The U.S. military’s most elite forces have been increasing their deployments across the globe, and Latin America and the Caribbean are no exception. But as Special Operations Forces activity grows, the already low amount of transparency and available information about their actions is shrinking.
Special Operations Forces—Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other highly trained units—are lethal, nimble, and seek to build quasi-diplomatic relationships in other countries while keeping a low profile. They carry out missions from manhunts in the Middle East to intelligence-gathering in Mali, to support for raids on gang members in El Salvador. With civil affairs and psychological operations among their chief missions, their purpose is as political as it is military.
According to documents obtained by WOLA through the Freedom of Information Act, the number of Special Operations Forces training missions to Latin America tripled between 2007 and 2014, a period when overall military aid to the region was decreasing.
This fits with a larger worldwide trend of these forces’ sharp growth. Since the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Special Operations Forces have doubled in number to approximately 70,000 while their budget has tripled, now exceeding US$17 billion per year. In 2015, they deployed to 135 of the world’s 196 countries, mostly on training missions.
This growth was expected. Special Operations Forces were deployed heavily to Iraq and Afghanistan during the height of the U.S. interventions in those countries. The U.S. presence in both countries has since been drawn down, leaving thousands of personnel available to send on new missions in more countries.
Many of those missions take place through a training program called Joint Combined Exchange Training, or JCET, which was formalized by a 1991 addition to U.S. law governing the Defense Department. During JCET trainings—which often resemble joint exercises, with some coursework—Special Operations Forces practice new combat and technical skills like pistol and rifle marksmanship, urban combat, intelligence gathering, or riot control. These trainings’ stated purpose is for the U.S. forces to maintain their own skills. More importantly, though, they are also familiarizing themselves with the host countries’ terrain, culture, language, and military.
But JCETs do more than train U.S. forces. They teach Latin American co-participants military tactics while also “gaining regional access with a minimal footprint,” according to the documents. The reports highlight that “[JCET] activities often enhance U.S. influence in host countries.”
Military and police aid to Latin America and the Caribbean has declined since 2010, as the Plan Colombia and Mérida Initiative aid packages have wound down. During these same years, though, Special Operations Forces deployments have increased in the region, particularly in Central America.
Between 2007 and 2014, the number of Special Forces training missions tripled from 12 JCETs training 560 foreign personnel, to 36 JCETs training 2,300.
Starting in 2008, the documents show a shift in focus from South America to Central America, describing the region becoming “increasingly plagued with violence and illicit trafficking.”
Honduras has been the Western Hemisphere’s most-visited country during these eight years, with 21 missions. The majority of trainings took place between 2011 and 2014, a time when serious allegations levied against Honduran security forces—murder, torture, rape and extortion—went uninvestigated and unpunished. Another four took place in 2009; in June of that year (three months before the end of the U.S. government’s fiscal year), the Honduran military helped oust the elected president in a coup.
In addition to JCET trainings, U.S. Special Operations Forces have played a larger role in the country’s fight against gangs. They are were instrumental in building Honduras’ elite SWAT squad, the Tigres, which was created in 2013 to combat organized crime. U.S. Green Berets now advise and monitor operations and train Tigre officers in marksmanship and close-quarters combat.
El Salvador, which now has a Special Operations Forces liaison officer posted at the U.S. embassy, was a close second to Honduras, hosting 19 missions. The majority took place between 2012 and 2014. There is no information available about which units U.S. forces are working with there, but the list may include some of the ten or more elite units the Salvadoran government has deployed to the streets in its internal war against gangs. In this effort security forces have been credibly accused of extrajudicial executions, crime scene manipulation, and enforced disappearances, among other crimes.
Special Operations Forces also work closely with Colombian security forces, who now deploy all over the world to conduct trainings, especially in Central America. Colombia hosted 19 JCET missions between 2007 and 2014.
Interestingly, there have been fewer deployments to Guatemala than much of the rest of Central America. This could be due to human rights issues that prevented the Guatemalan Army from receiving any U.S. military assistance for many years.
