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US Support for Latin America's Armed Forces Soaring
Published on Friday, January 19, 2001 by the Inter Press Service
Going Backwards:
US Support for Latin America's Armed Forces Soaring
by Jim Lobe
 
WASHINGTON - At a time when still-fragile civilian governments are trying to consolidate their hold in Latin America, the United States is pouring unprecedented amounts of aid and other forms of support to the region's armed forces, according to a new report released here Thursday.

In the year 2000, Washington provided well over a billion dollars' worth of training, equipment, weapons and other kinds of support to Latin American military and police - almost twice as much as it provided the region in bilateral development aid.

It marked the first time since the winding down of the civil wars in Central America that the United States supplied more military and security assistance than economic or development aid, according to Adam Isacson of the Center for International Policy and co-author of the new report, 'Just the Facts: A Civilian's Guide to US Defence and Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean'.

Moreover, that trend looks likely to increase over the next two years at least, especially in light of recent statements by senior officials of the incoming George W. Bush administration who have suggested that US military aid to Colombia's neighbours may figure high on their agenda as Bogota carries through its US-backed army offensive into the southern part of the country to challenge guerrilla control there.

''If I were the neighbouring countries, I'd worry about the spillover as well,'' warned Defence Department Secretary-Designate Donald Rumsfeld during confirmation hearings here last week.

The new report, a close look at all US aid to military and police forces in the region, is the third in its annual series and covers mostly 1999 data culled from State Department, Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Pentagon documents. The Pentagon, which is not bound to disclose nearly as much information about its training and other programmes as the State Department, released its relevant 2000 documents only in the past week, after the report went to press.

''2000 was an especially busy year for the Pentagon in Latin America,'' according to Isacson, who cited in particular the appropriation of 1.3 billion dollars in support of 'Plan Colombia,' the US-backed effort to reduce coca and opium production in southern Colombia by training and equipping the army and police to battle the leftist insurgency which controls much of the region where the plants are grown.

Under the plan, Washington provided some 950 million dollars in military and police aid to Colombia alone, as well as tens of millions of dollars more to the armed forces of Peru, Bolivia, and Ecuador, including the refurbishment of a key air base in Ecuador to be used by US spy planes, as well as Ecuadorean aircraft in Washington's ''war against drugs''.

Indeed, the same four countries - which constitute the drug war's ''ground Zero'' - accounted for more than 90 percent of all military and police aid Washington provided to Latin America last year, according to Joy Olson, the second co-author and director of the independent Latin American Working Group (LAWG) here.

Virtually all of the equipment and weapons supplied to Latin American countries are provided under Washington's counter-narcotics programmes, she said.

But US military training in the region has also grown at a spectacular rate in recent years, according to the report.

On the basis of recently released documents, the two co-authors concluded that Washington changed between 13,000 and 15,000 Latin American military police personnel in 1999 - up from about 10,000 the previous year. For 2000, they said, the total has almost certainly risen substantially beyond the 1999 level, as a result of the initiation of Plan Colombia which, among other things, called for the training of two new anti-drug battalions for the Colombian army.

''The United States trains more military personnel from Latin America than from East and South Asia, the Middle East, and the former Soviet Union combined,'' said Olson.

Outside NATO, only South Korea, where Washington permanently deploys 37,000 troops as a deterrent to North Korea, was to receive more military training than Colombia in 2000, she added.

In addition, the US military now provides training programmes to every country in the Americas except Cuba. ''The training programme in Latin America is huge,'' according to Olson, who also noted that more than 55,000 US military personnel travelled to Latin America and the Caribbean for training and engagement in 1999.

Unlike US equipment, the training is not provided only by anti- drug programmes, according to the report. In 1999, it said, US Special Forces trained with 3,600 Latin American and Caribbean troops under the Pentagon's Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) programme which, until the mid-1990s, largely escaped Congressional oversight. The training covered tactics ranging from air assault to sharp-shooting to riot control.

In addition, both the Pentagon and the State Department appear to be relying increasingly on private contractors, whose activities are subject to even less regulation and oversight, to provide various services to Latin American militaries, according to the report.

These include private corporations, such as Dyncorp, which deployed more than 100 pilots, mechanics and other support staff to conduct spraying operations in Colombia during 1999 at a cost of some 37 million dollars, and Military Professional Resources International (MPRI), a Virginia- based firm of retired senior US military officers, which has trained the armed forces of key US allies, including Croatia and Nigeria on behalf of the Pentagon.

All of these training programmes raise serious questions about civilian control, according to the authors. While the Pentagon has insisted in recent years that a primary mission of training is to teach the military respect for civilian authority, the fact of the training itself is cited by the recipient military as a ''US seal of approval'' in its dealings with its government, ''whether it is intended or not'', said Isacson.

He also noted Washington's approval in principle last week of the 600 million dollar sale of 10-12 new F-16s to Chile as another disturbing sign of US support for Latin American militaries. Not only did the move break a 25-year US ban on introducing high-performance warplanes to the region, but it also raised new questions about the power of the military. ''I haven't heard President (Ricardo) Lagos voice strong support for it,'' noted Isacson.

Annual US weapons sales to Latin America have generally not exceeded 300 million dollars in recent years, he said. The sale, which may not be concluded for a year or two, would triple that amount and possibly create pressures on other militaries to buy new systems as well, according to Isacson.

The new report also dispels a number of misconceptions about US training activities. Despite the widespread belief that Mexico and the United States had reduced their fast-growing military ties following disclosures which embarrassed Mexico City in 1997, the report notes that training activity remains substantially the same, and that the 73 helicopters that were returned to the US in 1999 have since been replaced by the purchase of 73 Cessna aircraft.

It also noted that the School of the Americas (SOA), where thousands of Latin American military officers, including dozens of notorious human rights abusers, received counter-insurgency training during the Cold War, will re-open this month under a new name, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Co-operation. It remains unclear whether the curriculum will be substantially changed, according to the report.

Copyright 2001 IPS

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