WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Fernando Vergara)

20 Jul 2020 | Commentary

In Latin America, COVID-19 Risks Permanently Disturbing Civil-Military Relations

Across Latin America, the COVID-19 pandemic is embedding the armed forces more deeply into citizens’ daily lives. At a time when it’s more important than ever to rethink the role of policing and the accountability of public security forces to the people they protect, this militarization of public security is greatly concerning because it will be difficult to reverse.

In response to the pandemic, Latin American governments are heavily deploying soldiers in population centers. These soldiers are playing roles, including auxiliary policing, that bear little or no resemblance to “defense.” This use of military forces isn’t unusual for a natural disaster, when the military is often the only institution that can be mobilized to respond to a crisis that is discrete and time-bound. But COVID-19 is a different kind of natural disaster: it’s happening everywhere, for an indefinite amount of time.

By placing often unaccountable armed forces side-by-side with citizens for indefinite periods, often at the whim of leaders with a weak commitment to democracy, the pandemic may leave behind a region with a civil-military balance tilted heavily toward the generals. When the pandemic ends, civilian leaders will not only have to deal with the aftermath of massive casualties and disintegrating economies, but also with sending an empowered military back to the barracks and implementing new, effective approaches to policing. If they fail to do so, post-coronavirus Latin America will be a region replete with regimes that can only be described as partial, or even former, democracies.

Militaries can help respond to natural disasters—but COVID-19 is not a normal natural disaster

Most countries maintain militaries for external defense. When on their own soil, though, most national constitutions intend that militaries operate on an “emergencies only” basis. A heavily armed force, trained to use maximum violence to defeat an enemy, is fundamentally different from a police force, trained to protect and serve a population using minimal, carefully calibrated force.

In a democracy, it is incongruous to have the armed forces, a hierarchical, top-down institution trained to use overwhelming force to defeat an enemy, becoming part of citizens’ daily lives. In a free society, under normal circumstances, soldiers don’t patrol the streets, detain and interrogate people, or carry out surveillance on citizens.

Key differences between militaries and police forces

Though exceptions exist, with several listed below, some of the characteristics that distinguish military and police forces include the following.

Police seek to de-escalate situations, using force—especially lethal force—only as a last resort. Combat demands that militaries escalate quickly and use overwhelming force to defeat an enemy.

Police tend to carry much lighter weaponry than military forces.

Police tend to live among the population, and constant interaction with them is central to their work. Military personnel tend to live in barracks and bases or otherwise separate from society as a whole. In countries that maintain a sharp division between military and police roles, citizens rarely come across armed, uniformed soldiers.

Police are expected to respond quickly to citizens’ calls for assistance, often through emergency call centers. Armed forces may respond to some calls for help, but do not maintain this response capacity.

Police forces include detectives and other specialists in investigating crimes after the fact, and all are trained in preserving crime scenes, respecting rules of evidence, and otherwise coordinating with the criminal justice system. Military forces have little or no criminal investigative capacity.

Police who commit human rights abuses tend to be tried in the regular criminal justice system. Military personnel who commit international humanitarian law violations tend to be tried in a separate military justice system. In countries that employ militaries for public security, how to investigate and prosecute military personnel who violate fellow citizens’ rights is nearly always a controversial topic.

Police tend to operate at or near capacity, immersed in daily duties with little opportunity or capacity for planning. When not at war, militaries maintain much excess capacity, with soldiers trained and equipment maintained to a state of “readiness” while officers draw up contingency plans.

Exceptions to these distinctions exist, and many of them have emerged or evolved in the past 50 or 60 years. Many of them blur the lines dangerously between military and policing missions. They include:

  • Military police, peacekeeping, or national guard units that, while military, keep order in emergencies or in overseas territorial occupations.
  • Special Operations Forces, or military personnel who may be trained to relate to populations or “win hearts and minds” while seeking to stabilize territory or carry out “operations other than war.”
  • Police Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) or commando units that use escalated force and heavy weapons against lawbreakers believed to be heavily armed.
  • Gendarmeries, constabularies, or border guards that tend to be more mobile, more heavily armed, and more hierarchically organized than police, and are often expected to operate in sparsely populated and lightly governed rural areas.

For more, see WOLA’s 2010 report Preach What You Practice: The Separation of Police and Military Roles in the Americas.

All countries, though, make exceptions for emergencies. It’s normal for militaries to play a big internal role during natural disasters or other highly unusual, short-term, localized events. It is the armed forces that have logistical capacity like helicopters, transport aircraft, vehicles, or field hospitals. The armed forces are virtually the only government institution that, under everyday conditions, isn’t operating at maximum capacity: they are in a state of “readiness” in which most personnel and equipment are not quite idle, but focused on training, planning, and maintaining for other eventualities. That makes them the only institution with additional “surge capacity” to respond quickly when emergency strikes.

