Adam Isacson

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

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Civil-Military Relations

Rocío San Miguel, now a political prisoner, discusses politicization of Venezuela’s military in 2010

I don’t get to work on Venezuela very often, but I did get to record a conversation in 2010 with activist and civil-military relations expert Rocío San Miguel. Here’s an excerpt where we discussed the military’s politicization.

Rocío was arrested last Friday in Caracas. Authorities are accusing her of terrorism and treason, which is as horrifying as it is absurd.

Civil-Military Relations in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

As part of Ecuador’s crackdown on organized crime, the armed forces have intervened in 17 prisons, with troops still present in 10 of them.

Troops are also stationed along highways, at airports, and at 10 Pacific seaports.

In coming months, Ecuadorians will vote on this referendum question: “Do you agree with allowing the complementary support of the Armed Forces in the functions of the National Police to combat organized crime, partially reforming the Constitution?”

After his tumultuous January 14 swearing-in, Guatemala’s reformist president, Bernardo Arévalo, swore in a new high command and paid respectful visits to the country’s Army and Navy. Arévalo, who as an academic had published at least seven books about security and Guatemala’s army, said that the Army will continue in its role of supporting civilian security forces against organized crime.

The Arévalo government promoted four female army officers to command positions in non-combat units.

In Argentina, new president Javier Milei followed the December firing of 22 Army generals with the forced retirement of 16 Navy admirals—more than half of all officers of that rank.

Milei’s budget cuts include nonpayment of installments of a previously promised raise for military officers. Under current pay scales, Pagina12 reported, an army general earns about US$350 per month less than a police commissioner.

Security Minister Patricia Bullrich said that the Milei government is working on a plan to deepen the armed forces’ support for police in border security and fighting organized crime. Since its transition to democracy, Argentina has been reluctant to give the military new internal civilian security roles.

Mexico’s Supreme Court had ruled last year that, contrary to President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s wishes, the country’s new National Guard must not remain under the command of its defense ministry (SEDENA). López Obrador called two of the justices “traitors.”

As of January 1, the Guard was to come under the security ministry (SSPC). A January 6, 2024 document circulated to guardsmen challenged the Court, stating that while the National Guard is under the SSPC’s “operational” command, it remains under SEDENA’s “administrative” command.

On February 5 President López Obrador submitted a series of proposed legal reforms, among them a constitutional amendment that would place the National Guard under SEDENA’s control.

A military court has now released from pre-trial detention 13 of 16 Mexican Army soldiers who allegedly carried out an extrajudicial execution of five civilians in May 2023 in Nuevo Laredo. The incident was caught on video.

Eight of thirteen Mexican military personnel allegedly linked to the 2014 forced disappearance of 43 students in Iguala, Guerrero will be released, as a federal judge lifted their pre-trial detention.

A hard-hitting report from the Guerrero-based NGO Tlachinollan documents how President López Obrador has sought to exonerate the military of the disappearance of 43 Ayotzinapa teacher’s college students, adopting and promoting the armed forces’ version of events.

Armed with sticks, stones, and machetes, residents of rural Chicomuselo, Chiapas, blocked Mexico’s military from entering their communities, demanding that the armed forces first evict organized crime from nearby areas that they already occupy. Communities in the region have been forcibly displacing to escape violent competition between Jalisco and Sinaloa cartel fighters.

In late January, the Venezuelan NGO Control Ciudadano called on the government to modify a 9-year-old decree authorizing the military to use deadly force to control demonstrations. The organization also called for due process after the late-January demotion and expulsion of 33 military personnel on allegations of “conspiracy.”

On February 9, authorities detained the organization’s director, Rocío San Miguel, in the Caracas airport. As of this writing, her whereabouts are unknown.

A judge in Colombia ruled that retired Army Col. Jorge Armando Pérez Amézquita is guilty of ordering the murder of a demobilized FARC guerrilla, Dímar Pérez, in the Catatumbo region, in a high-profile 2019 case.

Colombia’s Marines swore in their first 60 female members following three months of training.

