In 2016, governments continued to use militarized approaches to combating organized crime in Latin America, despite mounting evidence of human rights abuses and the limited long-term efficacy of such strategies.

Mexico provided a prominent example of the drawbacks of militarization this year. As the country’s “drug war” hit its tenth anniversary, there were few security gains and much room for improvement in terms of human rights. In El Salvador, the government’s militarized assault on the country’s gangs has raised well-founded concerns about extrajudicial killings and may be prompting criminal groups to increase their firepower in order to fight back against the state. Venezuela’s ongoing militarization of public security also made headlines for its brutality and lack of success.

Despite the evident shortcomings of this policy, Argentina adopted a similar path this year under the new administration of President Mauricio Macri.

“Macri initiated a series of policy shifts that amount to sweeping change toward a more militarized approach,” our Patrick Corcoran wrote in December. “He has called in American and Israeli advisers; he has announced plans to shoot down drug planes?and he flooded particularly violent areas with federal troops, among other measures.”

A Quick Fix

The tendency to use militaries to fill security gaps is understandable. Many countries in the region have adopted militarized security strategies as a response to criminal violence that civilian-led authorities seem unable to contain. This is especially true in countries like Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where police forces and judicial systems have struggled with structural weaknesses and corruption. This context is key to understanding why many states opt for these policies.

“For Northern Triangle states, strong criminal structures constitute a direct threat to democracy due to the widespread corruption, violence and significant economic costs that come with them,” InSight Crime noted. 

However, El Salvador’s deepening conflict this year has highlighted some of the complexities associated with militarization. The country passed a law that classified gangs as terrorist organizations, and the fight between the government and street gangs worsened as the year unfolded, despite a decline in overall homicide rates. The government’s increasingly militarized approach created a strong incentive for gangs to improve their firepower, and officials reportedly uncovered an attempt by the MS13 to acquire military-grade weapons.

For Northern Triangle states, strong criminal structures constitute a direct threat to democracy due to the widespread corruption, violence and significant economic costs that come with them.

“The gang project [consisted] of collecting money monthly from extortion proceeds in order to purchase weapons,” a Salvadoran indictment against several members of the group noted, “to equip 500 members of the MS13, two from each of the 249 cliques at the national level and to form elite shock teams for attacks against the security system.”

While the plan fell through following several police operations, the conflict reached new heights of intensity towards the end of 2016, as the gangs’ decision to systematically target security personnel led to a response in kind by both the government and death squads.

“At least 44 police officers and 20 soldiers have died this year, a large number that nonetheless pales in comparison to the over 500 suspected gang members killed. This lopsided tally suggests a significant number of these so-called ‘confrontations’ were actually extrajudicial killings by the security forces,” our David Gagne noted in November. 

More Human Rights Violations

The concerns about militarization’s impact on human rights are not confined to El Salvador, but include countries like Venezuela and Mexico where the military have been tasked with duties normally carried out by police. At the heart of these concerns is the fact that, as we noted, “soldiers — with the notable exception of members of ‘gendarmeries’ — are neither trained nor equipped to apprehend criminals. They train to kill the enemy.”

Venezuela’s militarized public security campaign, known as Operation Liberation and Protection of the People (Operación de Liberación y Protección del Pueblo – OLP) has been associated with numerous human rights violations, as evidenced by the recent arrest of several military officials for allegedly participating in a massacre during an OLP raid.

“The massacre, which bears all the hallmarks of being carried out by state security forces, once again draws attention to extrajudicial killings committed under the banner of the OLP,” Gagne wrote in November. “The security operation drew criticism almost immediately upon its launch in July 2015, when 17 individuals were killed during a joint police-military raid. The violence has yet to let up, with over 700 extrajudicial killings by government agents between July 2015 and September 2016, according to human rights organization PROVEA.”

Although the arrests in Venezuela are a positive sign, holding security forces to account has been a challenge throughout the region. Mexico’s military, for example, has been accused of numerous instances of extrajudicial killings in recent years that have gone in large part unpunished, suggesting that “if the security forces and the justice system diverge from the rule of law and systematically violate human rights, granting these institutions more power and discretion in the name of the ‘war on drugs’ will lead to more violence.”

Deciding to confront criminal groups with military force can lead governments to adopt policies that can also institutionalize human rights violations. For example, Argentine President Macri signed a decree in January 2016, authorizing the shooting down of suspected drug planes, a practice critics equate with extrajudicial execution. But Argentina was hardly the first nation in the region to approve this policy. Seven other countries — Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Honduras, Colombia, Peru and Honduras — had previously done the same.

The year 2016 also witnessed a legal reform in Colombia reminiscent of El Salvador’s classification of gangs as terrorist organizations. By establishing three criminal groups (what are termed “bandas criminales” or BACRIM) as “organized armed groups” posing a security threat to the state, the Colombian government paved the way for increased military action against the structures, including aerial bombings, at a potentially high human cost.

“Unlike Colombian guerrilla groups, which operate largely from secluded camps, BACRIM like the Urabeños operate among the general population,” we noted. “This raises the risk of collateral damage and, more broadly, serious legal and human rights concerns regarding the state’s role in bombing its own citizens.”

