06 April 2012

Adrift in a Sea of Military Exportation

Rachel Maddow, via Wikipedia

In my previous post, I discovered the strange but true nature of the military mindset, that dreamy, quixotic, incurable optimism that has been perceived and discussed by such realists as Rory Stewart and Howard Zinn. What an amazing set of realizations – that it is members of the armed forces who are regularly deluding themselves about what can and cannot be, with Rory Stewart focusing on over-ambition and the failure-is-not-an-option determination, while Howard Zinn’s take pinpoints the inevitable overconfidence in the military’s ability to tame chaos and unpredictability.

This was in reference to recent events in Afghanistan involving egregious acts by members of the U.S. military, of which I spoke (virtually) metaphorically:
In Afghanistan, the cancer of hubris – that the West can succeed at forging an Afghanistan in its own image – has been exposed. The cells have turned against the organism that hosts them. They’ve gone rogue, feeding themselves and their own agenda rather than supporting the larger mission. The cancer must be removed, but not at the cost of killing off the healthy cells, as well.
Little did I know then that the cancer within the United States military had metastasized so dramatically. In recent weeks, more evidence of the vile corruption of individuals brought on by the demands of a wayward and detached militaristic society have cropped up, linking the situation in South Asia with devastating circumstances the Americas as well as West Africa.

Mali, West Africa

Two weeks ago, we found out that the leader of the coup d'état in Mali, toppling that West African country’s democratically elected president, had received basic officer training at various war colleges in the United States, thanks to a type of student exchange program known as International Military Education and Training (IMET), directed by the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs (who knew such a bureau even existed?). This is not good because the United States is busy “fighting terrorism” in the region. There is a direct link with Afghanistan in that the Algerian-based Al Qaeda affiliate has set up a stronghold in northern Mali, supporting themselves by smuggling and kidnapping Westerners for ransom. There has also been a revolt by the Tuareg tribes-people, rebel nomads, many of whom served as mercenaries in Muammar Gadhafi’s army, and both these groups are able to exert strength in the vast, ungovernable Sahara Desert.

Of course, all international military aid has been cut off, but so has the development aid – and the poor people of Mali get screwed in the process.


Disturbing as the situation in Mali is, this shocking story that took place here in the Western Hemisphere struck even more deeply into the my heart:

On March 24, First Lt. Kevin Corley arrived with a three-man team at a warehouse in the border city of Laredo, Texas, armed with two semiautomatic rifles, a combat knife and a .300-caliber bolt-action rifle equipped with a scope. The men believed they had been hired by the Zetas to carry out a contracted killing and raid of a rival drug trafficking group’s storehouse, and had been called to receive the final details of the assignment.  What they didn’t know, however, was that they were targets of an elaborate sting operation organized by the US Drug Enforcement Administration.

For the past six months, Corley had been speaking with DEA agents posing as Zetas representatives, and had promised both to carry out “wet work” (a military euphemism for assassinations) for the cartel as well as equip and train Zetas members in military tactics. According to a federal indictment (.pdf), Corley claimed that his status as an active duty soldier made it easy for him to pilfer weaponry from his post in Colorado, and demonstrated this by providing the agents with bulletproof vests, training manuals and other stolen military equipment.
The article talks about the infiltration of the Zetas into the Mexican military (the original 31 founders of the group were all ex-soldiers in the Mexican Army) as well as the expansion of “their recruitment pool to include members of security forces in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua.” The author characterizes this new case as “a troubling reminder that US military personnel are not immune to the kinds of incentives that lure their military counterparts in Mexico into joining the Zetas.”

However, if we take a deeper look into the completely out-of-control drug gang problem that has taken such a toll in Mexico, lo and behold, we find that not only were the 31 founding members of the Zetas ex-military, but one third of them were members of the elite Grupo Aeromóvil de Fuerzas Especiales (Special Air Mobile Forces Group, or GAFE) that was highly trained at the infamous School of the Americas (SOA) in Fort Benning, Georgia.