In the United States, where the Posse Comitatus Act of 1878 prohibits using soldiers for law enforcement under normal circumstances, active-duty military personnel helped keep order after the 1992 Los Angeles riots and Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. Chile recurred to the military to help keep order after its 2010 Santiago earthquake. Brazilian soldiers played law enforcement roles during the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. The Pentagon plays a big domestic surveillance role around big events like the Super Bowl. Once the situation begins to ease, troops get withdrawn quickly.

COVID-19, though, is a different kind of natural disaster. It’s not localized: it is taking place everywhere throughout a country’s geography. It’s hardly short-term: we don’t know when the pandemic will end. And as people go months without incomes, it threatens to bring a host of public order challenges beyond already high levels of violence and insecurity in many countries in the region.

The pandemic presents important civil-military dilemmas in Latin America. This part of the world has spent the past 40 years transitioning away from a period when nearly every country was under the cruel dominion of all-powerful military dictatorships. Even before COVID-19 hit the region, observers of civil-military relations were sounding alarms about a growing re-politicization of armed forces. Now, the public health crisis threatens to exacerbate the problem.

The pre-pandemic increase in military roles

The past decade had already seen a worrying erosion of the region’s transitions from military rule to civilian democracy, which began during the 1980s. A coup in 2009 in Honduras, in which the military helped hand power from an elected president to his opponents, jolted the region. Starting in 2006, Mexico, which experienced 71 years of single party rule and had avoided military rule, began steadily increasing the armed forces’ role in the country’s so far unsuccessful fight against organized crime. Central American leaders sent soldiers to fight gangs. In Venezuela, the Chávez and Maduro governments put officers in charge of food distribution, much of the oil industry, and many other civilian roles.

These concerning trends accelerated in 2019 and early 2020, as noted in a December WOLA commentary:

  • In late 2018 Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced his intention to close the international Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) with an aggressive show of military force. 
  • Mexico created a new National Guard to handle internal security tasks. While this force is nominally civilian, it is currently led by a recently retired army general and more than three quarters of its personnel are temporarily deployed soldiers, marines, and military police. Civilian oversight of its activities is poor
  • Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro strongly encouraged generals to celebrate a 1964 military coup that brought thousands of human rights violations and halted democracy for 21 years, while speaking approvingly of some of that regime’s worst torturers. 
  • Honduras, which created a new military police force in 2013, using it heavily and brutally to put down social protest, put its armed forces in charge of the prison system in December 2019. 
  • In January 2020, Colombian military intelligence units were revealed to have been carrying out a campaign of surveillance, threats, and intimidation against journalists, opposition politicians, judges, human rights defenders, and others.  
  • On a Sunday afternoon in February 2020, the president of El Salvador brought a contingent of fully armed troops with him into the legislature’s main chamber, as an unsubtle way of pressing the Congress to approve a loan to purchase security equipment.
  • In Honduras, Ecuador, Peru, and Chile, elected civilian presidents posed with uniformed generals in televised addresses as they announced crackdowns on waves of social protest. 

Rising militarization amid the COVID-19 crisis

Latin America is currently the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic—a crisis that has accelerated the region’s concerning recurrence to its armed forces. Soldiers are present in the region’s streets far more than before, enforcing lockdowns and curfews, either alongside police or on their own. 

Thousands of troops have been deployed to population centers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Peru, Venezuela, and elsewhere. Pandemic-related security duties include patrolling, manning checkpoints, sealing borders, and in many cases detaining violators.

In some countries, particularly Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Peru, this has meant roundups of tens of thousands of people found outdoors in violation of stay-at-home orders, often followed by mass detention in insanitary conditions. Bukele, the Salvadoran president, persisted with these military roundups and detentions despite a Supreme Court order calling a halt to the practice.

Nearly everywhere, the armed forces are deeply involved in distribution of basic food packages to households whose incomes have been cut off by social distancing. Governments are posting dozens of feel-good photos to their social media accounts every day, depicting armed, camouflaged, masked soldiers handing bags of food to impoverished families.

As poor neighborhoods go with basic needs unmet, even with government support, social protest and unrest are growing. Soldiers have been deployed to control crowds in Bolivia, Chile, Honduras, and elsewhere, despite all having committed numerous serious abuses during 2019 crowd-control operations.