The former commander of Chile’s armed forces, Gen. Ricardo Martínez, voiced gratitude to ex-president Sebastián Piñera for having listened to his advice and abstained from sending the military into the streets to confront protesters in 2019. “I will always be grateful to him for not having taken the Armed Forces out of it, because we were not in favor of it.” Piñera died in a helicopter crash on February 6.

Along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, federal Border Patrol agents have had their access to part of the border blocked by National Guardsmen—trained soldiers whose patches say “U.S. Army” on them, but currently at the command of Gov. Greg Abbott (R). Some are calling on President Joe Biden to “federalize” the Texas National Guard, taking them out of Abbott’s command. In an analysis, Joseph Nunn of the Brennan Center for Justice acknowledged that doing so “would certainly pass legal muster” but should be an absolute last resort.

Civil-Military Relations in the Americas: Some Links from the Past Month

Following the January 9 wave of criminal attacks and violence throughout Ecuador, President Daniel Noboa has declared a state of “internal conflict” and has deployed soldiers throughout the nation’s streets. Some experts warn that using soldiers as police on a long-term or semi-permanent basis threatens human rights, weakens democratic civil-military relations, and hasn’t worked against organized crime in most places that it has been tried. Noboa’s move, though, is popular as citizens deal with the shock of the January 9 attacks.

Argentina‘s new president, Javier Milei, forced at least 23 of the country’s 35 active generals into retirement, the largest purge since the country’s 1983 transition to democracy. Milei is moving fast to move the armed forces into policing and public security roles, which would reverse reforms of the country’s democratic transition and of the Kirchner presidency of the 2000s. Milei and his security minister, Patricia Bullrich, are pointing to the violence in Ecuador to justify their push to militarize policing.

Mexico‘s Proceso magazine found that military personnel assigned to the country’s new National Guard have been embroiled in many cases of indiscipline, including attacks on fellow personnel and alcohol and drug use. Morale appears to be low among soldiers whom the López Obrador government has assigned to be super-policemen: army and navy sources say that “there is excessive stress in the National Guard because the elements are forced to perform functions that are not theirs, and for which they are not prepared, since they only received four weeks’ training, which is insufficient to be in charge of public security. In addition, most of them have junior high school or high school as their highest level of education.” President Andrés Manuel López Obrador continues to seek legislative ways to place the National Guard under the military’s command, despite a Supreme Court decision stopping that from happening.

Mexico relaunched Mexicana Airlines on December 26 with a flight from Mexico City to Tulum. The airline is now fully controlled by the country’s armed forces.

A team of researchers from Mexico City’s Universidad Autónoma Metropolitana published a book contending that the National Guard is being deployed to put down community protests against extractive economic projects like logging and mining.

Peruvian President Dina Boluarte named a new armed forces chief. When he headed Peru‘s army, Gen. David Ojeda repeatedly sought to avoid testifying before prosecutors investigating abuses committed during a wave of protests against Boluarte’s late 2022 arrival in power. Gen. Ojeda reportedly referred to the protests as “subversive social violence.”

The head of Honduras‘s Military Public Order Police (PMOP), which has been tasked with managing prisons, called for a purge of the institution after a military prison director in El Paraíso was caught trying to bring in cash to hand out to inmates who belong to the Barrio 18 gang.

Reporteros de Investigación profiled retired Honduran colonel Elías Melgar Urbina, who “has held several hats in Xiomara Castro’s government,” including some related to the military and human rights, despite serious allegations of past involvement in human rights abuse.

Eight judges in Colombia‘s military justice system have been fired in just over a year due to alleged corruption.

Colombian President Gustavo Petro left generals confused by several last-minute changes to end-of-year promotion lists and unit assignments.

Bolivia‘s Congress was once again unable to approve a list of senior military and police promotions. Opposition legislators claim that the list is politicized.

La Tercera interviewed Gen. Paula Carrasco, an air force officer who is now the first woman to reach the rank of general in Chile‘s armed forces.

“Latin America’s armed forces are no longer irrelevant,” which increases the still mostly remote possibility of inter-state conflict in the Americas, the Economist contended.

