The Trump White House sent Congress its 2020 foreign aid request on Monday, and boy is it grim. It’s never going to become law—the steep cuts it proposes will be opposed by both Republicans and Democrats. But it’s still terrifying to see such destructive radicalism coming from an entire branch of the U.S. government.
Not so fast. There’s almost nothing new here. And there’s no new grant aid here. The Washington Post’s Kevin Sieff and Mary Beth Sheridan get it right:
Of the total $10.6 billion referenced in Tuesday’s announcement, it appears the only new figure is the $4.5 billion in potential loans, loan guarantees and related services through OPIC. That money would facilitate private-sector activity and would be repaid, unlike traditional development assistance through USAID
“OPIC” is the Overseas Private Investment Corporation, a federal agency that provides loans and loan guarantees to private enterprises seeking to make investments in developing countries. The additional money is loans, not aid. It all has to be paid back.
And they’re loans to the private sector—which are not going to address root causes of mass migration from Central America. They won’t reform police, fight corruption, fix justice systems, or anything else that makes threatened people safer from gangs. Private sector loans are hugely unlikely to help struggling small farmers in the Northern Triangle’s countryside. (Unless they choose to leave the countryside and get low-wage jobs in OPIC-financed factories.) These loans will mainly help a tiny elite get wealthier in one of the most unequal regions on the planet.
Here’s how it breaks down:
The $2.1 billion in grant aid listed here is all old money, already committed for 2015 through 2018. Except for $180 million, which is what the Trump administration proposes here in grant aid to Central America for 2019. If approved, that would be a two-thirds cut in 2015-18 aid levels!
It won’t be: for 2019 the House approved $595 million for Central America, and the Senate $515.5 million. If Congress ever passes a 2019 foreign aid budget, it’ll end up giving Central America a multiple of the $180 million proposed here, to help address the causes of migration.
So this is an aid cut and a repackaging of already-given aid and loans, masquerading as a historically generous “Marshall Plan.” Don’t fall for it. And resist this level of cynicism.
I was disappointed to see Guatemala’s military—which had briefly taken a reformist direction—aggressively, enthusiastically supporting President Jimmy Morales’s crackdown on the CICIG anti-corruption body. WOLA has just posted a piece I wrote about that. What’s happened with Guatemala’s army since August 31 obliterates a few halting steps that it had taken toward being a credible, accountable institution. It brings back the bad old days.
In the widest-angle photo available online of Morales’s defiant August 31 announcement, 75 people appear in the frame, including Morales. Sixty-eight of them are in uniform; at least fifteen wear the maroon beret of the Army’s feared Kaibiles Special Forces. The clear message: the high command supports Morales’s move against the CICIG in the strongest terms. Sixty officers standing behind the president is more than just checking a box to comply with an order from the commander in chief.
Even more blatant was a show of military force outside CICIG’s headquarters on the morning of the 31st. A convoy of military transport vehicles, helmeted gunners poised at their machine-gun turrets, drove through the CICIG’s prosperous, well-guarded Guatemala City neighborhood and circulated several times around its offices. Vehicles pulled up outside the U.S. embassy and those of other countries known to support CICIG, and near the homes and offices of prominent human rights defenders.
These vehicles were donated to Guatemala through U.S. Defense Department accounts legally authorized only to help the military and police interdict drugs or combat organized crime. Some bear the title “Trinational Task Force,” denoting a unit, created with U.S. assistance, meant to operate at Guatemala’s borders, far from the capital. At four points along Guatemala’s borders, military-police-prosecutorial Interagency Task Forces, created with over US$40 million in aid from the Defense Department’s Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime account, have been operating since 2013. The Pentagon has provided them with hundreds of vehicles like these.
…Unless something changes soon, the Guatemalan armed forces’ aggressive support for Jimmy Morales’s rollback of anti-corruption reforms has set their institution on a path back to its darkest periods. It extinguishes a hopeful moment in which Guatemala’s Army, with U.S. government accompaniment, took a few halting steps toward legitimacy.
