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.