The top US military officer in Latin America and the Caribbean recently praised the involvement of the region's armed forces in fighting organized crime, a controversial stance likely rooted in the politics surrounding US security assistance to foreign countries.
In an August 17 speech that opened the South American Defense Conference in Uruguay, Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd, the commander of US Southern Command (SouthCom), said that armed forces in Latin America and the Caribbean are adapting to a "global security environment [that] is the most complex, volatile, and unpredictable in at least the last half-century."
"We're no longer simply dealing with conventional conflicts that displace millions of people and destabilize entire regions," Tidd said, "we're also facing complex, networked threats like transregional crime and violent extremism that transcend borders and boundaries."
Tidd's comments fit with the stated theme of the conference, which was "the changing role of the military in the region."
The SouthCom commander told the audience that new threats like those posed by criminal organizations "blur the lines between domestic security and defense," and that responding to them requires "creative responses by re-conceptualized security forces."
Tidd expressed support for militaries becoming more involved in meeting emerging security challenges. He credited the region's militaries with "breaking new ground" and "charting a bold new course" in terms of their activities in the region, adding that they "are demonstrating an impressive commitment to improving security both within and beyond our borders."
"I challenge all of us to be creative and bold in our thinking…especially when it comes to what comes next for our forces," Tidd said.
InSight Crime Analysis
There is substantial popular support in most of Latin American and the Caribbean for involving the military in crime fighting activities. But SouthCom has an institutional interest in promoting the use of the military to combat organized crime in the region.
In addition to overseeing the large US naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, SouthCom's other major activity in its area of responsibility is administering security assistance to partner countries. In fact, in testimony to the US Senate earlier this year (pdf), Tidd said that "building partner capacity is the cornerstone of everything we do."
However, the United States faces virtually no military threat from any country in the region, and countries in the region face virtually no military threats either from each other or from any other nations. This means that SouthCom would have very little to do -- and therefore, a very small budget -- if it were not engaged in training Latin American and Caribbean armed forces to fight organized crime.
This dynamic raises a number of concerns from a public safety and human rights perspective. Many experts in recent years have questioned the wisdom of involving militaries in operations targeting criminal organizations. A growing body of evidence suggests that deploying the military to fight crime groups tends not to be effective at dismantling criminal networks in the long term, and can actually increase violence in the short run.
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But despite such concerns, many countries in the region have incorporated the armed forces in crime fighting activities, often with support from SouthCom. For example, SouthCom public affairs director Greg Julian called Honduras a "fantastic" partner on counter-narcotics in 2013, in spite of persistent concerns about corruption and human rights abuses by military units tasked with anti-drug operations. And in April 2014, then-commander of SouthCom Gen. John Kelly described Mexico as "an unbelievable partner" in countering drug trafficking less than three months before Mexican soldiers allegedly massacred more than a dozen people at a crime scene.
On the other hand, some US government actors have expressed reservations about using taxpayer dollars to provide assistance to governments whose militaries have been accused of human rights violations in the course of operations targeting criminal organizations. Last year, the State Department redirected millions of dollars in aid from Mexico to Peru over human rights concerns. And earlier this year, Congressman Hank Johnson introduced a bill that would block all US security assistance to Honduras until that country takes steps to address human rights concerns.
Still, the Defense Department wields significant influence in the halls of Congress, which means US funding for militarized anti-crime assistance is likely to continue. And while this may benefit SouthCom and militaries across Latin America and the Caribbean, it is far less likely to help countries in the region to confront complex challenges associated with organized crime like drug abuse, money laundering and elite corruption.