Thought I’d share a table of current aid to Colombia. Click it to expand it in a new window. In sum, it looks like Congress will once again refuse the deep aid cuts the Trump White House had requested for 2019. Aid will continue to follow the “Peace Colombia” framework that guided assistance in 2017 and 2018.
In a nutshell:
Economic Support Funds are economic aid administered by USAID. The table shows some ESF earmarked for specific purposes. The rest funds efforts to increase non-military state presence in post-conflict areas, aid to vulnerable populations, crop substitution, human rights, and similar priorities. The Trump administration sought to cut this from $187 million to $100 million; Congress disagreed.
International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, administered by the State Department’s bureau of the same name, pays for “hard side” programs like coca eradication and drug interdiction, and for “soft side” programs, mostly assistance to Colombia’s judicial system.
The Nonproliferation, Anti-Terrorism, Demining, and Related Programs account, in Colombia, is devoted entirely to demining programs.
Foreign Military Financing, the State Department’s main non-drug military assistance program, is funding counternarcotics battalions, aviation support, and especially the Colombian armed forces’ involvement in post-conflict construction projects.
Defense Department Counter-Drug Support, from the Pentagon’s budget, pays for training, boats, mostly non-lethal equipment upgrades, computers and software, and much intelligence and reconnaissance support.
The additional assistance for Venezuelans in Colombia figures come from a July 18 State Department fact sheet. and an August 8 USAID press release.
This week, two people—a journalist and a congressional staffer—wrote me with variations on the same question:
“How much aid is the United States giving the military and police in Honduras this year?”
Seems like a simple question, but it’s not. Because U.S. government reporting to Congress is so poor, all I can give is a ballpark estimate. That estimate is “about $55 million.”
Here’s how I derive that. And stay with me—this is byzantine:
1. Nearly all security assistance comes from two budgets: the State Department-run Foreign Operations budget, and the Defense Department’s budget. Let’s do the State Department first.
2. For 2018 State Department aid to Honduras, normally we could consult the State Department’s 2019 foreign aid request, issued in February, which gives estimates of what the Department expects to spend on aid in the current year (2018). But this year, this document leaves 2018 blank. The State Department left the current year out because as of February 2018, when the aid request went to press, our dysfunctional Congress still hadn’t passed a budget for 2018. (That didn’t happen until March 23.) The Department couldn’t make an estimate without first knowing how much money Congress was giving it. So this document contains no useful 2018 aid numbers (it’s still a good source, though, for what was spent in 2017). Toss it aside.
3. For most countries, that leaves you with no source for 2018 State Department / Foreign Operations aid numbers. However, Honduras is one of a few countries that Congress cares about so much that it specifies the amounts of aid the State Department should provide. (Other Latin American countries this applies to are Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, and to some extent Costa Rica, Haiti, Mexico, Nicaragua, and Panama.) We can look at the 2018 appropriations law, passed in March, to get Congress’s directions for Honduras.
Well, not exactly the text of the law, which is an 878-page beast cramming together 12 aspects of the federal budget. Instead, you have to look at the narrative “explanatory statement” that Congress included with the bill. That unhelpfully exists as “Book III of the Congressional Record for March 22, 2018.” Go all the way to page H2851 of that document (or search for “Honduras” to save your sanity), and you find this table:
OK, now we’re getting somewhere. The last four programs listed here provide military or police aid, and there’s some mention of Honduras. Let’s go from the bottom upward.
Honduran security forces are getting $4 million this year from the Foreign Military Financing program (FMF). That’s the State Department’s main non-drug military aid program, it mainly pays for weapons and equipment. Under some circumstances, it can also aid police.
Honduran security forces are getting $800,000 this year from the International Military Education and Training program (IMET). That’s the State Department’s main non-drug military training program. Under some circumstances, it can also train police.
That would seem to be it: $4.8 million. But there’s more: a lot more, but we don’t know exactly how much. Here’s where it gets even uglier.
The State Department’s International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program (INCLE) is the biggest single source of military and police aid to Latin America, and Honduras gets a lot of it. Like FMF and IMET, INCLE can aid and train militaries and police. But it can also pay for non-military/police programs like judicial reform. As you see in the table above, for instance, it contributes $6 million for the CICIG in Guatemala. So only some INCLE aid is military or police aid. The trouble is, we don’t know how much—despite repeated requests for a number. So we have to estimate.
