Published on Friday, April 30, 2004 by the San Francisco Chronicle
General Seeks Boost for Latin American Armies
Top official at U.S. Southern Command wants to wage war on terror south of border
by Jack Epstein
The top U.S. general for Latin America wants regional armies to help fight the war on terror -- a strategy that some observers say could result in a return to widespread human rights abuses of past decades.
Last month, Gen. James Hill, head of the government agency most engaged with Latin America, the U.S. Southern Command, told a congressional panel that Washington "must take comprehensive measures in our region to combat international terrorism," which he said included strengthening Latin militaries.
Terrorists throughout Latin America "bomb, murder, kidnap, traffic drugs, transfer arms, launder money and smuggle humans," Hill told the House Armed Services Committee.
He described the threats to the United States as twofold:
-- "Traditional" terrorists, a category that includes drug traffickers, the 25,000 members of urban crime gangs in Central America, and guerrilla and paramilitary groups tied to drug trafficking in Colombia;
-- "Emerging" terrorists -- "radical populists" who tap into "deep-seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected goods and services." Hill's apparent reference is to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Bolivian indigenous leader Evo Morales.
Hill also noted that "branches of Middle Eastern terrorist organizations conduct support activities in the Southern Command area of responsibility."
To confront these threats, he told the legislators, the United States must "broaden military-to-military contacts" in combating terrorism. He has also said that when "legal boundaries don't make sense anymore given the current threat" (if armed forces are banned from cooperating with police and civilian intelligence agencies), Latin American countries should determine if such restrictions need revision.
Hill's broad-brushed approach alarms Harley Shaiken, chairman of UC Berkeley's Center for Latin American Studies.
"In the 20th century, all Latin American militaries had to do was call someone a communist, and that person became fair game," Shaiken said. With revitalized militaries, "terrorism could become the communism of the 21st century that puts someone under a death sentence."
More U.S. troops proposed
A key element of Hill's proposal -- and one sure to stir controversy in Congress -- is to raise the U.S. "troop cap" in Colombia from 400 to 800 and from 400 American civilian contractors to 600 to help that nation's government win a 4-decade-old war against the leftist Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).
In a telephone interview from Miami, Southern Command spokesman Raul Duany said there are hundreds of terrorist incidents yearly -- car bombings, kidnappings, assassinations -- by leftist and rightist armed groups, most of them in Colombia.
He added that Arab immigrants in the tri-border area with Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay; Margarita Island in Venezuela; Iquique, Chile; and Maicao, Colombia, have sent funds to Islamic extremist groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Duany conceded that "there is no evidence of a direct connection to al Qaeda" in Latin America and added that Hill's statements reflected "more a long-term concern" in an area "ripe for international terrorists."
The Southern Command is certainly influential when it comes to hemispheric policy.
It has more people -- 1,470 -- dealing with Latin American matters than those at the departments of State, Commerce, Treasury and Agriculture, the Pentagon's Joint Staff, and the office of the secretary of defense combined. The command's $800 million annual budget covers 19 countries in Central and South America and 12 in the Caribbean.
Laurie Freeman, a security policy associate for the Washington Office on Latin America, said Hill's remarks to Congress were made during the course of the budget approval process and were intended to justify Southern Command's role.
"In the post-9/11 world, when the U.S. military defines itself in relation to the war on terror, Southcom is the odd man out," she said.
But with the Bush administration consumed with Iraq and Afghanistan, Hill's proposals to protect the U.S. southern flank from possible terrorism should be taken seriously, said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, a member of the House Armed Services Committee.
"This administration hasn't done much in our own backyard. You can't go on treating Latin America like a trivial part of our foreign policy," Tauscher said. "But I think Gen. Hill is right to raise the issue. Narco-terrorism like in Colombia can fuel networks like al Qaeda."
Tauscher agrees with Hill on increasing the troop cap in Colombia but said it would be a mistake to bolster regional armies.
"We already have significant military-to-military cooperation with Southern Command countries," she said. "And I don't think we should advocate changes in their legal framework that allows their militaries to be a more robust version of their police force."
Miguel Diaz, who heads the South America Project for the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington D.C, also agrees with the thrust of Hill's argument.
"If you put it all together -- the lack of rule of law, dysfunctional judicial systems, corruption, the widespread circulation of arms, a culture of impunity and countries that have not been able to get a grip on the poverty problem," Diaz said, "there is a deteriorating security situation that lends itself to terrorist movements gaining a foothold in Latin America."
Poverty called greater threat
But Freeman cautioned that the greatest threat to hemispheric security is not terrorism, but poverty, inequality and injustice. She said endemic poverty draws Latin Americans to drugs, guerrilla groups, urban gangs and such populist politicians as Bolivia's Morales, who regularly leads protests against U.S. policies.
"Failure to distinguish popular unrest from legitimate terrorist threats hinders our government's ability to effectively combat terrorism," she said.
Indeed, Latin America has the world's most egregious inequalities in income distribution, with the richest 10 percent accounting for 35 percent of total earnings. Some 43 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, and there are 20 million more poor in 2003 than there were in 1997, according to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean.
Shaiken, too, hopes the administration eventually will reject Hill's plan to fortify regional armed forces.
"The notion that we should strengthen Latin American armies misses the role they played in human rights abuses in past decades and how Latin American governments have been trying to diminish their role ever since other than being just the army," he said. "In many countries, they were the terrorist organization, killing and disappearing thousands."
©2004 San Francisco Chronicle