The Bush Effect: U.S. Military Involvement in Latin America Rises, Development and Humanitarian Aid Fall

World Policy Institute

While President George W. Bush is in Latin America to push his controversial free trade agenda, there is another type of trade to be concerned about. U.S. military aid, training and arms sales to the region have all increased sharply since the beginning of the war on terrorism and threaten to exacerbate conflict, empty national coffers and sidetrack development programs.

Through the Foreign Military Financing program, military aid has drastically increased during the Bush administration. In 2000, U.S. military aid to Latin America was $3.4 million, a tiny share of worldwide FMF spending of $4.7 billion. By 2006, overall spending on Foreign Military Financing actually decreased to $4.5 billion, after peaking at $6 billion in 2003. But military aid to Latin America increased to over 34 times its year 2000 levels, to $122 million.

After the Summit of the Americas in Argentina, President Bush will visit Brazil and Panama. Argentina is the third largest recipient of military aid in Latin America, with a total of $6.3 million between 2000 and 2006. Panama, where the United States long controlled the canal area, is also a major recipient of military aid, with a total of $5 million for the same period. Argentina’s population is ten times that of Panama, making the near parity in their military aid levels striking.

But, when looking at military aid to the region, it is most noteworthy that El Salvador tops the list of recipients, with almost $23 million in FMF since 2002. This relatively large amount of military aid can be explained at least in part by looking at Salvadoran support for the war on terrorism. El Salvador is one of the Bush administration’s few remaining allies with troops in Iraq, and six Salvadoran Special Forces soldiers have been awarded the Bronze Star.

The administration has also sought to draw a parallel between El Salvador’s transition to democracy and Iraq’s rocky progress toward that goal. While in San Salvador last year, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld praised the country’s progress, saying “when one looks at this country and recognizes the fierce struggle that existed here 20 years ago and the success they’ve had despite the fact that there was a war raging during the elections, it just proves that the sweep of human history is for freedom.” He added, “We’ve seen it in [El Salvador], we’ve seen it in Afghanistan and I believe we’ll see it in Iraq.”

El Salvador, which emerged from a U.S.-backed civil war in 1992, is also the second largest recipient on military training though IMET, and it is 11th on the list of arms sales recipients, purchasing a total of $46.8 million in weaponry between 2000 and 2003. During the civil war, in which 75,000 people were killed over 12 years, Washington contributed $1.5 million a day in military and economic aid to support the dictatorship’s fight against guerillas.

Military Training

In fiscal year 2000, the United States distributed almost $50 million in military training funding through International Military Education and Training (IMET), with $9.8 million or 18{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} allocated to the Western Hemisphere. This funding trained 2,684 soldiers from Latin American countries.

Fast forward six years and into the midst of the war on terrorism; overall IMET funding worldwide has increased 75{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} to $86.7 million. Funding for military training in Latin America has increased at a proportional rate, to $13.6 million for 2006. This will fund training for 3,221 Latin American soldiers in everything from counterintelligence to helicopter repair.

Colombia tops the list for IMET, with $9.3 million in military training aid since 2000, an increase of almost 90{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} over six years. But other countries have received larger percentage increases over the same period. IMET funding to El Salvador and Nicaragua increased more than 200{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d}, and their neighbor Panama received a 400{cd9ac3671b356cd86fdb96f1eda7eb3bb1367f54cff58cc36abbd73c33c82e1d} increase between 2000 and 2006.

At the same time that military aid and training are on the rise, U.S. economic aid to the region is dropping– the 2006 foreign aid request foresees a sharp drop especially in development assistance, child survival and health programs.

Weapons Sales to Latin America: Hundreds of Millions and Counting

In addition to aid programs such as FMF and IMET, the United States sells military hardware through arms sales programs such as Foreign Military Sales (FMS) and Direct Commercial Sales (DCS). The top 15 recipients of arms sales in Latin America took delivery of more than $3.5 billion in military hardware and weaponry between 2000 and 2003 (the last year for which full data is available).