But it’s even worse. See that line for “Central American Regional Security Initiative,” $215 million? That goes to all of Central America, and we don’t know how much goes to each Central American country (except Costa Rica, for which Congress specified $25 million). We have to estimate still further. So let’s try:
Congress added $41 million in earmarks to the $215 million Central American Regional Security Initiative. None of these appear to go to Honduran security forces. Take them away and you get $174 million.
The bulk of that $174 million goes to the three “northern triangle” countries: El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. Let’s say, then, that Honduras gets just under one-third of it—perhaps 30 percent, or $52.2 million.
Let’s ballpark further and say two-thirds of that $52.2 million is military and police aid, with the rest going to judicial reform and similar priorities. That would be $34.8 million. Let’s round up and say:
Honduran security forces are getting $35 million this year from the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement program (INCLE).
Now we’re up to $39.8 million in military and police aid to Honduras from State Department sources. That was awfully messy. But we’re not done yet.
4. Some aid to Honduras also comes from the Defense Department’s budget. The principal source, by far, is the Department’s “Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime” program, which (after INCLE) is the second-largest source of military and police aid to Latin America. It pays for training, construction, boats, some equipment upgrades, intelligence analysis, and a few other things.
Reporting about how this program gets used is also poor. The Defense Department is not required to report how much it expects to spend in each country during the current year—only what it spent the previous year. So we have to estimate 2018 aid by just repeating the 2017 figure—imprecise, but it’s all we can do.
That requires getting our hands on a Defense Department report to Congress covering last year, which is difficult to obtain. Our Freedom of Information Act request to the Office of the Secretary of Defense for the report covering 2017 has not yet received a response.
Luckily, our colleagues at the Security Assistance Monitor have secured a copy, although they haven’t yet posted a PDF of it (come on guys!). Using that report, their Honduras page shows that Honduras got $13,768,000 in 2017 assistance through “Section 1004 Counter-Drug Assistance” (what the Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime program used to be called before a 2017 rearrangement of Defense Department security assistance authorities). So let’s repeat that figure for our 2018 estimate, rounding up:
Honduran security forces are getting $14 million this year from the Defense Department Counter-Drug and Counter-Transnational Organized Crime program.
5. That brings us up to $53.8 million. Now, the Defense Department has many other programs with which it could aid Honduras. Most of these don’t get used, though, in Honduras—they’re more focused on the Middle East and NATO. However, Honduras gets some aid to participate in exercises and engagement activities. We don’t know how much, though page 31 of this helpful Congressional Research Service report on Colombia shows that (much larger) country getting about $2 million to $5 million per year from these “other” Defense Department aid sources. For Honduras, let’s estimate something smaller—perhaps just over $1 million.
Honduras is getting just over $1 million this year from other Defense Department aid sources.
OK. Add that rough amount and we get $55 million in military and police aid to Honduras in 2018. A rough estimate, derived through very messy means. But one I feel comfortable enough to use.
This number probably raises more questions than it answers. How much of it is military aid, and how much is police aid? How much is weapons and equipment, and how much is training? What kinds of weapons and equipment? How many are lethal? What units are getting this aid? What skills does the training teach? What parts of the country are getting the most focus? How much training happens on U.S. soil? How much training is performed by Colombian soldiers and police? By private contractors? How do we know that human rights protections are being enforced rigorously?
We have at least partial answers to many of those questions, but for many others we still lack a lot of basic information. Those are subjects for another post, another day. But hopefully this all gives a sense of why the “defense oversight” work we do here at WOLA is so important. And why it’s often so frustrating.
I’m very happy that the U.S. Agency for International Development has posted our independent evaluation (PDF) of its “Colombia Transforma” program, which through 2018 has supported $43 million in “rapid response” efforts to implement Colombia’s peace accord. I worked on this evaluation earlier this year; regular visitors to this site know that this work had me in Colombia for the whole month of February.
