Central America Talks Regional Military Force

(International Relations and Security Network, 10/10/2006)


Defense ministers from 30 nations in the Western Hemisphere gathered in Managua, Nicaragua during the first week of October to discuss matters of military importance in the Hemisphere. The discussion fragmented into sub-regional arenas, with South America largely preoccupied with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez, and Central American defense ministers voicing a need for a region-wide military force.


Last year, during a summit of Central American presidents in June, Guatemalan President Oscar Berger proposed the creation of a “rapid-reaction force” to deal with street gangs and organized crime in Central America. The multi-lateral force would include some 500 sailors, pilots and soldiers, who would work together to interdict drug shipments moving north from Colombia to Mexico and combat street gangs in the region's cities and rural zones.


The motion was tabled and approved. Then, it seems, forgotten.


Little press coverage followed the notion until the first week of October this year, when the idea resurfaced under a different guise. Now it is called the “Mesoamerican Strategy.”


The original idea has been widened to include considerations for UN peacekeeping missions and disaster relief. Hurricanes are the primary concern.


During the event, Guatemalan Defense Minister General Francisco Bermudez said the primary objective of any force formed under the Mesoamerican Strategy would be to assist with UN Peacekeeping missions. He stated that in “no moment have we talked about creating another force for other means.”


Meanwhile, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told local journalists that organized crime and terrorism in the region could not be handled by one country alone. His comments implied a region-wide force, but stopped short of indicating whether the US would be a party to funding for equipment, training or other needs. So far, no money has been appropriated by Congress for such activities in Central America.


Whether this regional force is called a rapid-reaction team or discussed with euphemistic phrases such as Mesoamerican Strategy, there are many points of concern over such a development.


Central America, as a region, has undergone a demilitarization process since proxy wars propagated by the US government and allied governments in Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala collectively ended in the 1990s. Any steps to reverse this process should be taken very carefully, especially given the poor human rights record held by all Central American military forces.


Street gangs in Honduras, Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala are a serious problem, but they are problems of public security - the realm of national police forces, not the military. Current policies used to deal with street gangs have largely failed because they focus on heavy handed, zero-tolerance tactics that pit the limited resources of national police against street gangs with unlimited numbers and little or nothing to lose. Endemic corruption is a constant challenge.


Organized criminal networks use Central America as a transit point between Colombia and Mexico. They are just as threatening to the region as street gangs. Their activity in Central America remains limited to refueling stops and transit. In countries such as Nicaragua, where the international drug trade has spurred a domestic drug problem, there is a direct threat to public security, which is again a police challenge.


A region-wide military force in Central America, if formed tomorrow with or without US support, would be too heavy a force to deal with street gangs. Military presence in the various neighborhoods and rural areas where gangs operate is not a sustainable solution and would draw heavily on financial resources that would not materialize.


The heavy footprint of military forces in residential zones would not be long tolerated by locals, especially if the occupying force were made up of soldiers from another country.


If formed tomorrow, this force would be up against tremendous pressure from civil society and some regional governments, including Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama, as well as the Organization of American States (OAS) to limit its charter to UN Peacekeeping Missions and disaster relief only. Under such a charter, military officers eager to test the force against organized crime or street gangs would contribute to the subtle yet constant pressure that eventually evolves into mission creep.


Mission creep is dangerous because it places military units in operational territory where they are not well-equipped for new tasks assigned to them, not fully supported by every link in the chain of command, and not covered by the legal framework of their charter.


Finally, if a rapid reaction force were set in place with a broad enough charter to cover interdiction efforts, to go after street gangs, and to fight organized crime, levels of violence in the region would undoubtedly increase faster than the current pace.


Invariably, innocent civilians find themselves in the middle.


Joint leadership of a region-wide force would have issues of sovereignty, command and control, and use of limited resources that would complicate and delay any potential such a force has for rapid response.


The solution to combating narco-trafficking and street gangs is complicated. But it must focus on police, not military. Any region-wide effort should begin with intelligence sharing, increased communication, and closer cooperation with other international agencies such as Interpol and the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).


A Mesoamerican Strategy is easy, even interesting, to talk about, but much more difficult to implement. With or without support from the US, Central American nations should work together to combat regional threats to security. But they cannot expect to mount a region-wide military force that will not fall into the traps of mission creep, human rights abuses, and increased violence. These are the realities that Central America should keep in its past, not plan for in its future.

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