Two of the most notorious graduates of the SOA are:

Manuel Noriega, Former Military Governor of Panama, currently serving time in El Renacer Prison in Panama, for murder and human rights abuses

General René Sanabria, Former Head of Bolivia’s Anti-Drug Agency, sentenced by a U.S. court in September 2011 to 14 years for cocaine trafficking

For some strange reason, Wikipedia has no background information on SOA, which had a name change to The Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) on 17 January, 2001 when the House of Representatives defeated a bi-partisan amendment to close the school and conduct a congressional investigation by a narrow ten vote margin (kinda like Blackwater, the company that trains mercenaries, changing their name to Xe Services, and now they call themselves Acadami – how cute!) But thankfully, an organization called SOA Watch keeps track of what is going on and has a great deal of information available on their website:

Since 1946, the SOA has trained over 64,000 Latin American soldiers in counterinsurgency techniques, sniper training, commando and psychological warfare, military intelligence and interrogation tactics. These graduates have consistently used their skills to wage a war against their own people. Among those targeted by SOA graduates are educators, union organizers, religious workers, student leaders, and others who work for the rights of the poor. Hundreds of thousands of Latin Americans have been tortured, raped, assassinated, “disappeared,” massacred, and forced into refugee by those trained at the School of Assassins.
Mexican Special Forces are still being trained at SOA, and Los Zetas are still recruiting members of the elite forces with their dangerous arms capacity, their knowledge of techniques, and their specialized training in drug traffic operations. In fact, the military training that only perpetuates the cycle of violence was stepped up after Felipe Calderón became the president of Mexico in 2006.

Mérida Initiative is a “security cooperation agreement” between the United States, Mexico, and Central America that was signed into law on 30 June, 2008, after Calderón launched his war between the Mexican government and the drug cartels that has brought about tens of thousands of deaths. Tellingly, the actual number is difficult to know because the Mexican government, at all levels, is not very keen to keep track of the devastation, let alone release any figures that they do have, and when they do, the numbers tend to be understated. But the latest official drug war death toll figure that was finally dragged out of Mexico’s federal government is 47,515 as of January 2012.

Central America

Farther south, the effects of the spread of this drug gang violence into Central America bring fears of growing militarization in a region that has been crippled by militarized fallout for many long years.

Looking at the history of this region, it is hard to believe anything other than the notion that the real purpose of the School of the Americas and the United States’ long-standing habit of training police and military forces of foreign nations in general is the opposite of increasing anyone’s security (except for the owners of the private companies that are hired to provide the weapons, equipment, and training, of course) when one takes a close look at where the most dangerous places in the world are along with who it is that is in charge of security in these places. What other explanation is there for the utter failure to fight instability and chaos with these militaristic means rather than by addressing the underlying social problems of poverty, economic disparity, and cultural conflicts? Is it really just a matter of the military mindset, or is there something far more nefarious going on, i.e. the perpetuation of war profiteering by individuals that understand full well that the security apparatuses and the criminals that they exist to fight are ultimately one and the same?


Honduras stands out as the most obvious example in the Americas of how devastating the exportation of militarism, for whatever reasons, is, above all else, a destabilizing force. Far from securing the region during a tense political moment that would have worked itself out through proper democratic processes, it was a group of SOA graduates who were the leaders of the 2009 coup d'état that has now brought about a very dangerous state of affairs in that country. SOA Watch has carefully documented the toll taken by the ongoing unresolved political tensions:

According to the Honduran Committee of Relatives of the Disappeared and Detained (COFADEH), between 2009 and 2011, 463 people have been killed or disappeared; these include students, farmers, unionists, journalists and LGBTQ activists. A month after the coup, femicides rose 60%4. The armed forces, led by SOA graduate General René Arnoldo Osorio Canales, have been suspected of supporting death squads linked to powerful businessman and cocaine trafficker Miguel Facussé in the Aguán Valley.
In October 2011, the United Nations ranked Honduras as having the highest homicide per capita rate in the world, and in January of this year, the Peace Corps pulled all of their volunteers out because of the severity of the situation there. According to the U.S. State Department’s travel website, since 1995, there have been 102 reported murders of U.S. citizens in Honduras, but only 28 of those cases has been solved... and then there are the carjackings, kidnappings, and robberies, and assaults... I am just glad that I was able to visit the country during a much safer time, although even then, there were some rather hairy situations.