In general, we found that the program made important progress in empowering civil society and responding rapidly to some immediate post-conflict needs in the departments of Arauca, Norte de Santander, and Putumayo. They worked in areas where neither the Colombian government nor foreign donors had much prior presence, and they worked with many civil-society organizations that, due to prior experience with “Plan Colombia,” were quite distrustful of the United States. The program, though, did bump up against the frustrations of working with a central Colombian government whose “rapid response” capacity has been abysmal: hidebound by bureaucracy, lack of resources, and unclear leadership.
I’m glad that the evaluation preserves our recommendation that the U.S. government rethink its enforcement of “material support” statutes that make it a federal crime even to buy a cup of coffee for a demobilized FARC member, because the FARC remains on the State Department’s list of terrorist groups.
Now that 14,000 ex-FARC members are at large—many in communities where Colombia Transforma seeks to improve rapid response—the likelihood of inadvertently conferring a benefit upon them has increased. This threatens to paralyze some activities in an absence of clarity about the statute’s applicability to low-rank individual ex-combatants.
…[Recommendation:] Raise awareness within the U.S. interagency about the need for common-sense guidelines for interpreting material support provisions so that they are congruent with Colombia’s current context. Trust that USAID and its implementing partners know not to strengthen a group on the Foreign Terrorist Organization (FTO) list. These guidelines should permit low-level engagement with ex-FARC who are (1) not top leaders; (2) not awaiting war crimes trials in the transitional justice system; (3) not facing U.S. indictments or extradition requests; and (4) reasonably determined to have abandoned violence. Keep a database of supported events with FARC presence for reporting and monitoring purposes. Only halt an activity if it violates the four criteria above, or if the database detects a pattern indicating an attempt to take over the space. Continue to support activities with non-FARC citizens around demobilization sites.
CNN published a devastating report this week about U.S. assistance to El Salvador’s security forces:
One police unit that killed 43 alleged gang members in the first six months of last year received significant US funding, CNN can reveal. Several of those deaths have been investigated as murders by Salvadoran police.
While the unit — known as the Special Reaction Forces (FES) — was disbanded earlier this year, many of its officers have joined a new elite force that currently receives US funding.
These abuses were revealed in August 2017 by El Salvador’s Revista Factum investigative journalism website. At the time, we wanted to know whether the FES had received U.S. assistance. We had two three thorough recent written sources:
We had worked with a congressional office on a request to the Defense Department for “a list of Central American military and police units that received more than $50,000 in U.S. assistance in FY 2014, FY 2015, and FY 2016, or are likely to receive that amount or more in FY 2017.” The April 2017 response names four Salvadoran units, none of which is the FES (the four are Naval Task Force Trident, Joint Group Cuscatlán, Air Force, and Navy). So either the Defense Department deliberately omitted the FES, or the unit’s funding came entirely from the State Department’s aid budget (which seems unlikely but is possible).
We had obtained a copy of a very detailed report of worldwide police assistance in 2015 and 2016, which is supposed to report on both State Department and Defense Department aid. Though the entire “National Civilian Police” often gets named as a recipient unit, the FES does not appear.
(Update 11:15am—I actually forgot about this one) A May 2016 response to “questions for the record” from legislative staff listed 10 Salvadoran police units. The FES is not one of them.
It appears that the Obama and Trump administrations omitted critical information relevant to human rights from congressional requests for information. We’ll be following up on this.
As a likely election theft proceeds in Honduras, the country’s security forces are playing a central role in putting down protest. Since the U.S. government has closely supported the Honduran military and police since the cold war, we need to know whether U.S.-aided units are backing authoritarian behavior and abusing protesters’ rights.
Here is a list of security-force units that we know have received U.S. assistance since 2015.
Units in red have been actively confronting protesters demanding a fair and transparent vote count, according to media reports and communications with sources inside Honduras. (Others may be equally involved, but information hasn’t confirmed it.) Source documents for the recipient unit list are linked at the bottom of this post.
Update 12:00 December 5: media are reporting that the U.S.-aided TIGRES and COBRAS units are refusing to participate in further suppression of protest. While I don’t know whether this is a nationwide phenomenon or how long it will last, for now I’m switching those units from red to black in the list below.
