US Special Forces Training in LatAm Tripled Since 2007

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A new report documents an increase in US Special Operations Forces training missions in Latin America, amid ongoing concerns about criminal activity in the region and human rights abuses by regional security personnel.

According to documents obtained by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) via the Freedom of Information Act, between 2007 and 2014 the number of US Special Operations Forces training missions — known as Joint Combined Exchange Trainings (JCET) — tripled in Latin America from 12 to 36.

In that eight-year period, nearly 4,000 US Special Forces trained around 13,000 Latin American security personnel at a cost of $73 million, WOLA found.

The stated purpose of JCET trainings is for US forces to maintain and practice new combat and technical skills, such as urban combat or riot control, while also teaching military tactics to their Latin American counterparts. However, WOLA notes that the documents also spell out an alternative purpose for these training missions: “gaining regional access with a minimal footprint” and “enhanc[ing] U.S. influence in host countries.”

WOLA notes that the increase in JCET missions in Latin America occurred at the same time as overall US military and police assistance to the region declined due to the scaling down of large aid programs like Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative.

WOLA situates the rise in Special Forces training missions within the context of a broader trend of increasing deployments of such units worldwide following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Additionally, the more recent drawdown of US combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan has made additional personnel available to be deployed to other regions.

Within Latin America, the documents obtained by WOLA showed a shift in the focus of JCETs since 2008, from South America to Central America. According to the documents, this was due to the latter region becoming “increasingly plagued with violence and illicit trafficking.”

Of all Latin American countries, Honduras had the most JCET deployments between 2007 and 2014, with 21 missions. El Salvador and Colombia had the second most JCETs, with 19 each.

WOLA expressed concern over a number of alleged human rights violations — such as extrajudicial killings, enforced disappearances, and extortion — by security forces in Honduras and El Salvador from 2011 to 2014, where the majority of Latin American JCET missions occurred.

Additionally, WOLA found minimal transparency concerning US Special Operations Forces in the region. In particular, the organization stated that deployments “lack effective safeguards” to ensure that foreign units trained by the United States “do not kill, torture, or abuse their own people,” and are not themselves corrupt or working with organized crime. 

InSight Crime Analysis

Over the last decade, the militarization of domestic security has become a common practice for Latin American nations combating criminal activity, particularly in Mexico and Central America. This has largely been a response to the inability of weak and often corrupt police institutions to stem deteriorating security and elevated levels of violence. Moreover, Latin American citizens generally trust the military more than police, believing the armed forces are more efficient and effective at restoring order.

However, the militarization of citizen security in Latin America has led to concerns of excessive force and abuses by units trained in combat rather than policing tactics. For instance, Mexico has seen a number of instances in which soldiers have been implicated in human rights violations against civilians — most notably the 2014 Tlatlaya massacre, when soldiers allegedly murdered 22 people. El Salvador has also seen a rise in killings of suspected gang members by security personnel during 2016 following the deployment of joint military-police units.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

These dynamics give legitimacy to WOLA’s call for greater transparency and oversight of the increasing role of US Special Operations Forces in the hemisphere. As alluded to in the report, this has relevance not only for the ethical and moral considerations of ensuring US-trained forces are not committing abuses, but also for the more practical matter of safeguarding against training potentially corrupt units that could use their knowledge and skills in the service of criminal organizations. In fact, this has already happened in at least one prominent case; the original members of Mexico’s hyper-violent Zetas criminal organization were US-trained Mexican Special Forces whose advanced skill set proved to be readily adaptable to the criminal sphere. 

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