At the Latin America Advisor: “Can Ecuador’s Next President Make the Country Safer?”

Thanks to the Inter-American Dialogue for the opportunity to contribute to their Latin America Advisor publication, in which they seek input from a few people about a current question.

The question this week was about Ecuador: “Ecuadorean President-elect Daniel Noboa, who takes office next Thursday, has raised the possibility of using the military to fight drug traffickers and has said he would call for a referendum on the subject within his first 100 days in office. Noboa is taking office in the midst of a surge in narcotrafficking and violence, which has led the homicide rate to soar. Why has outgoing President Guillermo Lasso been unable to curb violence and the homicide rate, and what must Noboa do differently? Will voters approve using the military to fight drug traffickers? What challenges will Noboa face in improving security given that his term lasts only 18 months?”

My response:

“It’s hard to think of other jurisdictions where violent crime rates increased sixfold in just four years, but that is what has happened in once-peaceful Ecuador. Outgoing President Guillermo Lasso, who governed during the pandemic and a chaotic post-FARC realignment of Colombia’s trafficking networks, lacked the institutional tools to respond to criminal violence, which originated in prisons and along trafficking routes but has since metastasized. Like Lasso, Daniel Noboa now must address the challenge while able to employ only his government’s weak, neglected, corruption-riven security sector. Under those circumstances, sending in the military to fight crime may seem like an attractive option. But there are very few examples in the hemisphere of violent crime declining significantly after troop deployments, and many examples of such deployments increasing human rights abuses. Unlike insurgencies, organized crime is an ‘enemy’ that prefers not to fight the government. It operates by penetrating and corrupting the same state institutions that are supposed to be fighting it. That makes organized crime a far more challenging adversary, requiring a smarter approach than brute force. Instead of troops, Ecuador needs the capacity to identify criminal masterminds, track financial flows, respond to violence ‘hotspots,’ improve response times, support community-level violence initiatives, weed out corrupt officials and many other duties that an adequately resourced civilian security sector performs. Noboa has issued vague proposals to fill some of those long-term institutional needs. The concern is that he may neglect these—which do not yield short-term results—in favor of a military response, which offers the illusion of action and carries big human rights risks.”

A Political Stunt Falls Flat at the Border

In July, the Republican governor of Virginia, a swing state far from the U.S.-Mexico border, sent a contingent of 100 state National Guard troops to Texas to support Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) border-security clampdown known as “Operation Lone Star.” The troops went, Youngkin said, to combat the “fentanyl crisis.”

Anybody who looks at data could have told Youngkin that 89 percent of fentanyl along the border gets seized at the official border crossings, not in the wide-open areas between the crossings, where his guardsmen were on duty. We also could have told Youngkin that the overwhelming majority of fentanyl is crossing in California and Arizona, not Texas.

But the Governor sent the troops, and off they went to Eagle Pass, at a cost of $2 million over 3 weeks.

And unsurprisingly, over the course of their deployment, they encountered exactly zero shipments of fentanyl.

That’s a finding of the news team at the local Washington, DC NBC TV affiliate. Reporters filed an open-records request with the state of Virginia and obtained daily “situation reports” and other documents from the deployment.

The guardsmen did see 6,717 people they described as “illegal immigrants” and referred 1,834 to the federal Border Patrol. This isn’t surprising, as several hundred migrants per day have been crossing in Eagle Pass, seeking to turn themselves in to apply for asylum. You can stand by the riverbank there and see migrants, too.

After several days, a “commander’s assessment” document noted “a weakening of the deterrent effect of our Soldiers and Airmen.” Migrants, seeking to turn themselves in anyway, were ignoring commands to turn back.

Troublingly, NBC reported that the internal reports showed “conflict over Virginia’s policy to withhold water to migrants.” Texas has ordered Operation Lone Star guardsmen not only to block and turn back asylum seekers already on U.S. soil, which violates federal law and the Refugee Convention. It also has ordered them to refuse water and other assistance to migrants on the riverbank, held back by Texas’s concertina wire and troops, even in 100-degree heat, even when those migrants are families with children. The reports reveal some “conflict” over Virginia’s enforcement of this inhumane policy.