Recipients of U.S. Assistance
Honduran National Police
National Police Special Forces (TIGRES)
National Police Special Operations Command (COBRAS)
National Police NAGU (National Anti-Gang Unit)
National Police Tactical Special Operations Group (GOET)
National Police Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit (TCIU)
National Police Intelligence Unit (SERCAA)
Special Investigations Unit (SIU)
Distrito Policial 6-1
Chamelcon, Cortés Unit
Unidad Metropolitana Prevención (UMEP-5)
Policía Preventiva (UMEP-6)
Policía Preventiva (UMEP-7)
Dirección Nacional de Policia Preventiva, San Pedro Sula Unit
Naval Special Forces (FEN)
Honduran Air Force
Public Ministry Technical Criminal Investigative Agency (ATIC)
Not Recipients of U.S. Assistance
Military Public Order Police
Honduran National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA) —though some units assigned to FUSINA are in the above “aid recipients” list
Special Units for Jungle and Night Operations (TESON)
An April 2017 Defense Department response to a congressional inquiry reads, “No support provided has been provided to Military Police for the Public Order (PMOP), Special Units for Jungle and Night Operations (Teson). No support has been provided to Honduran National Interagency Security Force (FUSINA). FUSINA may request support from any unit within the Honduran Military, National Police, Attorney General’s office, and other investigative and law enforcement agencies. Therefore, any unit within the Honduran Military could feasibly be called upon to participate in FUSINA.”
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.
We’ve been voicing alarm about the incredibly deep cuts to diplomacy and foreign aid that the Trump administration has proposed for 2018. When we talk to people in the House of Representatives, they tend to share our alarm about the cuts, which would slash aid to Latin America by 35 percent from last year’s levels.
But when we talk to Senate staff, they generally wave their hands and say “don’t worry about it.”
You can see that here, in this opening statement by Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tennessee), the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, at Tuesday’s committee hearing on the budget with Secretary of State Tillerson. After heaping praise on Tillerson, Corker, with his usual laconic delivery, lets him have it on the proposed budget cuts.
We sat down yesterday in the middle of the Russia negotiations. I took some time out to sit down with my staff, and we began going through the budget that you’re presenting today. And after about five minutes, I said, “This is a total waste of time, I don’t want to do this anymore.”
And the reason it’s wasted time is, I think you know that the budget that’s been presented is not going to be the budget that we’re going to deal with. It’s just not.
And, I mean, the fact is that Congress has a tremendous respect for the diplomatic efforts that are underway, the aid that we provide in emergency situations, and it’s likely and– and by the way, this happens with every presidential budget, every presidential budget. This one in particular, though, it’s likely that what comes out of Congress is likely not going to resemble what is being presented today.
And so I felt it was a total waste of time to go through the line items and even discuss them, because it’s not what is going to occur.
Despite record coca production in Colombia, the peace accord presents a gigantic opportunity to achieve permanent reductions in the crop—unless Colombia’s ruling elite drops the ball and unless impatient Washington policymakers insist on a hasty return to failed hardline policies.
Here’s a new post at WOLA’s site in which I perform serious analysis on something I should normally be poking fun at: the Trump administration’s proposal to cut Latin America’s foreign assistance by 35 percent next year.
Assistance to Central America would drop by 39 percent from 2016 to 2018.
Assistance to Colombia would drop by 16 percent from 2016 to 2018, and by 36 percent from 2017 to 2018.
Assistance to Mexico in the foreign aid bill would drop by 45 percent from 2016 to 2018.
Along the U.S.-Mexico border, the Homeland Security appropriation calls for new fencing at a cost of $21.2 million per mile.
Foreign Military Financing, the main military aid program in the foreign aid budget, would fall to zero throughout Latin America.
The military aid cuts may get a boost from Defense Department budget aid accounts.
The request devastates independent development agencies.
WOLA’s website will shortly post a written/graphical overview of the Trump administration’s dumpster-fire of a foreign aid budget request. But for now, here’s a very fact-filled conversation about it between WOLA’s program director, Geoff Thale, and me.