The Perils of Involving the Military in Citizen Security

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Faced with surging crime and corrupt police forces, many Latin American governments are turning to their militaries to combat citizen insecurity, but the peacetime deployment of the armed forces is not without risk.

“I wish the soldiers could be here every day of the week … This area is very dangerous, I feel much safer like this.” So replied Ecuadorian Angela Nunez, when asked by a BBC reporter about the increasing involvement of the military in policing in the country. The government of Ecuador has stepped up its reliance on the army in recent years, partially in response to a 2010 police revolt and partially due to an increase in crime.

While in North America and Europe the idea of the military carrying out police functions would be unthinkable, in Ecuador and in many other countries in Latin America the armed forces have an exceptionally broad constitutional mandate. ·The Ecuadorian constitution, for instance, specifies that the function of the military is to “guarantee the legal and democratic order of the social rule of law … collaborate with the social and economic development of the country; … [and] participate in economic activities exclusively related to the national defense.”

However, using the military in internal affairs is a risky practice, as it can initiate destabilizing processes that undermine democratic norms. As outlined in a 2010 report by the Washington Office on Latin America entitled “Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Military and Police Roles in the Americas,” there are four chief dangers associated with the use of the military in civilian policing.

First, it can lead to a tense environment between the military and police forces in a country, with the two institutions vying for control. This dynamic is evident in Mexico, where multiple standoffs between military and police have occurred in Ciudad Juarez and Monterrey. In 2009, more than 67 such incidents were reported. Most of such confrontations occur between the army and municipal police, who are frequently perceived as being infiltrated by criminal elements.

Involving the military in internal security could also potentially compromise its political insulation, inviting officers to use their position to influence the political process. While this has been more problematic in the past, when military coups were a common feature of Latin American politics, there are signs that the political barrier between military and civilian officials is still weak. In Honduras for instance, where the army was used extensively to put down social unrest in the aftermath of the 2009 coup, the general in charge of the crackdown now seems to be gearing up to run for office. According to Honduras’ El Heraldo, General Romeo Vasquez will run in the 2013 elections as the presidential candidate of the Patriotic Alliance Party.

Third, it poses a basic tactical problem: soldiers are not trained in police work, and their knowledge of due process is likely to be limited at best. As such, there is a risk that the use of soldiers as policemen will create a repressive security environment, marked by human rights abuses. This was the concern of civil society organizations in Guatemala after a state of siege was announced in the department of Verapaz, accompanied by a surge in troops. The move, which gave the military the power to impose a curfew, search homes at random and detain suspects without charge, was denounced by human rights groups and local indigenous activists as a violation of civil rights.

The final argument against using the military to fill police roles is that it can trigger a self-defeating process. While relying on the military to enforce criminal justice because of shortcomings with the existing police force might be the most politically expedient decision, it does nothing to address the root of the problem. Instead, it simply makes the government even more dependent on the military, lessening the incentive to reform the police and justice system.

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