The tactical impact of Virginia’s National Guard deployment was zero. The impact on morale and readiness was likely negative. But Governor Youngkin got to travel to downtown Eagle Pass for a photo op (his office provides a page of media-ready high-res photos), so there’s that.

Delaying Tactics Threaten Justice in March 2022 Colombian Military Massacre Case

In March 2022, Colombia’s Army staged an early-morning attack on a large, hung-over gathering of participants in a “community bazaar”—including a few armed-group members, who fired back—in a rural zone of Putumayo, in the country’s south. The soldiers killed several civilians, including a pregnant woman and an Indigenous community leader.

Top defense officials in the government of President Iván Duque insisted that the troops did nothing wrong and that no human rights or international humanitarian law violations took place. Colombian journalistic investigations found otherwise.

Colombia’s civilian Chief Prosecutor’s Office (Fiscalía) looked into the case, and agreed with the journalists. The Colombian magazine Cambio reported on August 20:

the Prosecutor’s Office deployed an interdisciplinary team that included ballistics experts, forensic doctors, topographers and prosecutors from its Human Rights Unit. The material collected, as CAMBIO was able to verify, reveals that the indigenous governor Pablo Paduro died as a result of a rifle shot by one of the uniformed officers and that the weapon found near his body was never fired or manipulated by him, but was planted on him with the intention of diverting the investigation. In addition, there is incontestable evidence: the dead were 11 and the weapons found were 5, so at least 6 of them did not have the means to shoot at the Army.

The prosecutors, though, are being held up by delaying tactics. Defense attorneys for the accused military personnel made a last-minute appeal to have the case heard in Colombia’s military justice system. The military system is meant for disciplinary infractions (“acts of service”), not human rights abuses; when it does get jurisdiction over a crime against civilians, it almost never convicts. For such cases, it is an impunity factory.

Cambio explained the legal machinations:

The indictment hearing was scheduled for the first days of August, but in an unexpected decision, the 106th judge of Military Criminal Instruction of Puerto Leguízamo [Putumayo] accepted the request of the soldiers’ lawyers and sent the process to the Constitutional Court to resolve a jurisdictional conflict. The judge’s decision has been criticized because a month after the operation, in May 2022, the same Military Criminal Court sent the process to the Prosecutor’s Office, arguing that the possible human rights violations could not be considered acts of service.

The Constitutional Court has yet to decide whether the Alto Remanso massacre case will go to the military justice system, where justice is unlikely, or the civilian system, where prosecutors and investigators have done thorough work and are ready to go. Colleagues at Human Rights Watch just sent an amicus brief to the Constitutional Court asking it to slap down the military attorneys’ gambit, and move the case back to the civilian justice system.

The military attorneys may be happy just to run out the clock. Cambio warns, “For now, the legal process is suspended and waiting for the Constitutional Court to define the conflict of competences. The clock is ticking, and the ghost of the statute of limitations’ expiration is haunting the investigators’ work.”

The Constitutional Court must act quickly.

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.

Promo Video for Today’s WOLA Mexico Podcast

As I noted earlier today, I recorded a great podcast yesterday with the director of WOLA’s Mexico program, Stephanie Brewer. It’s about a report they published last week about the growing power of Mexico’s armed forces, and how hard it is to hold them accountable for human rights abuse even as they confront, and arrest, thousands of people per year while carrying out policing missions.

Here’s WOLA’s podcast landing page. And here’s the podcast, embedded:

WOLA Podcast on Mexico: “Demilitarization is not going to happen from one day to the next. But there needs to be that commitment”

I recorded a great podcast yesterday with the director of WOLA’s Mexico program, Stephanie Brewer. It’s about a report they published last week about the growing power of Mexico’s armed forces, and how hard it is to hold them accountable for human rights abuse even as they confront, and arrest, thousands of people per year while carrying out policing missions.

Here’s the language from WOLA’s podcast landing page.

A new report from WOLA dives deeply into the growing power and roles of Mexico’s military, and what that means for human rights, democracy, and U.S.-Mexico relations.