And who is supposed to be responsible for security in Honduras? Here is a short list of some prominent Honduran graduates of the SOA:

Romeo Vásquez Velásquez, Former Commander of the Honduran Armed Forces who was dismissed by President Zelaya for not cooperating in his plan for a poll to gauge popular support for the convocation of a National Constituent Assembly to draft a new constitution; Leader of the 2009 coup d'état that removed President Zelaya from power; Currently planning to run for president in 2013

Carlos Antonio Cuéllar, Luis Prince Suazo, and Miguel García, Retired Generals involved in the Honduran coup of 2009

General René Arnoldo Osorio Canales, Current Commander of the Honduran Armed Forces

Pompeyo Bonilla, Current Honduran Minister of Security

El Salvador

The situation in El Salvador has become quite alarming. Human rights activists are calling it the re-militarization of El Salvador. As explained by the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador (CISPES),

Article 168.17 of El Salvador’s Constitution states that the President is responsible for, “Organizing, leading, and maintaining the National Civilian Police [PNC] for the protection of peace, calm, order, and public security both in urban zones as well as rural zones with a strict respect for human rights and under the direction of civilian authorities.”
Despite this, President Mauricio Funes, of the left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), recently emptied his entire public security cabinet of the members of his party. The purge began when he brought in recently retired General David Mungía Payés from his position as the Minister of Defense. Also brought in was Ricardo Perdomo, a man who has no “professional experience in intelligence” but does have experience working with the United States in escalating the Salvadoran Civil War, as the director of the State Intelligence Organization. The purge of civilian leadership was completed by the appointment of Francisco Ramón Salinas Rivera as the new director of the PNC, a move that caused PNC Inspector General Zaira Navas, who has been investigating and removing corrupt police officers to resign in protest, while the FMLN Secretary General called the appointment unconstitutional and in violation of the 1992 Peace Accord, which specifically prohibited the Armed Forces from any role in the public security of the nation. The changes were the result U.S. State Department using regional economic and security cooperation initiatives to pressure the Funes administration.

CISPES expresses grave concerns about this pressure “to use more militaristic approaches in its fight against narcotrafficking and gangs”:

The new Public Security Minister’s agenda bears uncanny resemblance to the militarized “War on Drugs” policies promoted by Washington in Latin America, like Plan Colombia and Plan Mexico (Mérida Initiative). Minister Munguía Payés has declared a “War on Gangs,” fought with aggressive strategies to regain control of “gang territories” throughout the country. As part of the new “war,” Munguía Payés has created specialized anti-gang police units that are being trained by the Salvadoran military and US security personnel. He has also proposed a new “subsystem” of justice with special prosecutors and judges that only deal with accused gang members.  Payés’ “War on Gangs” – which amounts to a war on the young and impoverished who have been forced into gangs by the lack of economic opportunity – is a far cry from ex-Minister Melgar’s focus on fighting the shadowy network of powerful organized crime figures, many with documented connections to El Salvador’s oligarchy and political elite.
Three of the new appointees are graduates of the SOA:

Francisco Ramón Salinas Rivera, Former Vice-Minister of Defense and Active Duty General, Current Director of the Nation Civil Police of El Salvador

David Mungía Payés, Former Defense Minister, Current Public Security Minister of El Salvador