The “Global War on Terror” is the Special Operations Forces’ most urgent mission, and their expansion happened within its context. Even in a region like Latin America where terrorism is less common, and where organized criminal groups controlling territories, populations, and governments are the biggest threat, U.S. Special Operations Forces carry out “counter-narcoterrorist trainings.” This rationale may explain why smaller countries with significant Islamic communities, like Belize, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago, are well represented on the list of JCET destinations.
Over the past eight years, nearly 4,000 U.S. Special Forces personnel have trained nearly 13,000 Latin American security force personnel at a cost of $73 million.
Globally, this trend is only going to grow. In 2013, then-U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) Commander Gen. Joseph Votel said, “We want to be everywhere, know everything.” They are on their way: the 2016 Defense Department budget showed plans to deploy more JCETs in 2015 and 2016 than ever before.
Special Operations Liaison Officers (SOLOs) are currently posted in 14 key U.S. embassies to advise those countries’ special operations forces. Four of them are in Latin America: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, and Peru. By 2019, SOCOM is funded to place liaison officers in 40 countries. It is unclear what this would mean for Latin America.
If Special Operations Forces are deploying overseas to promote U.S. interests, and JCETs are an on-the-ground tool to achieve that, then we, as members of the U.S. public, need to ask more questions.
Who are we working with?
In countries where Special Operations Forces have a greater presence, whom the United States trains matters. In Honduras, security forces have been implicated in “unlawful and arbitrary killings and other criminal activities,” according to the State Department. In El Salvador, the State Department also found military and police to have been involved in “unlawful killings and cruel treatment.”
But Special Operations Forces deployments lack effective safeguards to make sure that “partner” units do not kill, torture, or abuse their own people. Are these units known to be corrupt or working with organized crime, or working with one political or ethnic group against another? Those who might know if a problem exists—in the State Department, Congress, independent experts—cannot weigh in because they have very little chance to review what’s happening and are given very few, if any, details afterwards. Other than U.S. ambassadors in those countries, other civilian agencies have little or no real-time visibility over the program.
For the public, even historical data are unavailable: the congressionally mandated reports that WOLA obtained through the Freedom of Information Act only include totals of deployments, trainees, and costs: they do not identify the “partner” military or police units.
Who is really making U.S. foreign policy in places like Latin America? Is it the State Department or is it the military?
This is part of an ongoing debate in Washington over about who truly conducts U.S. engagement abroad and what messages are being sent about how to solve problems around the globe. JCET trainings are part of a larger trend of the U.S. military using its own budget to train other countries’ militaries, often with little input or oversight from our diplomats or Congressional foreign affairs committees.
Special Operations Forces have come to be called “warrior diplomats” because they have lethal skills but are also trained to relate to and associate with civilians in foreign countries. Some senior enlisted leaders are offered training on diplomatic etiquette, taking classes in grammar and learning which fork to use during high-level dinners. This separate channel of diplomacy is growing, with unexamined implications for the U.S. foreign policymaking process.
What are the benefits of JCETS? Is the program’s real goal to train U.S. Special Operations Forces? Does the training U.S. forces receive justify the cost? What do U.S. citizens get for having so many military deployments around the world?
In a 1998 investigation into the JCET training program, the Washington Post found, “American special operations forces have established military ties in at least 110 countries, unencumbered by public debate, effective civilian oversight or the consistent involvement of senior U.S. foreign affairs officials.”
It seems very little has changed in eighteen years, while these deployments have continued to grow. Though JCETS are just a small piece of the story, they are representative of a larger trend.
The information in this article took years of inquiry to obtain and even then, transparency has decreased. Since 2010, the congressionally mandated JCET reports have become more classified. The report from 2009 contained 47 publicly available, non-redacted pages. The report from 2010 contained eight.
As U.S. military operations worldwide have shifted, so have the questions that we need to be asking about the use of Special Operations Forces. But getting answers is becoming more difficult.