WOLA’s Mexico Program published Militarized Transformation: Human Rights and Democratic Controls in a Context of Increasing Militarization in Mexico on September 6. The report voices alarm about the Mexican armed forces’ growing list of civilian tasks, and civilians’ diminishing ability to hold military personnel accountable for human rights abuse and other illegal behavior.

In some new findings, Militarized Transformation reveals official data showing that the military isn’t even reporting its arrests of civilians to civilian security authorities and oversight bodies. The report updates and group together various indicators regarding the justice system and respect for fundamental rights by the security forces, with a focus on the armed forces and the National Guard, as well as the differentiated impacts and situations faced by women. And it makes a series of short-term and long-term recommendations for needed reforms.

This podcast episode features the report’s principal author, Stephanie Brewer, WOLA’s director for Mexico. Brewer discusses the report’s main findings, conclusions, and recommendations, along with a general view of Mexico’s democracy, civil-military relations, and U.S. policy.

“We recognize militarization is is the reality we’re currently working in,” Brewer concludes. “But while that’s going on, what possible reason could there be for the country to want the armed forces not to be operating under effective civilian control or not to be transparent about things like their use of force? Or not to be fully giving information to Congress? That would have to be something that that is in everybody’s interest in the short term.”

Download the podcast .mp3 file here. Listen to WOLA’s Latin America Today podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, iHeartRadio, or wherever you subscribe to podcasts. The main feed is here.

Militarized Transformation is the latest of several WOLA reports examining the military’s growing power in Mexico and its human rights and democracy implications. Among them:

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.

Mexico Now Deploys More Soldiers than Police for Public Security

“The Mexican government is giving more and more power to institutions known precisely for their lack of transparency, and it is doing so without adequate civilian controls, in a process that will be difficult to reverse,” warns a report published today by my colleagues in WOLA’s Mexico Program.

Ernesto López Portillo of the Universidad Iberoamericana Citizen Security Program, writing at Elefante Blanco, echoed those concerns:

The total operational deployment of military personnel for public security in 2023 exceeds the total number of state and municipal police. The news is unprecedented in contemporary Mexico.

…The total operational deployment of military personnel for public security already amounts to 261,644, while state and municipal police forces total 251,760.

Military extrajudicial executions in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico

Mexico’s investigative magazine Zeta calls the border city of Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, “the capital of extrajudicial executions.” It lists a series of severe recent misuse of force incidents there, most involving the armed forces:

  • May 18, 2023: A video shows that, contrary to the Army’s version of events, soldiers shot and killed five men, following a confrontation and pursuit, after they had already been captured and disarmed.
  • February 26, 2023: Soldiers, shooting 80 times, killed five men following a pursuit.
  • August 31, 2022: Soldiers open fire on a vehicle and kill a four-year-old girl on board. A friend of Heidi Mariana’s mother was taking her to the hospital to treat a stomachache.
  • February 7, 2021: Soldiers in an Army truck blocked a private vehicle and opened fire, killing one aboard and wounding two.
  • July 3, 2020: Following a shootout, after soldiers overtook their assailants’ vehicles, they fired on the vehicles, killing all aboard—including kidnap victims whom the assailants were transporting.
  • March-May 2018: Mexican marines arbitrarily detained and disappeared 27 people in Nuevo Laredo. The bodies of 12 have been found, dumped.
  • September 5, 2009: An elite state police unit (Centro de Análisis, Inteligencia y Estudios de Tamaulipas) killed five men and three women. The police allegedly removed the victims from their homes, killed them, and posed the bodies in “northeast cartel” vests around a pickup truck with handmade armor to simulate combat.

Zeta published a table with 16 examples of extrajudicial executions going back to 1995. Seven took place in Nuevo Laredo.

Despite very heavy military involvement in public security, Nuevo Laredo continues to be one of the most dangerous and organized crime-dominated places in Mexico. (See my discussion of what we saw in Nuevo Laredo during a March 2022 WOLA border visit.) Things are so bad that U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) is not even granting appointments for asylum seekers using the “CBP One” smartphone app across the river in Laredo, Texas.

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