Colonel Simon Molina Montoya, Former Intelligence Advisor to the Minister of Defense, Current Deputy Director of the State Intelligence Organization of El Salvador


Recent developments in Guatemala, on the other hand, have been quite interesting. SOA graduate and, as of 14 January 2012, President Otto Pérez Molina is a very controversial figure, having served in the military during the appalling Scorched Earth campaign that razed entire villages off the face of the earth perpetrated by fellow SOA graduate, Dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt. Pérez denies involvement in any of the atrocities, although he remains the subject of an investigation in the disappearance of a guerrilla leader and stands accused of having been involved in the conspiracy to murder a Roman Catholic Bishop and human rights defender. But then, to his credit, he represented the Guatemalan military in negotiations with the guerrillas for a resolution to the 30-year civil war that lead to the 1996 Peace Accords. His ties to Former President Ramiro de León Carpio are also encouraging, as this was a president who advocated a turn away from authoritarianism, working toward unity of the country in the aftermath of the long and brutal civil war.  De León went on to work for Guatemalans’ human rights as Defensor del Pueblo, the People's Defender.

The most interesting part of the current situation is that although Pérez is well-known for his campaign slogan, Mano dura, cabeza y corazón” (“Firm hand, head and heart”), promising to take a hard line against crime, he seems to have had yet another softening of the heart and, to everyone’s great surprise, he has, along with Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos, come out in favor of giving the legalization of drugs a chance.


If Pérez is looking to Santos as a model of leadership, there is hope that his presidency may be a turning point for Guatemala in the same way that Santos has made meaningful change in Colombia. Both countries suffer deeply-rooted problems stemming from immense poverty and vast inequity that have been prolonged by agonizing social strife, where violent drug gangs have so easily taken advantage of instability and entrenched official corruption. Yet, as I wrote about at Expat Daily News Latin America in February 2011, Santos surprised everyone by turning away from old and worn out models that were not serving his country very well, turning away U.S. military and influence, mending relations with his neighbor, Hugo Chávez, and working to dismantle the web of corruption with its ties to violence and oppression that infested the government of his predecessor, Álvaro Uribe in what can only be described as the hemisphere’s most prevalent narco-military- governmental complex and, of course, the United States’ best friend in the region. ...And all that even after being a career member of the armed forces, working his way up through the ranks, and serving as Uribe’s loyal defense minister.

Santos has gained the much twittered wrath of Uribe for stepping back from the brash militarism and pro-business economic policies that characterized the tweeter’s presidency. Whereas Uribe had embraced the U.S. military intervention of Plan Colombia while couch Colombia’s complicated internal conflicts in terms of a “war on terrorism” in solidarity with President Bush after 9/11, Santos has redefined the situation, moved toward mending broken ties with neighboring leftist countries, and come out as a great negotiator with such diplomatic aplomb as to have kept the upcoming Summit of the Americas from falling apart over the United States vetoing the participation of Cuba. He has also worked to facilitate a dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, taking a neutral stance when Palestine was petitioning for recognition of statehood at the United Nations.

Amazingly, there is talk of hope in Colombia these days, despite the latest rankings that place Colombia as the fifth most dangerous country in the world and list Medellin, Uribe’s home turf, and Cali among the world’s top ten most violent cities. They make up for it by having the “sexiest swimsuit-wearing woman alive” ...and you really should check out this link because the Colombia Reports article is hilarious.

What is not so hilarious is that the list of SOA graduates in Colombia is very long. What is worse is that Uribe himself is known to have had close ties to Pablo Escobar and the Medellín Cartel. The investments in public health, education, and infrastructure that he made followed the model of the cartel, gaining populist support through social spending at the expense of order and stability. The victories over the FARC and ELN, Colombia’s left-wing guerrilla insurgencies, which Uribe touted in order to attract foreign investment in the country, were highly dependent on the right-wing paramilitary force AUC that operated with near total impunity, trading military favors for political influence and power, i.e. parapolitics. And now, the list of fugitive ex-lawmakers and close associates with Uribe who have fled the country and/or are under investigation for various abuses of power is a fascinating tragi-comedy that is playing itself out on the world stage.

