The US is paying Colombia to train security forces in Central America, without tracking whether this is doing good or causing harm. It’s time for authorities to start asking hard questions about what lessons Colombia’s military is exporting abroad.
By the Colombian government’s count, its security forces may have killed at least 4, 475 civilians. More than 5,000 state agents have been implicated. According to the United States government, the Colombian military continued to kill civilians through 2014.
Yet, documents from the US Department of State and Department of Defense show the United States expanded funding this year for a program that pays the Andean nation to export its drug war and human rights “know-how” to new territories, despite the grave human rights concerns this fairly invisible strategy presents.
Since 2007, and more intensively since 2011, the United States has paid for Colombian security forces to train military and police in Central America, the Caribbean, Mexico, Paraguay, Peru — and even West Africa— in counternarcotics tactics.
According to documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests, the United States supported the country’s training of 6,526 police and soldiers from 10 Western Hemisphere countries, including Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Panama in 2014, more than five times the number trained in 2013. In 2015, the Colombian defense ministry reports that this program expanded to several Caribbean countries. The courses cover topics related to narcotrafficking —ranging from a six-month special forces training in Honduras and three weeks of riverine combat exercises in Panama, to instruction on police intelligence in El Salvador and Guatemala.
Colombia began in this role by training Afghani police. Due to a variety of factors, including dissimilarities in security landscapes, the results were not what policymakers had hoped. In 2009, Colombian forces started to intensify and expand their training programs to Mexican and Central American forces as security crises in those countries deepened.
Although the existence of such training is no secret — the participating governments promote it publicly— key details remain hidden from the public. Since 2009, Colombia’s military and police have trained 30,000 security force personnel from over 60 countries. The United States has helped fund some of this training, especially in the Western Hemisphere. However, there is little information about exactly who has been trained and how many US dollars have gone to these programs.
US-backed Colombian security training outcomes are not monitored or evaluated by the legislative or federal branch. This lack of information makes it nearly impossible to know if this program has any positive effect, or if it is doing more harm than good.
Congress, meanwhile, has asked few questions, despite the clear risk in outsourcing training from a security apparatus that has been regularly implicated in torture, disappearances, corruption and what Human Rights Watch has called “widespread and systematic” extrajudicial executions.
Given the onslaught of damning accusations facing the upper echelons of Colombia’s military, US taxpayers should be asking for details about what lessons are being exported to members of notoriously corrupt and abusive Mexican, Caribbean and Central American security forces.
Exporting Colombia’s Drug War “Success”
The US government has justified this approach based on the widely held notion that the US-backed drug war succeeded in Colombia. Of the nearly $10 billion dollars the United States allocated through Plan Colombia between FY 2000 and FY 2015, almost $7 billion went to train, assist, advise and heavily equip the country’s military and police, according to data from Security Assistance Monitor. During this time, security forces tallied wins against the FARC guerrillas, kidnappings subsided, and thousands of paramilitaries demobilized. But other security problems persisted, mutated, or even deepened in the country, while citizens, particularly Colombia’s most vulnerable populations, incurred the high costs of war.
Many of the issues addressed by Plan Colombia— drug trafficking and drug production, organized crime, and violent competition over local markets and international trafficking corridors— simply migrated. The same problems intensified: first in Mexico and then throughout Central America, which has become one of the most violent regions in the world. In Colombia, other forms of violence, such as forced displacement and extrajudicial executions committed by army troops, escalated at the highest mark of US military aid.
The main reason the United States strongly supports this strategy is the price tag. It is far less expensive for the United States to pay for a trainee’s room, board and military accouterment than to fund a cadre of US trainers to travel overseas. It also allows the United States to maintain a “light footprint” influence in several countries without the negative optics of a large military presence.
US officials also see the strategy as a return on investment. William Brownfield, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, noted in a 2013 congressional hearing, “It’s a dividend that we get for investing over $9 billion in support for Plan Colombia.”
It is also an attractive option for Colombia’s military. Should the government reach a peace agreement with FARC rebels, ending the country’s 51-year armed conflict, the armed forces will need new missions to maintain their budget and ranks.
Despite the lack of information on the actual impacts of this program, the United States increases its Colombian-led security training each year. In 2013, the United States supported 39 training events. In 2014, that number jumped to 152, and in 2015 it is planned to reach 205.