Brazil topped the list with almost $720 million in arms from the United States. The top five U.S. arms sales recipients – Brazil plus Colombia, Mexico, Venezuela and Argentina-accounted for two thirds of all U.S. weapons sold in the region.

Southern Command

U.S. Southern Command is the hub of the military’s presence in Latin America. Now based in Miami and headed by General Brantz Craddock, SOUTHCOM operates on a budget of $800 million a year and considers 19 countries in Central and South America and 13 in the Caribbean as its area of concern.

The Command’s size and budget, especially given the current military preoccupation with the Middle East, speaks to the United States’ enduring influence in the Western Hemisphere– Washington’s backyard. The Southern Command is staffed by 1,470 people– more than are tasked with the region by the Departments of State, Commerce, Treasury and Agriculture and the Joint Chiefs office and the Office of the Secretary of Defense combined.

Ungoverned Spaces: Al Qaeda in Latin America?

According to its public documents, Southern Command is interested in improving “effective sovereignty” in Latin America’s “ungoverned spaces” like the “Triborder Area” between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil, where national governments have little power, smuggling is rampant, and U.S. military experts allege that fundraising for Islamic terrorist groups like Hamas and Hezbollah is taking place. Former SOUTHCOM head James Hill states that “branches of Middle East terrorist organizations conduct support activities in the Southern Command area of responsibility.”

But, many Latin America and security experts say that the terrorist threat there is overstated. Adam Isaacson, an analyst with the well-regarded Center on International Policy, says that with the exception of Colombia, “terrorists are rather scarce in Latin America, and terrorists who threaten U.S. citizens on U.S. soil are scarcer still*To portray terrorism as a region-wide threat, from the Rio Grande to Tierra del Fuego, seems like a tough sell.” The lack of a significant threat has done little to cool the rhetoric. Isaacson notes that “the word ‘terrorism’ appears as a justification for military aid in 16 of the Western Hemisphere country narratives in the State Department’s 2005 Congressional Presentation document for foreign aid programs.”

Radical Populism: Latin America Tilting Left?

While fanning concerns about the growing role of Islamic fundamentalists in Latin America and keeping a wary eye on “ungoverned spaces,” what seems to concern Washington most is the leftward tilt of many Latin American countries.

In its 2004 Posture Statement, SOUTHCOM noted that “radical populism” is a major threat to stability in the region. At a briefing before the House Armed Services Committee in April 2004, then- SOUTHCOM Commander James Hill said that “terrorists throughout Latin America bomb, murder, kidnap, traffic drugs, transfer arms, launder money, smuggle humans.”

He elaborated that there are both “traditional terrorists,” like the criminal gangs in Central America and paramilitary and guerilla groups in Colombia; and “emerging terrorists” like the “radical populists” who tap into “deep seated frustrations of the failure of democratic reforms to deliver expected results.” Radical populists apparently include Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez and Evo Morales, a former leader in the Bolivian coca growers’ union who now heads that country’s main opposition party.

In June, CIA Director Porter Goss testified before the House Armed Services Committee that the U.S. should paying greater attention to threats “in our own back yard.” He noted that presidential elections will be held in eight South American and Central American countries in 2006 and warned that “destabilization or a backslide away from democratic principles…would not be helpful to our interests and would be probably threatening to our security in the long run.” As Tom Barry, co-director of Foreign Policy in Focus, said, “Latin America is a continent that is drifting to the left, maybe out of U.S. control.” To many in Washington, that seems to be at least as scary as a robust terrorist network in their backyard.

On The Ground in Latin America: The U.S. Military in Paraguay and Elsewhere

U.S. military bases, forward operating locations and radar stations like the ones listed on page five try to keep a low profile, but they are not as elusive as on-again, off-again military “training missions,” like those taking place in Paraguay this summer.