All this is precisely why Santos stands as a model for Latin American leaders of other troubled nations. He has stood firm against the United States setting up military bases in Colombia and concentrated on building trusting relationships with neighboring countries. He has made strides toward bringing a resolution to the civil conflict, showing strength yet also exhibiting a willingness to negotiate in order to start the long-awaited healing process. There has been a movement for land reform, a major issue due to peasants being forced to flee entire regions that have been battlegrounds between the insurgents, the counterinsurgents, and the drug gangs. The policies of President Santos offer messages of peace for Colombia and the rest of the world. It is confirmation of the notion that the term “military solution” is even more oxymoronic than “military intelligence.”

Back In the U.S.A.

I am a nomad rather than a gardener, yet even I know that whacking at weeds is only a temporary resolution to the takeover of the weeds, while getting at the roots of the problems is a more sustainable solution. I can top my metaphor up with the analogy that poisoning the earth with chemical herbicides is akin to corrupting the minds and spirits of everyone involved in supporting the military and, in the long run, creating crippling psychological problems that ripple throughout society at every level.

What I am referring to here is what Rachel Maddow calls Drift because the citizens of the United States have, by allowing our wars to be distanced from our personal lives, drifted into a state of oblivion about what militaristic actions are being perpetrated throughout the world in the name of our own “security.” This drift is, of course, the answer to my perplexing question about the nature of this addiction to the exportation of militarism. By not having any person stake in modern wars; by benefitting from living comfortable lives in the Greatest Nation on Earth, where struggles over resources and influence occur in far-away places so that we could live those comfortable lives; by allowing the government to conduct as well as sell its militarism well below the radar of national attention, often in secret, but also under the guise of diplomatic relations that tie economic interests together with “security” concerns in a perverted knot of self-perpetuation – by straying far away from our original declaration that We, the People would constitute our own governance, we have become a weak society, muddled and easily confused by the vast complexity of the world we live in, unable to recognize our own disease, corruption, and spiritual emptiness.

So there you have it: proof that I am not an incurable optimist. Yet I am still hopeful that the people of the United States will awaken from their awareness’ slumber. If there is hope in Colombia and hope in Guatemala, then there can be hope in the United States, as well. Ever since I came to South America three years ago, I have longed to wake up the people of the United States to the hope that lies here in these more southerly latitudes of the Americas. The resilience of the people here is illuminating, where people do not take their rights, privileges, freedoms, or responsibilities for granted. Many continue to struggle to gain those rights, privileges, freedoms, and responsibilities that are being denied them, that they know they deserve as much as the next person, regardless of the fact that they are dark skinned and living in humble circumstances close to Mother Earth. Throughout Latin America, these people are raising their voices and refusing to not be heard.

So let us, United States citizens, wherever we are in the world, too, raise our voices. Let us break the silence that has set our nation adrift! An excellent opportunity is just around the corner. Join or support SOA Watch in their April 14 – 17 Days of Action in DC:

Demand the closing of the SOA/WHINSEC and an end to US militarization in the Americas. Now, it is more important than ever to get anti-militarization on the national agenda and to create broad alliances of social justice activists to change the culture of militarization!

McClatchy News. 23 March, 2012

In Sight Crime. 29 March, 2012

SOA Watch. 1994

The New York Times. 11 January, 2012

CICPES.org. 12 January, 2012

CNN. 23 March, 2012

Expat Daily News Latin America. 18 February, 2011

Colombia Reports - Profiles. 11 November, 2011

Colombia Reports. 28 March, 2012

IPS. 3 April 2012

1 comment:

Julie R Butler said...

The Economist has a great article on the relationship between the two Colombian presidents, Uribe and Santos:


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