Leticia Salomón (from Criterio).

…”The great challenge is to identify who, how, and when will begin the dismantling of this political project and its replacement by another that is capable of recovering sovereignty over the territories, reestablishing a rule of law at the service of national interests, restoring respect for life, for the defenders of resources, and for the defenders of defenders,” Leticia Salomón also said in her message.

She considered that it is necessary to rethink a different model of armed forces and police, and to give “a gigantic shake-up to the justice system” to restore confidence and eliminate the feeling of defenselessness “in which we all find ourselves”.

…Finally, the sociologist reflected that Berta’s anti-militarist struggle, and that of all those who have been carrying it out in recent years, should not only be encouraged and remembered, but should be instilled as an urgent and necessary demand for change in Honduras.

WOLA podcast—Mexico: the meaning of the Cienfuegos case

Whether you’ve been following this absolutely ridiculous chapter in U.S.-Mexico relations, or whether this is new to you, I recommend this conversation with my newest colleague at WOLA, Mexico and Migrant Rights Director Stephanie Brewer.

The .mp3 file is here. The podcast feed is here. And here’s the text from WOLA’s podcast landing page:

As the Biden administration takes the reins of U.S. foreign policy, relations with Mexico are in an unusually turbulent period. In October, U.S. agents arrested Mexico’s previous defense secretary, Gen. Salvador Cienfuegos, in the Los Angeles airport. He had been indicted for allegedly working with narcotraffickers. but after an intense pressure campaign by the Mexican government, the Justice Department dropped the charges and let the General return to Mexico. On January 14, Mexico’s chief prosecutor dropped all charges and investigations against Cienfuegos. Then, the Mexican government put the DEA’s evidence file on the internet. Meanwhile, Mexico passed a law putting strict curbs on what U.S. security and counter-drug agents can do in the country.

The Cienfuegos case tells us a lot about the power of Mexico’s military, the independence of its new chief prosecutor, and the near future of the U.S.-Mexico relationship. To explain all of this, we’re joined by WOLA’s new director for Mexico and Migrant rights, Stephanie Brewer. Stephanie also published an explainer brief about the Cienfuegos case on January 19.

Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

What happened in the United States, and the danger of politicized security forces

Here’s the original English text of an article I contributed to Fonte Segura, a newsletter produced by Brazil’s Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública and Analítica Comunicação. It offers some warnings and lessons, for Brazil and elsewhere, from the January 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol. It borrows a few sentences of language from my January 11 e-mail newsletter update, but is otherwise original material.

On the afternoon of January 6, as television images showed a mob of Donald Trump’s supporters entering and ransacking the U.S. Capitol building, my first thought—the first thought of many Americans—was: where are the security forces?

A thin line of U.S. Capitol Police (the force that protects the installations of the U.S. Congress), not outfitted for crowd control, was quickly overwhelmed. For far too long—hours—a few hundred Washington, DC city police were the only other law enforcement personnel to arrive on the scene.

The United States has been rigorously preparing and drilling its law enforcement forces to deal with attacks and disturbances since September 11, 2001. Off-the-shelf interagency plans exist. Tens of billions have been spent on new capabilities to protect federal government facilities and monuments. Displays of force and caution are so common that the term “security theater” is now part of the American vernacular. We all saw, in response to the June 2020 racial justice protests following the murder of George Floyd, the remarkable and intimidating capability that U.S. law enforcement, both local and federal, can muster. In one night in Washington—June 1, 2020—police arrested 289 mostly peaceful “Black Lives Matter” protesters.

On January 6, though, when the protesters were mostly white and egged on by a sitting president, the deployment was far smaller, and agents were not initially equipped with riot gear. Capitol Police arrested only 13 people during the day of the rampage; Washington municipal police arrested 69 more.

The U.S. Congress’s Capitol Police force had seemed formidable. Though it only protects a neighborhood-sized area, its force of 2,000 officers has a half-billion-dollar budget, greater than that of the armed forces of Guatemala. They give an impression of being a thorough force that controls its territory on a micro level, known for scolding tourists for minor transgressions and arresting peaceful protesters, while mobilizing quickly when a threat arises.

But the force fell apart rapidly and spectacularly on January 6, and investigators are trying to figure out why. Clearly, a small but not insignificant number of Capitol Police officers shared sympathies with the pro-Trump rioters and were complicit, allowing them to enter the Capitol grounds and posing for selfies.