Since 2013, the number of soldiers who received training from Colombia’s military with US-support has increased 720 percent. Defense Department documents show support for 179 trainees in 2013, 696 in 2014 and estimate some 1,470 will be trained in 2015. This year Guatemala, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador will be the top recipients.
Police trainees taking courses coordinated by the State Department have increased by almost 600 percent, with numbers shooting up from 848 trainees in 2013 to 5,830 in 2015. Honduran police are far and away the top beneficiary, with 3,068 national police slated to participate in the program this year alone.
Mexico has been the largest recipient of Colombian military and police training, but this is largely an agreement between Colombia and Mexico. According to the Colombian government, the country’s national police trained 10,310 Mexican police between 2009 and 2013.
Many training courses are hosted in Colombia, but trainers also travel to recipient countries for short-term instruction or for extended periods to teach in war schools or policing academies. US government officials have confirmed that while Colombia funds the instructors’ salaries, the United States pays for trainers’ and trainees’ travel, lodging and meals. Equipment and supplies such as ammunition and fuel are also provided by the United States.
The Defense Department has spent some $4 million since 2013, while the State Department plunged nearly $12 million into the program in 2014 alone, primarily through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), the main US assistance package to Central America. It is unclear how much was spent in previous years or how much is earmarked under CARSI for 2016. Additionally, the House of Representatives’ 2016 budget for the State Department includes $10 million for Colombia to train police globally.
On top of funding and coordinating Colombian-taught training exercises, the United States also provides substantial infrastructure. The US government supported the construction of a policing school with Colombian trainers in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, and has invested almost $98.7 million of Defense Department funding since 2009 in a US Regional Helicopter Training Center in Melgar, Colombia, which hosts aviation courses, particularly for Mexican federal police.
These transparency and accountability problems with Colombian trainers do not stop with the United States. Canada has also been boasting a similar program with Colombia as a key part of its security assistance to Central America since 2012. But like the US-sponsored programs, details for Canadian-funded training have not been made publicly available.
Human Rights Risks of Exporting Colombian Security
A central concern with the United States using Colombia’s security forces as its training proxy is the military’s staggering record of human rights violations. Colombian army officers are under investigation for murdering more than 4,475 civilians. These killings, known as “false positives,” typically involved execution of young men whom soldiers then dressed in guerrilla uniforms and claimed as enemy combatants killed in battle. As a recently published Human Rights Watch report on extrajudicial executions in Colombia lays out, there is strong evidence that several generals and colonels “knew or should have known” about these killings.
Although a few State Department officials pushed for reforms, Washington’s intensive support for Colombia’s armed forces during this time is a clear example of turning a blind eye when a client behaves badly. US Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) told The Guardian, “As we provided billions of dollars in aid to the Colombian army over many years, its troops systematically executed civilians.”
To date, convictions have been handed down to mostly lower-ranking officers, just a few colonels and not one general. In fact, many have risen in the ranks and are now senior-ranking officials. The current head of the armed forces, Juan Pablo Rodriguez Barragan, is alleged to have been involved in at least 28 extrajudicial executions.
General Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar received extensive US military training and served as an instructor of Latin American soldiers in 2002-03 at the US Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC). He led a brigade that allegedly killed at least 75 civilians. He was the commander of the Colombian army until this past Tuesday, when he was replaced by an officer not publically implicated in the scandal. One of Lasprilla’s students at WHINSEC, Honduran Major Mauricio Alemán Quiroz, was chief of naval intelligence during the military-led coup in Honduras in 2009.
Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos responded to the Human Rights Watch Report by saying it provided insufficient documentation for its claims. The head of the Colombian army in 2009 said, “We are not going to continue to cry over spilled milk,” in reference to the false positive executions.
The military has dragged its heels in its cooperation with civilian investigations, often refusing to hand over crucial documentation. The Colombian government has tried to change legislation in order to send some of these alleged perpetrators back to military courts, which almost always dismiss the cases. For victims seeking justice for abuses committed by those trained by Colombians with US funds, the message is not encouraging.
Many other scandals have wracked the Colombian military, calling its ethos, and by extension the training it exports overseas, into question.
There is clear evidence that paramilitary commanders, responsible for more atrocities than any other actor in Colombia’s civil war, received institutional support from many Colombian police and military officers. More recent controversies include attempts by some military personnel to sabotage peace negotiations between the Colombian government and FARC guerrillas, through illegally wiretapping communications between negotiators.