Colombia’s government has taken a similar approach towards guerrilla groups, keeping military pressure on the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional – ELN) amid a stumbling peace process and warning the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC) that guerilla elements who refuse to comply with a recently-signed peace agreement “will receive the full force of military and police operations.”

Diverting Resources, Mission

Militarization often involves diverting limited resources from the civilian police and the judiciary, weakening the very institutions designed to prevent, investigate and punish crime. This creates a vicious cycle whereby governments become ever more dependent on the military due to a lack of efficient civilian crime fighting mechanisms.

One example of this was on display in Brazil as the country’s second largest city, Rio de Janeiro, hosted this year’s Olympic Games. In order to prepare for the major international event, the government intensified its urban “pacification” policy under which military police attempt to establish a physical presence in neighborhoods controlled by criminal groups. But despite a massive boost in security resources, Rio continued to experience crime and crime-related violence throughout the Games, particularly in disadvantaged urban areas known as favelas. And a few months after the international event ended, several shootouts between gangs and police once again underscored the limitations of this policy.

“High-ranking military officers are reportedly assuming prison management positions and many directors of the larger jails are members of the military, despite this being in violation of the National Prison System Act.”

Due to the weakness of civilian institutions, the military is often called on to take on roles outside of their traditional duties. For instance, faced with a dire penitentiary situation, Honduras has increasingly relied on soldiers to control its prisons. This has had adverse consequences for human rights, as illustrated in a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

“High-ranking military officers are reportedly assuming prison management positions and many directors of the larger jails are members of the military, despite this being in violation of the National Prison System Act,” the report said. “Security forces are also accused of torturing and mistreating prisoners. Six out of ten inmates were allegedly subjected to torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment during their arrest in certain cities between December 2013 and 2014, according to information from the Center for Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation of Victims of Torture (CPTRT). The National Anti-Extortion Force was reportedly responsible for the most serious torture cases.”

IMAGE-DOWNLOAD-GAMECHANGERSMilitarization can also damage the military itself. Throughout Latin America, the military are widely perceived as significantly less corrupt than the police or the judiciary. But military confrontation with criminal elements inevitably leads to cases of corruption of soldiers.

Several cases have illustrated this trend in Venezuela, where incidents of corrupt members of the armed forces have ranged from the smuggling of several metric tons of wheat flour to high-level drug trafficking schemes. In August 2016, the United States charged two former high-ranking anti-narcotics officials. One of the accused, Néstor Luis Reverol, a ranking officer of the National Guard, was named Interior Minister by President Nicolás Maduro the following day. Although it was a political decision within the context of diplomatic tensions between Venezuela and the United States, the appointment is symptomatic of a country where the drug trade is widely believed to be controlled by corrupt military elements dubbed the Cartel of the Suns.

Signs of Change

Despite the numerous drawbacks of militarization, it is unlikely that Latin American countries will set aside this policy in the near term. This is in large part because organized crime represents the most prominent threat to national and citizen security for many of these countries, and where the police and judicial institutions are currently incapable of neutralizing national and transnational criminal dynamics.

But against a backdrop of increasing skepticism about militarized public security policies, some signs of changing perspectives are surfacing, including in Mexico, arguably one of countries with the deepest military involvement in the public security domain. Earlier this year, the head of the Mexican armed forces argued that the involving the military in fighting crime has been a mistake.

“Not one of the people with responsibility for this institution is prepared to carry out the functions of the police,” he said. “We don’t do that. We don’t ask for it. We have no taste for it and we are not comfortable in this role.”

Similarly, Peruvian President Pedro Pablo Kuzcynski promised this year not to involve the military in policing activities.

“During the campaign there was talk of putting the army on the streets. How is the Peruvian army going to control the extortion of a shoe maker in [the city of] Trujillo?” he asked. “It is a different type of crime, it is much more complicated. It requires more equipment and sophistication.”

Nevertheless, Kuzcynski’s government renewed a state of emergency in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valleys (VRAEM) where the Shining Path insurgent group operates, thus reviving a more than three-decade-old security strategy that had been suspended last year and potentially complicating the security situation in that area.

“The officials also stated that the military would now take the lead in the fight against drug trafficking in the region,” we wrote in October. “While the operations will be under military authority, the police will also be integrated in the process.”

This approach of integrating police into military-led operations represents a more nuanced strategy that is often employed in areas where civilian authorities would simply be outgunned by criminal groups. Ultimately, the goal of such strategies is to support civilian agencies until they are able handle security in these areas on their own. In practice, however, this has rarely occurred.

In Colombia, the peace agreement between the government and the FARC includes a recognition of the important socio-economic factors that can fuel organized crime. And even as Colombia’s highest ranking military figure threatened to use the “full force of military and police operations” against dissident FARC members, the general added that the government “will seek to establish institutional control in these territories (previously under FARC rule) not only through the presence of the armed forces and police, but through all state bodies.”

These are small steps toward finding more comprehensive, humane and effective policies for tackling organized crime. But it remains to be seen whether voices in favor of reform grow stronger in the new year, and if the police and judicial systems can meet the challenge.

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