That’s of huge concern, and must be punished to the maximum criminal penalty. But the complicity of some doesn’t explain the failure: some Capitol police performed heroically to stop or divert the rioters. One died and more than 50 were injured.

The more urgent unanswered question is why the force received so little backup, so slowly, from a presidential administration that has been quick to contain other recent protests by deploying border agents, DEA agents, Bureau of Prisons personnel, and Army National Guardsmen. Barricaded in rooms with the mob just outside, congressional leaders and even Vice President Pence (who had been presiding the Senate) were calling urgently for help. Why did it take hours to come?

We now know that President Trump spent those hours glued to the television, appearing delighted at the spectacle and unwilling to call in security. Capitol security leadership and the U.S. Departments of Homeland Security and Defense have spent days engaging in finger-pointing, blaming each other for not responding, or for not making requests “the right way.” But the message the delay left is clear. Federal security forces’ management—and especially the Trump appointees at Homeland Security and Defense who were in charge of anticipating this situation, preparing, and calling for National Guard and other backup—either felt affinity with the rioters’ cause or are stunningly incompetent.

The United States’ legislative branch doesn’t have its own army. It just has the unexpectedly weak Capitol Police. It must depend on the executive branch for protection. We never realized before that this dependency was dangerous. January 6 shows how important that norm is. Ignore it—leave another branch of government vulnerable to mob attack—and everything falls apart if there’s no accountability. That’s why we obey democratic norms: because if we don’t, then nothing matters. We plunge into the abyss.

In the United States, for now at least, the norms have held. Congress made Joe Biden’s election victory official. The U.S. military remained loyal to the constitution, even as some in law enforcement seemed more loyal to the president. Donald Trump is now being impeached, even as he leaves office, for his role in enabling the January 6 insurrection—and the high-level delay in calling for more security will certainly be considered during his Senate trial.

The non-response to the mob attack on the Capitol shows the danger of politicized security forces. Nearly everywhere in the world, security force memberships tend to be conservative men with strong social biases. How to keep them apolitical while on the job, from being instrumentalized by an authoritarian leader, is a common challenge.

It means de-politicizing our law enforcement agencies. This starts by removing commanders and officials who are more loyal to a political leader than to the constitution.

It also means returning to an ethic of service, actively fighting against an encroaching “us versus them” mentality. Too often, officers view themselves as a “thin blue line” guarding against an entire sector of society. As the wildly uneven response to recent U.S. protests indicates, that sector to be guarded against tends to be racial minorities and people who hold left-of-center political views. In the United States, those who hold this “thin blue line” view even have a flag depicting it. This is toxic.

Brazil is in a similar situation. It, too, has an authoritarian populist president who heaps praise on, and seeks to instrumentalize, the security forces. The country’s 2022 election promises to be very close. When it happens, Jair Bolsonaro and his supporters’ tendency to deny reality could lead them, like Trump, to dispute the result of the voting. If something like that happens, what role will Brazil’s security forces play?

Authoritarian populist leaders have been gaining ground worldwide, and there are very few examples of one being defeated in an election before he could consolidate his dominion over institutions. The United States, though, is doing it. It’s not pretty—January 6 could hardly be uglier—but democratic institutions are holding. As one of the world’s very few “post-populist” democracies, the United States could end up being an even stronger example of functioning democracy than before.

There is much work to do, especially with our law enforcement agencies. But if the United States succeeds, it will hold up a light for countries, like Brazil, that remain under the the spell of 21st century “post-truth” elected authoritarians.

A video archive about late 2020 civil-military relations, covering 11 Latin American countries

After a very successful event today, we now have, on WOLA’s YouTube page, four hours of discussions of the current moment with premier experts in civil-military relations from 11 Latin American countries. It’s in two parts: today’s discussion, and an earlier one, with a similar format, hosted in September.

Taken together, they are a tremendous resource for understanding this uneasy, precarious moment in the hemisphere’s politics and democratic transitions (or reversions). Sort of like two focus groups taking the pulse of things, shared with the public.

This is raw video in Spanish, though. Some audiences, like busy policymakers with competing commitments and responsibilities, won’t watch all of it. We need to repackage it, perhaps in a variety of formats. I need to figure out over the holidays how best to do that.

In the meantime, though, here are the event videos, which are really worth your time. In reverse chronological order:

Today’s video (December 11), covering Bolivia, Dominican Republic, Guatemala, Honduras, and Peru.
Our September 11 event, covering Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Uruguay.
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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.