Although Colombian police do not have the same systematic abuse problems as the country’s military, corruption in the civilian force remains an issue. This corruption has been key to criminal groups maintaining territorial control over entire neighborhoods in urban centers like Medellin and Cali.
Issues of corruption have already arisen in this new US-Colombia strategy in Honduras. Since December, 71 agents and officers backed by the United States and trained by Colombian officers have been suspended for stealing $1.3 million seized in a raid against narcotraffickers. Of those implicated, 51 were members of the TIGRES, a SWAT-like, elite, militarized police force trained by Colombia’s Comando Jungla Special Forces and the US Army’s 7th Special Forces Group. The remaining 20 were members of a Sensitive Investigations Unit, a US-sponsored vetted team that works in conjunction with US law enforcement.
Beyond human rights concerns, advocates worry about the message being sent to security and justices systems throughout the region. Despite impunity for atrocities, scandals, corruption, ongoing human and labor rights violations, and the existing severe security problems, Washington continues to peddle Colombia globally as the shining example of success in the drug war.
Although US officials state that they vet trainers and students for US-funded training, lack of oversight and the failures of the Colombian justice system give cause for doubt. And history is telling. “It’s crystal clear that the United States has failed to conduct a serious vetting and scrutiny of the actions conducted by Colombian security forces with training, intelligence and equipment provided by the US government during all of these years,” José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director of Human Rights Watch said following the release of the organization’s report.
The State Department designs the vetting process to screen students, not instructors. In fact, vetted Colombian trainers have taught at the US Army’s Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (formerly the School of the Americas) and subsequently found guilty of murder. The Center for Public Integrity found a Colombian general teaching at the Defense Department’s National Defense University, vetted by the Pentagon, had led a brigade whose members allowed a militia to carry out a massacre. Given these cases, strong oversight of vetting Colombian military and police instructors should be required.
There also appears to be little oversight of the trainings themselves. Documents from both the Defense and State Departments claim staff “oversees, manages and observes” the training events. However, a government official close to the issue said that while personnel sometimes would go to trainings, there “isn’t enough bandwidth” to monitor all trainings. US agencies do not review course content, but let the Colombians “tropicalize” US curriculum, according to a government source. In other words, they are allowed, unchecked, to put their own spin on existing content.
In addition to the lack of information about what units are being trained, who is carrying out the trainings, and the content of the curriculum, there are concerns about with whom the United States is coordinating these courses.
Honduras’ police attaché in Bogotá, General Juan Carlos Bonilla, facilitates Colombian training of his country’s forces, which raises serious questions. Bonilla is alleged to have participated directly in several extrajudicial killings as a regional police commander and was likely forced to resign his post as national police commander in December 2013 over claims of dozens of death squad killings by police under his command.
This is not the first time that the United States has funded South American forces to train Central American security forces. In the 1980s, US-backed Argentine trainers — veterans of Argentina’s “Dirty War” and Operation Condor — worked with the CIA to train Honduran soldiers who went on to fill the upper ranks of the infamous Battalion 316, which tortured, killed, and disappeared hundreds of Hondurans. Egregious abuses did not come to light until key US documents were declassified many years later.
What Can Be Done?
Promoting Colombian military training of other countries’ security forces is not a wise move, given the unresolved human rights problems within the Colombian armed forces.
This training should at an absolute minimum be included in the annual Foreign Military Training Report (FMTR), which documents all US foreign military and police training worldwide. US officials say that as the law is currently written, public documentation is not required because Colombians, and not US officers, are conducting the trainings. This law should be clarified to require reporting on US-supported military training by non-US personnel and all police trainings. This would offer some critically needed transparency. It is also essential to establish a monitoring and evaluation system to determine the quality, utility, effectiveness, or unintended consequences of these programs.
Despite the myriad concerns and risks, US-supported Colombian foreign security force training remains effectively invisible. The dollar costs, the programs supporting the training, and required reporting are to date either secret or not compiled.
As this type of training becomes the new normal for US and Colombian security strategy in the hemisphere, Congress and the public should be asking tough questions now instead of writing a check, hoping for the best, and dealing with any mess or wasted dollars later.
Sarah Kinosian is the Lead Researcher on Latin America at the Center for International Policy and Security Assistance Monitor, John Lindsay-Poland is a researcher and analyst of US policy and human rights in Latin America, and Lisa Haugaard is the Executive Director of Latin America Working Group.