US Calls on LatAm to Limit Crime-Fighting Role of Militaries

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The US defense secretary has cautioned Latin American countries against relying on their militaries for law enforcement, which could point to a changing focus in US policy in the region.

US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta acknowledged it is often difficult for governments in the region to respond to transnational criminal threats using traditional law enforcement, but said that “the use of the military to perform civil law enforcement cannot be a long-term solution.”

Panetta delivered his remarks at the 10th Conference of Defense Ministers of the Americas in Uruguay, his last stop on a three-day tour of South America intended to bolster defense cooperation in the region.

He told other officials in attendance that the United States would help countries strengthen their law enforcement capabilities, according to the Associated Press, and called for greater regional cooperation on disaster relief and responses to humanitarian crises.

InSight Crime Analysis

In the fight against organized crime, Latin American countries often turn to their militaries, which are considered to be less susceptible to corruption than police forces. In Mexico, for example, the government has relied on the military to enforce security in parts of the country where police are incapable of doing so.

The US may have encouraged this trend through its aid programs, as in the case of Plan Colombia, which since 2000 has sent $8.5 billion in aid to Colombia, mostly to strengthen the military. The Merida Initiative, which provides aid to Mexico, and the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) have both been criticized for prioritizing military funding over promoting institutional development in the recipient countries.

Panetta’s remarks could signify that the US is beginning to change this emphasis, focusing more on helping Latin America’s civilian institutions to fight organized crime. There have been other signs of this as well. In July, for instance, a report by the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee noted that Mexico’s reliance on the military had been “largely ineffective” against drug cartels and recommended investing $250 million over the next four years to strengthen the country’s judicial system and train police. 

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