The United States military and the Armed Forces of Paraguay are conducting joint operations at a Paraguayan military base, including one that involves U.S. soldiers providing counterterrorism training to 65 Paraguayan air force officers.

While U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, have denied Washington’s interest in a permanent military base in Paraguay, the location of the exercises raise suspicions. The military base is 200 miles from the Bolivian border and almost as close to the country’s natural gas reserves and fresh water aquifers. It is also close enough to Brazil to be threatening. In late July, the Brazilian army launched military maneuvers along its border with Paraguay, parallel to the arrival of U.S. troops in Paraguay. According to InterPress Service, the United States has conducted 46 military operations in Paraguay since 2002.


In addition to strengthening the militaries of Latin America through aid, training and equipment, the United States continues to stake out a claim on the use of Latin American territory for its own foreign policy objectives. Some of these bases are well-known (and in the case of the U.S. base at Guantanamo, notorious), while others- in Honduras, El Salvador, Ecuador and Caribbean islands- are open secrets. What follows is a list of what we know about the United States’ “military footprint” in the region (drawn largely from the work of the Center for International Policy). The term Forward Operating Location is used to describe U.S. arrangements with foreign nations for temporary access of military bases. But in some cases, “temporary” can mean decades, not months.

Guantánamo Bay, Cuba

United States military has about 850 U.S. forces from five branches stationed in Guantánamo. Its military base, now largely a detention facility for foreign prisoners in the “war on terrorism,” is the oldest U.S. base outside of the continental United States and the only permanent overseas U.S. presence within a country the U.S. regards as hostile.

Soto Cano, Honduras

About 550 U.S. troops are stationed in Honduras as part of JTF-Bravo’s mission “to enhance cooperative regional security through forward presence and peacetime engagement operations.” Specific activities include military exercises, humanitarian and civic assistance projects, disaster relief, and support for counter-drug operations. JTF-Bravo also assists Central American armed forces in “restructuring their militaries to fit changing security requirements.”

Manta, Ecuador, Forward Operating Location

From the Eloy Alfaro International Airport, U.S. Navy P-3 Maritime Patrol Aircraft conduct counter-drug detection and monitoring missions.

Aruba, Forward Operating Location

The U.S. has a small presence in Aruba, with two medium and three small aircraft, about fifteen permanently assigned staff and twenty to twenty-five temporarily deployed operations and maintenance personnel.

Curaçao, Netherlands Antilles

Forward Operating Location The Curaçao section of this Caribbean FOL hosts F-16s, Navy P-3 and E-2 Airborne Early Warning planes, E-3 AWACS and other military aircraft. As many as 200 to 230 U.S. military personnel are temporarily deployed on operations at this base.

Comalapa, El Salvador, Forward Operating Location

The Salvadoran facility hosts four P-3 (or similar sized) aircraft. The main focus of the flights using this site is detecting maritime drug trafficking, especially in the Pacific.

Seventeen Counter-Drug Radar Sites

In Colombia, Peru, and in mobile and secret locations, the United States military operates radar sites to detect possible drug-smuggling flights. In most cases, the radar sites are located within host-country military bases, but U.S. personnel are in charge of their own security. A typical detachment consists of 36 to 45 personnel.

Known Radar Locations
Colombia Leticia (southeastern Colombia)
Marandúa (east, along border with Venezuela)
Ríohacha (northeast, on the Caribbean coast)
San Andrés (east of Nicaragua in the Caribbean Sea)
San José del Guaviare (southern central Colombia)
Tres Esquinas (south west, near border of Ecuador)
Peru Iquitos (on the Amazon River in near Colombian border)
Andoas (Northern Peru, between Colombia and Ecuador)
Pucallpa (on the Ucayali River near Brazil)

The rest of the radar sites are either mobile or in secret locations.

Frida Berrigan is a Senior Research Associate at the World Policy Institute.

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