Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Why Is America Cooperating With Militaries Running Criminal Rackets?

U.S. international security cooperation urgently needs an overhaul by Congress.

By , an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University.
A street artist paints a mural about corruption and COVID-19 in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on July 7, 2020.
A street artist paints a mural about corruption and COVID-19 in the Honduran capital, Tegucigalpa, on July 7, 2020. ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images

U.S.-Mexican security cooperation took an unexpected turn when, on Oct. 15, 2020, U.S. police arrested former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, a retired Mexican Army four-star general, at the Los Angeles Airport. He had been under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and was charged with drug trafficking, money laundering, and working on behalf of a somewhat obscure cartel, H-2, which traces its origins to the better known Beltrán Leyva Organization. After an outraged Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador threatened to kick the DEA out of Mexico, the Trump administration agreed to release Cienfuegos into Mexican custody, where it was understood he would be prosecuted. Instead, Mexican prosecutors declared the DEA allegations against Cienfuegos to be fabricated and dropped all charges. The Mexican government then posted online a 751-page file of intelligence the United States had shared with Mexico to assist with the prosecution. The file included intercepted texts between cartel figures and referenced numerous instances of Mexican state officials and security forces collaborating with cartels, including helping them to consolidate territory against rival groups. Leaking this information likely tipped off some figures not yet aware they were under investigation.

The end result of this violation of trust—and, in the view of the U.S. Justice Department, of the two countries’ Treaty on Cooperation for Mutual Legal Assistance—was, well, not much. Though the U.S. side threatened to suspend intelligence sharing, it has continued to work closely with the Mexican government on security issues. Since 2007, Washington has spent more than $3 billion through the Mérida Initiative to assist Mexico in its efforts to combat violence and drug trafficking, a program that Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has said “doesn’t work.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress continues to allocate more than $100 million in annual counternarcotics security assistance, training, and Mexican purchases of U.S. military equipment to prosecute the so-called war on drugs with no signs of abating. Over this time, homicides in Mexico—many of them cartel-related—have quadrupled.

Albeit dramatic, the Cienfuegos case is just one example of dysfunctional U.S security cooperation arrangements with foreign governments. This is an issue the U.S. Congress has the power to address. In fact, there is already a mechanism for blocking U.S. security assistance to bad actors: the Leahy Law. First introduced by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy in 1997, the provisions that made it up were informed by the brutal counterinsurgencies in Central America in the 1980s, in which military units financed and trained by the United States carried out atrocities such as the 1981 El Mozote massacre. It bars the United States from providing security assistance to foreign military or police forces that have committed documented gross human rights violations.

U.S.-Mexican security cooperation took an unexpected turn when, on Oct. 15, 2020, U.S. police arrested former Mexican Defense Minister Salvador Cienfuegos, a retired Mexican Army four-star general, at the Los Angeles Airport. He had been under investigation by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and was charged with drug trafficking, money laundering, and working on behalf of a somewhat obscure cartel, H-2, which traces its origins to the better known Beltrán Leyva Organization. After an outraged Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador threatened to kick the DEA out of Mexico, the Trump administration agreed to release Cienfuegos into Mexican custody, where it was understood he would be prosecuted. Instead, Mexican prosecutors declared the DEA allegations against Cienfuegos to be fabricated and dropped all charges. The Mexican government then posted online a 751-page file of intelligence the United States had shared with Mexico to assist with the prosecution. The file included intercepted texts between cartel figures and referenced numerous instances of Mexican state officials and security forces collaborating with cartels, including helping them to consolidate territory against rival groups. Leaking this information likely tipped off some figures not yet aware they were under investigation.

The end result of this violation of trust—and, in the view of the U.S. Justice Department, of the two countries’ Treaty on Cooperation for Mutual Legal Assistance—was, well, not much. Though the U.S. side threatened to suspend intelligence sharing, it has continued to work closely with the Mexican government on security issues. Since 2007, Washington has spent more than $3 billion through the Mérida Initiative to assist Mexico in its efforts to combat violence and drug trafficking, a program that Mexican Foreign Secretary Marcelo Ebrard has said “doesn’t work.” Nevertheless, the U.S. Congress continues to allocate more than $100 million in annual counternarcotics security assistance, training, and Mexican purchases of U.S. military equipment to prosecute the so-called war on drugs with no signs of abating. Over this time, homicides in Mexico—many of them cartel-related—have quadrupled.

Albeit dramatic, the Cienfuegos case is just one example of dysfunctional U.S security cooperation arrangements with foreign governments. This is an issue the U.S. Congress has the power to address. In fact, there is already a mechanism for blocking U.S. security assistance to bad actors: the Leahy Law. First introduced by U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy in 1997, the provisions that made it up were informed by the brutal counterinsurgencies in Central America in the 1980s, in which military units financed and trained by the United States carried out atrocities such as the 1981 El Mozote massacre. It bars the United States from providing security assistance to foreign military or police forces that have committed documented gross human rights violations.

Failing to specifically address military and police corruption leaves a major blind spot in efforts to bolster good governance throughout Latin America.

The Leahy Law is generally considered a success, having denied military aid to multiple countries where human rights violations took place. Yet the law is a relic of the Cold War that doesn’t address the problems that plague U.S.-Latin American security cooperation today. While there remain grave problems of human rights abuses by security forces, there are fewer juntas, fewer guerrilla insurgencies, and less interest in Washington to finance dirty wars. Today’s militaries are increasingly businesses, diversified into myriad sectors of the economy, some of them illicit. This isn’t just the case in Venezuela, where generals run entire companies, or North Korea, where the army smuggles opium and manufactures counterfeit cigarettes. The army-as-a-business model—one that is frequently corrupt—applies to U.S. allies as well, including Egypt, Turkey, and Ukraine.

