This article is part of WOLA’s series looking at some of the most significant human rights trends and events of the 2010s.
See the full series here.
The past decade saw hard lessons for Latin America about the costs of relying on the military—rather than a professionalized, rights-respecting police force—to handle public security tasks.
In many countries, civilian leaders argued that deploying soldiers to crack down on crime was necessary and preferable to relying on under-equipped police plagued by corruption and colluding with organized crime. But this militarization of public security was accompanied by human rights abuses such as disappearances, torture, sexual assault, arbitrary detentions, and extrajudicial killings; as well as the use of the military to violently repress social protests and to play a politicized role in civilian affairs.
Even as governments claimed that militaries were producing results in combating insecurity, by and large the evidence actually showed disappointing results. Meanwhile, while states emphasized the use of combat-trained soldiers to handle the “protect and serve” public security mission, much-needed reforms to the police and the judiciary took a back seat.
Arguably, in no other place were the perils of depending on a militarized approach to public security more evident than in Mexico, where the government deployed tens of thousands of members of the armed forces to combat organized crime. As documented by human rights groups and international human rights bodies, this led to a dramatic spike in reported human rights violations, of which only a minuscule number resulted in investigations and sanctions.
Mexico attempted to address this lack of accountability through reforms passed in 2014, requiring human rights abuses by the military to be tried and investigated in the civilian, rather than the military, court system. Nevertheless, accountability for these crimes remains virtually non-existent: according to a WOLA analysis of data provided by the Mexican government between 2012 to 2016, the civilian justice system only saw 16 convictions of soldiers implicated in human rights crimes.
Experiences in Ciudad Juarez, where the civilian population was caught between warring cartels and an abuse-prone military, and incidents like the Tlatlaya massacre of 2014, in which soldiers killed 22 people, of whom at least 12 were extrajudicially executed (including a 15-year-old girl) and engaged in a cover-up, were other cornerstone moments for Mexico that showed the damaging consequences of using the military to fight crime.
Although the Mexican Supreme Court declared unconstitutional former President Enrique Peña Nieto’s proposed Internal Security Law, which would have further legalized the use of the Mexican military in public security, one of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s first actions as president was to reform the Mexican constitution to permit the use of the military in public security tasks for the next five years and to create the National Guard. While on paper this new security force is a civilian force under civilian control, its first commander is a retired military general, and currently 80 percent of the agents come from Mexico’s armed forces.
Elsewhere in the region, the costs of a military-heavy approach to public security were seen in Brazil, where the military have backed up a police strategy that has killed thousands in low-income neighborhoods; in Guatemala, where use of the military in a policing role came close to being phased out, then was reversed and has had little impact in improving security, and in Honduras, where a newly created “Military Public Order Police” answering to the president has committed numerous abuses, including against protesters.
In Colombia, as the country moved toward dialogue with the FARC guerrilla group, the legacy of its “Plan Colombia” security model cast a shadow over the decade, as peace talks wrestled with questions of reparations and justice for the tens of thousands of civilians killed and displaced by paramilitary groups that often worked alongside the military, and thousands more killed directly to falsely boost military body counts. Especially during the early part of the decade, the question of Plan Colombia as a cautionary tale versus a “model” for the region influenced debates among U.S. policymakers, as they confronted questions over how to deal with rising violence and endemic drug trafficking in Mexico and Central America.
A decade that began in the shadow of the military’s participation in Honduras’s 2009 coup ended with civilian leaders increasingly employing the armed forces, either alongside or instead of police, to stamp out social protest. The military played a backing role in Venezuela’s response to mass protests in 2017 and 2019, and a central role in the aftermath of Honduras’s probably fraudulent 2017 presidential election. Soldiers confronted protesters in several countries in 2019: confronting anti-austerity protesters in Ecuador; enforcing a curfew in Bogotá, Colombia; employed in Chile’s first post-Pinochet state of emergency; and using live-fire ammunition in the aftermath of Evo Morales’s military-facilitated exit in Bolivia.
The perils of militarization were seen in a different way at the U.S.-Mexico border, where both the Obama and Trump administrations have used National Guard and active-duty deployments as a politically symbolic but marginally impactful response to border security concerns. Not only did the dramatic security buildup along the southern border—which, aside from military deployments, also involved partial border walls, the increased use of surveillance technologies, and an expanded Border Patrol—cost U.S. taxpayers billions, it had significant implications for human rights. The tightened security itself did little to stem migration or drug trafficking, but did succeed in pushing migrants to rely more heavily on human traffickers, and to attempt their journey along ever more dangerous and isolated routes.