Special Report - The military as police: a balance sheet (ISSN 17414474)

Executive summary

The ‘militarisation’ of policing has become a matter of concern in much of Latin America, where the recourse to the military to deal with internal security matters has been spreading. Fears have been voiced by some about the potential for abuse and violation of human rights, by others about its adverse effect on efforts to reform policing — so far not counterbalanced by plausible evidence of positive effects.

Recourse to the military is usually justified in terms of the inadequacy of existing police capabilities to deal with ‘new’ internal security threats of a previously unimagined magnitude that have resulted in much of Latin America having become the most dangerous part of the world (on account, mainly, of its high homicide rates).

These threats are mostly associated with ‘organised crime’, by which what is usually meant is the large drug-trafficking ‘cartels’ and their subordinate gangs of ‘enforcers’ — in some countries made extensive to the street gangs known as maras in Central America and similar gangs elsewhere — armed with heavy firearms and in some cases trained in military skills.

In most countries there have long been constitutional provisions for calling on the military to act in support of the police in special circumstances, such as insurgencies or large-scale breakdown of law and order. These provisions had safeguards such as the requirement that a state of emergency or ‘exception’, or in extreme cases of siege, should be declared, with explicit limits on the duration and scope of the military interventions and the powers of the legislatures to end such actions.

Executive branches have often chafed at these constraints and in many cases have succeeded in getting them eased or removed, on occasion by reforming or amending the constitution. The result of these efforts can be seen in the constellation of models adopted by countries across the region.

Exemplars are the 11 countries reviewed in this report, a range which goes from great dependence on the military in the anticrime efforts, passing through longlasting reliance on the military against low-scale insurgencies, to the almost total militarisation of public security functions and as-yet unclear development of recently acquired powers by the executive:

▪ Four countries (Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) have become heavily reliant on the deployment of military forces in their efforts to curb violent crime.

▪ Two (Peru and Paraguay) have military forces acting alongside the police against small groups of insurgents active in parts of their territories. The latter has recently amended its legislation to remove the need to declare a state of emergency before sending in the troops.

▪ One (Brazil) gives the executive powers to deploy the military on ‘guarantee of law and order’ missions, which have included the occupation of favelas controlled by drug gangs, but most public security actions are entrusted to the paramilitary state-level military police forces.

▪ Two (Chile and Argentina) keep their military out of internal security actions but rely on paramilitary police forces, the former to deal with two separate armed threats as well as organised crime, the latter facing only challenges on the organised crime front.

▪ One (Ecuador) has recently amended its legislation to remove the constraint on the President’s power to deploy the military to deal with internal security threats.

▪ One (Venezuela) has entrusted public security to a national guard that has been elevated from paramilitary force to become the fourth service of the national armed forces.

In a number of cases the potential for abuses by the military in policing missions has become a reality. Most notable are the complaints about rights abuses against the Mexican armed forces (and the strong suspicions that these may be far more numerous than has so far emerged). Accusations of excessive use of force by Venezuela’s national guard have been documented in its repression of this year’s wave of protests, and they are frequent in Central America’s Northern Triangle.

It must be noted that similar charges have been brought against the paramilitary police forces such as Chile’s Carabineros, Argentina’s Gendarmería and regular police forces across the region.

Another line of criticism of the drift towards ‘militarisation’ is that it conspires against the reform of regular police forces, aided by moves such as Mexico’s drive to subject municipal police forces to state-level single commands, which are inimical to fostering community crime prevention and policing at local level, an approach supported by international organisations as a better solution to crime.

So far this argument has been hard to support with solid evidence. A rare, perhaps unique, case of such evidence was a recent three-year ‘impact evaluation’ commissioned by USAID for its programmes in Central America, conducted by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (Lapop). On the strength of surveys in communities of 13 Central American municipalities it was able to conclude that the outcomes in the treatment communities improved more (or declined less) than they would have if USAID’s programmes had not been administered.

One item absent from the ‘evaluation’ was any mention of the interviewee’s assessments of the role played by the military, which is prominent in three of the four countries reviewed. One worrying ‘qualitative’ finding was that police officers consistently reported that it was no longer possible for gang members to dissociate themselves from their gangs, even after becoming adults in regular employment.

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