Other areas of civil-military tension in the region include:

  • In Brazil, now second in the world in COVID-19 cases, supporters of faltering President Jair Bolsonaro are calling ever more vocally for a military intervention to shut down the legislature and Supreme Court. The degree of politicization, and the danger to Brazilian democracy, is so grave right now that on May 17, six former defense ministers felt compelled to issue a statement warning against “any appeal and encouragement to armed institutions to break democratic legality.”
  • In Colombia, soldiers are forming part of coca crop eradication teams, as the government is stepping up U.S.-aided eradication efforts despite the pandemic. Security forces carrying out eradication operations have killed six civilians since February, in circumstances that have yet to be clarified.
  • Bolivia right now is in the midst of intense civil-military tension as the armed forces prepare to defy an opposition-run Congress that has delayed approval of the latest round of officer promotions. 
  • In Mexico, where the Army leads all security agencies in official complaints of forced disappearance, torture, and extrajudicial executions since 2006, a large portion of the public health system’s response is up to the military. On May 11, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador—who ran in 2018 promising to curtail the military’s role in public security—issued a vaguely worded decree that will further solidify that role through the end of his term in 2024 with no external controls or civilian oversight.

Will Latin American militaries return to the barracks after the pandemic?

Again, it’s expected and even necessary that the armed forces might play a greater role in helping states deal with a historic pandemic. Due to the severity of the crisis, and due to decades of lost opportunities and past failures to build stronger civilian government capacities, many Latin American countries simply have no other institution upon which to depend. 

The trouble with increasing military roles in society, though, is that once they get ratcheted up, they are very hard to ratchet back down. Because soldiers are disciplined, can act quickly, and usually have excess capacity, citizens come to expect or demand their deployment, even for inappropriate roles that have nothing to do with defense. 

Politicians come to view armed forces as all-purpose tools to be employed instead of doing the hard work of building professional civilian governance capacity. Why have a long-term housing policy, for instance, when a squad of 20-year-old recruits can throw together some basic shelter on a few weeks’ notice, while political leaders bask in recipients’ gratitude?

“Military institutions’ responses can hide the lack of investment in other resources,” writes Rut Diamint, an Argentine civil-military expert and former defense official. “It’s not healthy for democratic stability that the military gets called up due to a failure of health, policing, or infrastructure response.” Diamint warns that if governing civilians continue to prove themselves unable to fulfill their duties, “the armed forces may reposition themselves again in politics, this time with broader support from frightened citizens.” 

The danger of using the military domestically for politicians’ ends, instead of for defense, should be evident to Latin Americans with long enough memories. Empowering the armed forces beyond their legitimate and limited roles in society, putting them in charge of state functions that belong solidly in the civilian sphere, means further empowering an institution that has a monopoly of legal weapons, surveillance equipment, and personnel trained in lethal skills. After entrusting them with crime fighting, crowd control, service delivery, infrastructure construction, environmental protection, and other civilian roles, it’s a giant leap of faith to expect them to remain apolitical and non-deliberative.

Let’s recall what happened in the 20th century when Latin American militaries became the dominant institution within many states: they became unaccountable. They massively abused human rights, torturing and disappearing tens of thousands. They curtailed basic freedoms. They engaged in gross corruption. They mismanaged economies. 

Building a civilian security sector

While COVID-19 may make some expanded use of the armed forces necessary for now, it will be urgent for elected civilian leaders to get this toothpaste back into the tube once the region returns to “normal,” whatever that will mean. Demilitarizing will require these leaders to bring tasks back under capable civilian management. Civilian institutions, not the armed forces, need to lead the way in revitalizing economies, assuming basic functions like health care and sanitation, maintaining infrastructure, educating children, resolving disputes, and keeping citizens safe from common and organized crime. This will mean going about the hard post-pandemic work of building, or rebuilding, competent, well-funded, transparent, and professional civilian institutions. For legislatures, control bodies, the media, experts, and activists, it will mean carrying out energetic and constructive oversight, demanding deep participation in the process.

This institutional building, or rebuilding, would do well to involve the same conversations about public safety that the United States is again having domestically. Here, President Trump’s urging of military force against protesters has forced the most serious reckoning in many years about the armed forces’ role in keeping public order. Beyond military and police roles, the murder of Black Americans by police and massive protests against police brutality have brought into the national political discourse a new idea: defunding or reimagining police forces themselves. 

What this might look like remains up for discussion, but it means removing functions that have too long been assigned to police, giving those roles to other service providers, and dramatically reducing and holding accountable (some would say eliminating altogether) the part of the state that keeps order with an implicit threat of force.

Preserving and strengthening democracy will require the military’s full return to the barracks after the COVID-19 crisis passes. The conversation, though, will ultimately have to go beyond demilitarization—and when it does, the United States has no roadmap to offer its neighbors in Latin America.

The current moment in the United States, and the rapid advance of military roles amid pandemic in Latin America, show that neither the United States nor its hemispheric neighbors has figured out how to best go about this institutional rebuilding. Many past U.S. police, judicial, and defense “institution-building” programs in the region have operated from an implicit assumption that Washington had greater wisdom and know-how to impart to Latin America. It’s pretty clear now that, instead, we all have much work to do, together. And now, while we’re still in the throes of a pandemic, is a perfect time to plan that work.