Events

Security Sector Reforms in Latin America: Impact of Irregular Threats

September 10, 2007 // 1:00am12:00am

On September 10, 2007, the Latin American Program and the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHDS) convened a panel of regional experts to discuss security sector reforms in Latin America in light of the increasingly unconventional and transnational nature of the threats affecting the region. In furtherance of the goals of the Latin American Program's project on Creating Community, panelists examined security scenarios in their respective countries, ending agendas of security sector reform, and the relationship of both to traditional approaches to security and defense. Much of the discussion focused on the appropriateness of the armed forces playing a role in combating surging rates of crime and violence

Oscar Bonilla, president of El Salvador's National Public Security Council (Consejo Nacional de Seguridad Pública) reviewed security sector reform in the context of the peace process in El Salvador. While separating the armed forces from the national police led to a clear distinction between public security and national security, Bonilla argued that the latest threat from the Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, a Central American gang now regarded by many as a new force with transnational dimensions, has raised new and profound challenges for the country. The armed forces have participated in joint operations with the national police, but always under police authority. Bonilla argued that the problems caused by gangs, including small arms trafficking, narco-trafficking, and other forms of organized crime, cannot be solved by force alone. Rather, a solution requires n integrated effort that engages civilian institutions, the penal system, and the police.

Gabriel Aguilera Peralta, former secretary for peace and former vice-minister of foreign relations of Guatemala, indicated that the Northern Triangle composed of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras is the most violent region of Latin America and one of the most violent regions in the world. In Guatemala, these levels of violence undermine the efforts to construct a culture of peace; they also revive authoritarian tendencies within the state as well as the population at large. For example, Guatemala has the highest rate of lynchings of any country n Latin America. Transnational organized rime, he said, has penetrated the state at the national and local level, infiltrating political parties, the National Police, as well as the attorney general's office. Rather than engaging in prevention, the security policies of the state have relied on force and repression.

Invoking legal scholar Paul Chevigny's term, the "populism of fear," security analyst and consultant to the Dominican government, Lilian Bobea argued that popular demands for security in the Dominican Republic have led to a militarization of the police force. This process has interfered with the reform of both the military and the national police, and has led to a jurisdictional contest, particularly with regard to fighting the narcotics trade. Moreover, according to Bobea, the use of the military in public security duties has legitimized the use of force as the most appropriate response to public insecurity, contributing to the undermining of the Dominican Republic's fragile democratic order.

According to former Ecuadorean defense minister Oswaldo Jarrín, the reform of the armed forces in Ecuador is part of a larger initiative of state modernization that was first launched under the administration of President Álvaro Noboa. The primary goal of military reform has been to professionalize the Ecuadorean military, while at the same time allowing the armed forces to achieve greater bureaucratic efficiency.

Analyzing the Mexican case, Raúl Benítez Manaut of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (UNAM) asserted that the Mexican military is one of the most autonomous armed forces in Latin America. This autonomy is based on a tacit understanding with the Mexican state in which the military accepts its subordination to civilian authority in exchange for civilian authorities' not interfering in military affairs. Within the Mexican armed forces, Benítez Manaut argued, there is a widespread perception that military reform is unnecessary given the lack of external threats to national security, the military's absence as a key player in the country's democratic transition, and the absence of a tradition of coups against civilian governments. Internal missions—the war against drugs, support to public security forces, the fight against organized crime, etc.—define the organization and deployment of the armed forces, Benítez argued. Meanwhile, the disintegration and decentralization of Mexico's system of public and national security provide an opening to common and organized crime.

Former Peruvian vice-minister of the interior Carlos Basombrío reflected on the longstanding political role of the armed forces in Peru, most recently during the government of Alberto Fujimori. The military's close association with the authoritarian government led to a serious process of de-institutionalization, de-professionalization, and internal corruption. The collapse of the Fujimori regime led to a loss of internal legitimacy, which resulted in an intense process of military reform. Due to what Basombrío called the "trauma of Fujimorismo," the armed forces are reluctant to assume roles beyond those defined in the Constitution. Basombrío argued, however, that Peru's armed forces are in danger of becoming ineffective in the fight against narcotics trafficking and a resurgent Shining Path. In spite of a widespread perception of insecurity in Peru, Basombrío noted that there is little pressure to involve the armed forces in anti-narcotics or other crime-fighting efforts in the country.

Rut Diamint of the Universidad Torcuato di Tella in Argentina expressed deep concern over the growing tendency to militarize of the public security agenda in Latin America. According to Diamint, the region's armed forces have not yet reached a point of complete subordination to civilian control. Rather, given their current independence, the armed forces "spill over" into civilian matters as well as internal and citizen security affairs. One explanation for this problem, suggested Diamint, is the absence of a proper separation of security and defense, a distinction Diamint claimed is fundamental for the proper functioning of Latin American democracy. She also noted how influences from the outside have played a role in blurring these boundaries, pointing to the U.S. Southern Command's recent technical and cooperation agreements with Latin American agencies of civilian security.

Given the strong public security crisis in Brazil's two largest cities (Rio and São Paulo), Eliézer Rizzo de Oliveira of the Universidad Estadual de Campinas observed that Brazilians compare the way n which their government has expended resources to reduce crime and violence in Haiti with the seeming absence of human and financial resources to improve the police and reduce urban violence in Brazilian cities. This comparison has fueled the public's demand for military intervention in domestic security. Rizzo de Oliveira further claimed that Brazil's fragmented and ineffective public security structure, composed of 54 police forces throughout the country, has led to an increasing militarization of the public security agenda. Chile lacks the magnitude of crime and insecurity of other countries in the region; according to Lucia Dammert of FLACSO-Chile and a Woodrow Wilson Center fellow. The country's police forces are very popular and one of the most highly regarded institutions in Chilean society. However, like many of its neighbors, Chile has not yet achieved civilian control of the military. The Ministry of Defense, with authority over both the armed forces and the police (Carabineros), enjoys considerable institutional autonomy. Moreover, Dammert noted, in spite of important reforms to the intelligence services, their professionalization is far from complete. Meanwhile, the judicial system is lauded for the guarantees and balance it affords the accused, but has also been widely criticized for being "soft on criminals."

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