WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

AP Photo/Rodrigo Abd

27 Apr 2017 | Commentary

U.S. Military Assistance and Latin America


Since the “Global War on Terror” began, the Defense Department has been driving assistance to militaries and police forces worldwide. In Latin America U.S. military assistance has scaled back in recent years, but it remains a force behind U.S. policy in the region. WOLA’s new guide and report explain how that happened and what it looks like. Here’s what it means for Latin America.

The U.S. military’s relationship to Latin America is distinct. Unlike other parts of the world, the region has no active military conflicts and is not a hotbed of the kind of extremism the United States has thrown trillions of dollars into defeating in the Middle East and Africa. Still, it is a region that is geographically close and historically intertwined with the United States, and one that today is plagued by crippling crime and violence. The security of Latin America is inextricably linked to that of the United States, and U.S. defense officials see threats emanating from the region ranging from Russian meddling to transnational organized crime.

In a new report, WOLA found that 75 of 107 global U.S. security assistance programs operate in Latin America. Through these programs the United States trains, equips, shares intelligence with, and carries out operations with the region’s security forces. The report is accompanied by a database that details what each program is, how much money can be spent on it, and when it was put into law.


Latin America has been a breeding ground for many of the security assistance programs that are now active worldwide, particularly counter-drug programs. Pentagon funding to the region has declined since its peak in 2007, and is substantially smaller than in the Middle East and Africa: for the moment, there is no large banner military initiative like Plan Colombia or the Mérida Initiative in Mexico, which greatly boosted overall aid amounts between 2000 and 2012. Still, military and police assistance is central to how the United States conducts foreign policy there.

The United States currently works with security forces in every country except Cuba, Venezuela, and Bolivia. This money goes towards everything from providing weapons and teaching them new military skills, to building bases and holding joint training exercises and conferences, to working with them on intelligence operations, drug raids, and increasingly, border security.

Since 2000, the United States has spent roughly $268 billion on security assistance worldwide. Of that total, Latin America has received about 8 percent, or just over $20.5 billion. Out of that, over $17 billion come through programs established for the “War on Drugs”.

The top recipients over the past 17 years, by a large margin, have been Colombia ($9.5 billion) and Mexico ($2.9 billion), which both received big-ticket antidrug packages in the 2000s. Starting in 2016, Central America’s Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) collectively overtook both of these countries, as funding levels increased to respond to high levels of crime, violence, and drug trafficking.

WOLA first began to follow Defense Department programs in Latin America in the 1990s, when the War on Drugs replaced the Cold War as the driving threat framework. This marked the first time that the Pentagon took the helm of a big foreign aid program without explicit State Department management.

The United States has a checkered past with respect to human rights and program effectiveness in Latin America, which warrants continued citizen oversight. A few examples include:

  • In the 1970s, we learned about U.S. collusion with regional armed forces participating in coups in Guatemala, Brazil, Chile, and elsewhere. We learned about police aid programs that ended up teaching torture techniques.
  • In the 1990s, the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas had trained dozens of military officers with notorious human rights records, and that cold-war era training manuals included torture techniques.
  • In the 2000s, U.S.-aided Colombian Army units were among those whose members were killing thousands of civilians to falsely pad combat “body counts.”
  • Over an eight-year period, Guatemala had to disband two U.S.-backed police counternarcotics units due to rampant corruption.
  • The United States greatly increased assistance to Mexico’s security forces in 2007. A decade later, there is a great need to evaluate why the strategy has achieved almost no improvement in the country’s organized crime-related violence and drug trafficking challenges.
  • In 2009, despite years of cultivating relationships, Honduran military leaders participating in a coup d’etat stopped taking calls from their U.S. military counterparts, who were urging them not to do so.
  • In 2012, a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) team was involved in a confusing incident in rural eastern Honduras that killed four civilians.

This is not to say that the United States is solely to blame for the region’s problemsbut it is easy to make the case that a different set of policies, using the same level of resources, could have helped the region develop more solid institutions and made the United States more secure. To improve security and effectiveness, transparency and oversight are key.

For instance, the United States’ main military goal in both Mexico and Colombia for over 20 years has been to cut drug trafficking into the United States. Yet with the possible exception of cannabis, no drug produced in the region—cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine—experienced a sustained decline in production over those years. This calls into question if the United States’ massive investment in Latin American security forces’ eradication, interdiction, and incarceration efforts—which has far outstripped investment in strengthening states and fighting impunity—is the best way forward for tackling narcotics trafficking.

Throughout the region militaries continue to wield great influence over politics. Yet from the Caribbean to Central America to Mexico, members of the police and armed forces continue to be implicated in extrajudicial killings, forced disappearances, political corruption, and other abuses that threaten the security of those who they are charged with protecting. It is crucial to make sure the United States is not giving tacit approval for these actions by investing in the perpetrators or sending them more weapons.

Moving forward, the Trump administration wants to increase the Defense Department’s budget, while slashing the State Department’s budget. The State Department cuts would include reductions in the Department’s foreign aid to Latin America. We do not yet know if the Defense Department increase would mean more money for the Pentagon’s efforts there, most likely in the realms of border security and counternarcotics, or if it would mean an overall drop in U.S. assistance to the region.

In any case, we will remain vigilant and keep watching. We hope this tool helps you do the same.