What is needed is a new Leahy Law for corruption. Just as U.S. security assistance should not be used to finance atrocities directed at civilian populations, it should not be used to enable corrupt officials to get rich at their expense. Beyond the moral imperative, there is a national security interest in ensuring that efforts to combat transnational crime not be undermined by the very forces the United States trains and equips. Nor does it help U.S. international credibility to be connected to units that act as criminal, and frequently homicidal, rackets.

Failing to specifically address military and police corruption leaves a major blind spot in efforts to bolster good governance throughout Latin America. Beyond Mexico, Washington has unreliable partners in addressing what the Biden administration considers the “root causes” of migration: lack of security, few economic prospects, and weak rule of law. Much of this unreliability stems from corruption, and this corruption extends to the security forces the United States arms, trains, and coordinates with. In Guatemala, whose attorney general recently deposed the country’s top anti-corruption prosecutor, a ring of National Army soldiers was found to have provided security for a cocaine smuggling network linked to the alleged drug trafficking kingpin Juan Ortíz. In Honduras, soldiers did the same, allegedly on behalf of the country’s president, who is an accused co-conspirator in a U.S. Justice Department case that has already convicted his brother of cocaine trafficking and using the proceeds to fund the president’s election campaign. In El Salvador, whose president recently deposed the attorney general, dissolved the constitutional court, and dismantled the country’s anti-corruption body, members of the security forces have been found to be involved in criminal gangs, murder-for-hire rings, and vigilante death squads. Government reports have found evidence of gang infiltration of the military, and top officials, including national police chiefs and security ministers, have been linked to organized crime. In Colombia, where the army has been rocked by the “false positives” scandal, there have been cases of officers running drug smuggling operations. In the Dominican Republic, a leading prosecutor has estimated that police and military forces are involved in 90 percent of all organized crime cases. Elected officials have alleged that the police, justice ministry, and drug enforcement agency are wholly captured by criminal groups.

It is not a coincidence that these developments are occurring at a time of increasing militarization of society in Latin America. In a troubling reversal of the post-Cold War wave of democratization, when military regimes fell and generals accepted civilian rule, today’s democratically elected presidents are increasingly calling soldiers out of their barracks and assigning them roles well beyond their mandate. López Obrador has used the military to carry out large public works projects, from repairing hospitals to building airports. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele sent troops to occupy the country’s legislature to intimidate opposition lawmakers and to block an investigation into the El Mozote massacre. Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, who expresses fond memories of his country’s junta, has appointed more than 3,500 military officers to public administration posts, more than any president since the end of the military dictatorship in 1985. Across the region, militaries were tapped during the COVID-19 pandemic to distribute personal protective equipment, relief packages, and vaccines.

The principal area of remilitarization has been in policing. Throughout the region, police are broadly distrusted and seen as corrupt. Militaries, on the other hand, enjoy far higher levels of public trust—more so than most other public institutions and figures, including elected leaders. Calling on the armed forces to patrol the streets and confront increasingly well-armed cartels will, some leaders hope, supplant corrupt police forces, improve security for citizens, and see some of the military’s popularity rub off on them. Instead, putting soldiers trained not in policing but in warfare has led to deadly confrontations. And putting them in drug trafficking corridors—in Mexico, the Army controls ports outright—has increased opportunities for corruption.

Washington has largely been willing to overlook Latin American militaries’ steady encroachment into public administration and private markets, legal or otherwise, for the sake of maintaining relationships. Yet there should be a high bar to qualify for millions or even billions of dollars in U.S. security assistance, particularly in an era of declining interstate war, when militaries are no longer engaged in their primary mandate, national defense. Simply not committing massacres—the focus of the Leahy Law—shouldn’t be enough.

A new law modeled on the Leahy precedent would block any assistance to security forces determined to be engaged in corrupt practices. This would apply to the range of military and police assistance from various U.S. agencies, covering direct economic support, operational support, arms and equipment financing and sales, and training, including for military forces, anti-terrorism units, and international narcotics and law enforcement. There would be a process of vetting by the U.S. State and Defense departments. A remediation process would allow suspended aid to be resumed given proper evidence—reported to the U.S. Congress—of corruption having being addressed and bad actors held to account.

The Biden administration has made anti-corruption a pillar of its foreign policy—specifically its efforts to address the deep-seated factors contributing to migration in the Western Hemisphere. With the militarization of governments, it is increasingly impossible to separate police and militaries from public corruption and the criminal underworld. Indeed, civilian populations have very frequent interactions with ever present security forces, and many asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S. border cite persecution not by gangs and cartels but by crooked cops.

In Washington, inertia can perpetuate bad policies. U.S. agencies partner with foreign counterparts, officials become friends, and U.S. administrations see lines of funding as leverage. Congress can provide a check on this tendency. Right now, there is bipartisan interest in a bill sponsored by Sens. Mike Lee and Bernie Sanders giving Congress greater say in the use of force, arms sales, and a range of other national security measures. Earlier, Rep. Norma Torres inserted a provision in a spending bill barring El Salvador from receiving U.S. military financing, which has also been cut for Honduras and Guatemala. More oversight is needed. Partnering with unreliable partners has a cost that is borne by civilian populations. Whatever benefits derive from maintaining relationships with countries’ security forces must be measured by the interests of the people they serve.

Michael Paarlberg is an assistant professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University. Twitter: @MPaarlberg

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