Dexter Boniface

The Return of the Military in Latin America?

In Military on November 12, 2009 at 3:39 pm

Don’t Call It a Comeback

Latin America’s militaries have undoubtedly lost influence since the advent of the third wave of democratization some three decades ago. For example, the Economist recently heralded the fact that more Latin American citizens “now approve of their governments than trust the armed forces.” However, recent trends suggest militaries still play a powerful (and perhaps growing) role in Latin America’s politics.

Geopolitical Tensions. Military tensions between Colombia and Venezuela have recently escalated. In the wake of a series of brutal slayings, 15,000 Venezuelan soldiers have been dispatched to the Colombia border. One headline read, “Chavez to troops: Prepare for war with Colombia.” Brazil and the United States have appealed to the two countries to talk it out.

Colombia’s U.S.-backed war on drugs has long generated tensions with its neighbors who fear the country’s drug-related violence will spill-over across its borders. More preposterously, the increasingly unpopular Venezuelan president has cited a recent military agreement between the United States and Colombia as evidence that the United States seeks to topple him from power and seize Venezuela’s oil reserves using Colombia as a surrogate (for a more plausible explanation, see here). The United States, for its part, maintains (though not without controversy) that the agreement merely formalizes existing arrangements with Colombia and enables the U.S. to use one additional air force base (Palanquero) for counter-narcotics operations following Ecuador’s decision to restrict America’s use of an airstrip in Manta. At the same time, the Colombian government has accused several of its neighbors, notably Venezuela and Ecuador, of providing refuge to the FARC guerrilla movement. In a dramatic military action last year, Colombian troops attacked a guerrilla camp on the Ecuadorean side of the border, leading Ecuador and Venezuela to freeze relations with Colombia. Adding fuel to the fire, military spending has accelerated in all three countries (see below).

Rising Military Spending. In a recent editorial, Costa Rican President Oscar Arias noted that, “This year alone, the governments of Latin America will spend nearly $50 billion on their armies. That’s nearly double the amount spent five years ago, and it is a ridiculous sum in a region where 200 million people live on fewer than $2 a day and where only Colombia is engaged in an armed conflict.” Latin American military spending is indeed on the rise with Brazil, Venezuela, Chile, Colombia and Ecuador topping the list in terms of new military purchases. Most worrying, perhaps, is the notable military build-up in Venezuela which, according to the Miami Herald, “has already bought more than $4 billion worth of Russian arms since 2005, including 24 Sukhoi fighter jets, dozens of attack helicopters and 100,000 Kalashnikov assault rifles.” Venezuela is also procuring some 300 Russian-made battle tanks, anti-aircraft missiles (including man-portable SAM-24s), and munitions from Russia.

The Military as Police: The War on Drugs, Gangs, and Organized Crime. Latin America’s militaries have also become increasingly active on the homefront, particularly in the violence-plagued countries of Mexico and Central America where militaries have been mobilized to supplement and/or supplant traditional police forces. In gang-ravaged El Salvador, for example, the government recently announced that the army will send an additional 2,500 soldiers (adding to an existing contingent of 1,200) to crime-plagued parts of the country to carry out joint patrols with police. Still, nowhere is this trend more evident than in Mexico where President Felipe Calderon has relied heavily on the military in his war against drug smuggling–some 45,000 troops have been dispatched to drug hot spots across Mexico. Tragically, Mexico’s local and state police have furnished an unreliable ally in the country’s war on drugs.  In this year alone, soldiers have confronted Monterrey police officers suspected of helping drug cartels on more than 65 occasions! According to recent reports, “The general in charge of army operations in northeastern Mexico has warned police chiefs that his men are ready to open fire on police if it happens again.”

Civil-Military Tensions. In a few countries in the region, furthermore, tensions between elected leaders and the military have threatened democratic stability. As President Arias further stated in his editorial–in direct reference to the recent democratic crisis in Honduras, “the combination of powerful militaries and fragile democracies creates a terrible risk.” In Paraguay, President Fernando Lugo recently replaced the country’s top military commanders amid (unsubstantiated but not implausible) rumors of a possible coup conspiracy. Elsewhere in South America–notably in Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, civil-military tensions have taken on a different hue as former military dictators have been put on trial for past human rights abuses. Recent death threats against President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner are being blamed on supporters of the Argentine military as a form of retaliation against new trials. The past era of military rule continues to weigh heavily in the politics of the Southern Cone countries.

violence-plagued
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