U.S. Special Operations Forces training missions to Latin America tripled between 2007 and 2014, newly obtained documents by a human rights advocacy organization reveal, offering further evidence that it is "the golden age" of secret operations by these elite fighters.
The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) says the uptick happened during "a period when overall military aid to the region was decreasing" and as overall transparency about these forces, which include the Green Berets, the Navy SEALs, and Rangers, is waning.
Many of the missions these forces took part in, WOLA's Sarah Kinosian and Adam Isacson explain, were trainings called Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET). While 12 JCETs trained 560 foreign personnel in 2007, the number zoomed up to 36 JCETs training 2,300 personnel in 2014.
Kinosian and Isacson write:
JCETs do more than train U.S. forces. They teach Latin American co-participants military tactics while also "gaining regional access with a minimal footprint," according to the documents. The reports highlight that "[JCET] activities often enhance U.S. influence in host countries."
The highest number of missions—21—took place in Honduras. Most of those occurred from 2011 to 2014, a period when "when serious allegations levied against Honduran security forces—murder, torture, rape and extortion—went uninvestigated and unpunished," Kinosian and Isacson write.
Nearly as many—19—missions took place in El Salvador, where the trainings may have been for a group of units ostensibly taking to the streets to fight that country's war on gangs, and who have "been credibly accused of extrajudicial executions, crime scene manipulation, and enforced disappearances, among other crimes."
Kinosian and Isacson write: "Over the past eight years, nearly 4,000 U.S. Special Forces personnel have trained nearly 13,000 Latin American security force personnel at a cost of $73 million."
All this means, they add, that the public needs to ask some questions about the missions, namely, who exactly is the U.S. training? Are they implicated in human rights abuses? Is it now the U.S. military crafting U.S. foreign policy? And where is the public oversight?
Some of those concerns are ones previously underscored by author Nick Turse, who's written about how the public is largely unaware of what these forces are doing, and how the number of these operations is exploding. He wrote in 2014:
Since September 11, 2001, U.S. Special Operations forces have grown in every conceivable way, from their numbers to their budget. Most telling, however, has been the exponential rise in special ops deployments globally. This presence—now, in nearly 70% of the world’s nations—provides new evidence of the size and scope of a secret war being waged from Latin America to the backlands of Afghanistan, from training missions with African allies to information operations launched in cyberspace.
In 2013, elite U.S. forces were deployed in 134 countries around the globe, according to Major Matthew Robert Bockholt of SOCOM Public Affairs. This 123% increase during the Obama years demonstrates how, in addition to conventional wars and a CIA drone campaign, public diplomacy and extensive electronic spying, the U.S. has engaged in still another significant and growing form of overseas power projection. Conducted largely in the shadows by America's most elite troops, the vast majority of these missions take place far from prying eyes, media scrutiny, or any type of outside oversight, increasing the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.
Further speaking to the secrecy, he wrote last year:
the vast majority of special ops missions remain completely in the shadows, hidden from external oversight or press scrutiny. In fact, aside from modest amounts of information disclosed through highly-selective coverage by military media, official White House leaks, SEALs with something to sell, and a few cherry-picked journalists reporting on cherry-picked opportunities, much of what America’s special operators do is never subjected to meaningful examination, which only increases the chances of unforeseen blowback and catastrophic consequences.
Upon taking the helm of the U.S. Special Operations Command in 2014, Army Gen. Joe Votel said, "The command is at its absolute zenith," adding "I believe over the past several years, without even knowing it, we have been, and we are in, the golden age of special operations."
Unfortunately, Kinosian and Isacson write, "as Special Operations Forces activity grows, the already low amount of transparency and available information about their actions is shrinking."