Several Central American nations are increasing their defense budgets after decades of demilitarization, citing the need to combat organized crime. But there are some who see inherent dangers in assigning the military a bigger role, and others who see geopolitical forces at work.
The Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are at the center of these increases in military expenditures. According to the Security and Defense Network of Latin America (RESDAL), quoted in the BBC, in El Salvador, defense spending per year has jumped from $106 million to $133 million over the last five years; Honduras is up from $63 million to $172 million over the same period; and Guatemala’s spending has gone from $134 million to $160 million. The BBC also says Panama and Costa Rica have upped spending on security forces.
Most of these countries are focused on the need to increase aerial capabilities. The Honduran government announced in June plans to purchase helicopters and aircraft from the U.S., as well Super Tucano aircraft from Brazil, using money from a “security tax” levied on businesses.
This is the first step in a large-scale plan aimed at improving the potency of the Honduran Armed Forces, which will also include the purchase of sophisticated radar equipment. The new equipment will be used to intercept drug trafficking operations, according to the Honduran government.
Meanwhile, Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom formally announced in July the abolition of a limit on military expenditure, which had until then had been capped at 0.33 percent of gross domestic product (GDP), as set out in a 1996 peace agreement between the government and leftist guerrillas.
With increased funds at its disposal for defense spending, the Guatemalan government announced in late September that it too planned to purchase a number of Brazilian Super Tucano aircraft, radars and air traffic control equipment, at a cost of $166 million, according to the BBC.
Echoing the words of the Salvadoran and Honduran governments, a spokesperson of the Guatemalan Defense Ministry said improvements in military equipment will “improve the tracking of routes used by drug traffickers.”
Salvadoran President, Mauricio Funes, also announced plans to purchase up to 10 Super Tucano aircraft in late 2010. Although the plan was postponed due to lack of funds in February, the government intends to press ahead with its plans when funds become available.
Over the past twenty years, Central America has become a crucial drug trafficking corridor and in recent years evidence has emerged that drug cartels, notably the Mexican Zetas and Sinaloa Cartel, are establishing bases in Central America.
The results have been catestrophic. The Northern Triangle has some of the highest homicide rates in the world, the United Nations said in a 2011 report. The government’s inability to control this violence has led many to pull the military back into the fray of controlling “internal order,” assigning some of them to city streets and prisons.
But the trend is troubling for a number of reasons. Central American armies have long histories of overturning governments and abusing its citizens. In just the most recent case in 2009, the Honduran military removed democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya.
What’s more, the military does not have the training and the government does not have the required oversight in order to ensure abuses will be investigated and prosecuted.
Some have said the emphasis on beefing up militaries is misplaced, or, what Luis Cordero, director of the Arias Foundation for Peace, has called “irrational.” Organized crime, according to Cordero, should be fought with a well trained civilian police force given adequate resources and not through increasing military power.
Other critics say increased military spending is less about crime and more about geopolitics. At the heart of this geopolitical struggle is Nicaragua, a staunch ally of Venezuela, who is a staunch enemy of the United States. Nicaragua has also announced plans to acquire more aircraft and helicopters to fight drug trafficking.
“The central issue is not effectiveness in fighting organized crime, rather a U.S. influenced attempt to provide a ‘geopolitical counterweight’ to the influence of Venezuela, Ecuador and Bolivia,” said Honduran scholar Eugenio Sosa in an interview with Mexico’s El Universal newspaper in a reference to the increased spending in his country.
The fear has some talking about a regional arms race. Across Latin America, governments have increased military spending by an average 5.2 percent, an Al Jazeera report says. Global military expenditures, meanwhile, increased by only 1.3 percent in 2010, according to an April 2011 report released by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).