US military, part 2

Doug Henwood dhenwood at
Mon Jul 13 11:18:48 PDT 1998

[also from Tom K]

Date: Mon, 13 Jul 1998 13:02:51 -0400 To: lbo-talk at From: Thomas Kruse <tkruse at> Subject: US military might 2 Content-Transfer-Encoding: 8bit X-MIME-Autoconverted: from quoted-printable to 8bit by id NAA24514

A Tutor to Every Army in Latin America U.S. Expands Latin American Training Role By Douglas Farah, Washington Post Foreign Service Monday, July 13, 1998; Page A01

TARAPOA, Ecuador-Second of three articles

For two weeks in May, U.S. special operations forces used this isolated jungle region near the Colombian border to stage their biggest deployment in Latin America in years -- an example of what the U.S. military is doing, and would like to do much more of, throughout Latin America.

The idea was to train the Ecuadoran military to better fight two intertwined foes that frequently operate in the area: drug trafficking organizations and Marxist Colombian guerrillas. In the exercise, 143 elite U.S. troops and their 645 Ecuadoran counterparts used American-provided boats and Black Hawk helicopters in mock raids on targets such as a "narco-guerrilla camp" and a supposed cocaine laboratory. Overhead, A-37 combat jets raced after small airplanes to practice forcing down suspected drug flights.

But at the operation's closing ceremony, the Ecuadoran military blared martial music and called the troops to arms -- not against traffickers or guerrillas, but against their traditional rival, Peru, with which Ecuador has an unresolved border dispute.

"We will never cede even one millimeter of territory to the Peruvians," the loudspeakers boomed, as soldiers carried out their final drills alongside U.S. troops. "It is time for all of us to stand together against the enemy."

The exercise was one small window on a much larger phenomenon: America's premier unconventional forces are quietly reengaging Latin America's powerful mil itary establishments. Using Army Green Berets, Navy SEALs, and other special operations forces, the Pentagon is conducting specialized training exercises with every army in Latin America, often avoiding effective civilian oversight or congressional restrictions that apply to other military operations abroad.

In the 1998 fiscal year, 2,700 special operations troops will be deployed to all 19 countries in Latin America and to nine in the Caribbean. On any given day, 250 military trainers are operating in 15 countries, according to the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, which is responsible for U.S. military activities in Latin America. The programs range from a high of 35 deployments this year in Venezuela, 30 in Bolivia, 24 in Colombia, 21 in Ecuador, and a low of 1 each in Suriname and Belize.

While some of the training has been conducted under anti-drug programs funded by the Pentagon or State Department, much of it is being done under auspices of the Pentagon's Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program. According to a 1991 law, such special operations exercises are allowed only if the primary purpose is to train U.S. troops. But many of the deployments in Latin America appear to go well beyond the intent of the law, and are used for anti-drug training and to help Latin armies prepare against real or potential domestic foes, according to civilian and military officials and Pentagon documents.

Questioning U.S. Role

Together with other U.S. military contacts, the special operations deployments are prompting questions from critics in the United States and Latin America about whether such loosely monitored involvement with the region's armies is appropriate when fledgling democratic governments are struggling to consolidate civilian rule.

U.S. commanders say that the demand from Latin American governments for training missions is far higher than they can fill, and that the special operations troops are having an important and positive impact. "We are quiet, efficient professionals," said Brig. Gen. Robert W. Wagner, until recently commander of Special Operations Command South, a branch of the U.S. Southern Command. "Our focus used to be conventional warfare and counterinsurgency. Now we are dealing with modern issues like the appropriate roles for the militaries, counter-drug and peacekeeping. We are a catalyst for regional changes. We can gain access. We can get in there."

But as the Ecuadorans' call to arms against Peru indicated, the agendas of Latin American militaries do not always coincide with that of the United States. Military officers acknowledge that in several key countries, the distinction between counter-narcotics and counterinsurgency -- a controversial U.S. mission in Latin America in the past -- has nearly vanished. All of the cocaine and an increasing amount of the heroin consumed by drug users in the United States originates in Latin America, and U.S. officials have long dreamed of cutting off the flow at its source.

Special operations deployments have established or renewed U.S. military engagement with armies widely accused of corruption or human rights violations, like those of Guatemala and Suriname. And some have served to circumvent congressional oversight or legal restrictions on military aid -- most notably in Colombia, where a military frequently accused of human rights violations is battling drug traffickers as well as guerrilla armies.

In 1995, Congress passed measures intended to limit training of the Colombian military to counter-drug, rather than counterinsurgency exercises. Last year, under renewed congressional pressure, the Clinton administration agreed that any units to be trained in counter-narcotics methods should be screened to make sure they do not include human rights violators, and that training should be limited to troops who are operating in areas where guerrillas are known to work hand in hand with drug traffickers.

But special operations missions in Colombia, which are legally exempt from both those restrictions, have trained selected Colombian units in "shoot and maneuver" techniques, counterterrorism and intelligence gathering, even though their members have not been vetted, special operations officers and troops said.

In several on-the-record interviews, U.S. officers and troops involved in the Colombia training program said the Colombian military is not asked to provide the names of the soldiers to be trained. Several U.S. officers and troops added that they believe singling out individuals would break up the Colombian units' ability to work together.

Wagner said U.S. commanders rely on the American ambassador, on an informal agreement worked out with the Colombians for self-monitoring, and on the knowledge of experienced military group officers at the U.S. Embassy to weed out Colombian troops accused of human rights violations.

"We know the units we are working with pretty well," he said.

The special operations training proceeded even in 1996 and 1997, when President Clinton had "decertified" Colombia for most military aid and assistance -- including the program that brings Colombian officers to the United States for training -- because of its failure to cooperate with U.S. anti-narcotics policy.

Officers who conduct the anti-drug training in Colombia and elsewhere acknowledge it differs hardly at all from the traditional counterinsurgency training given Latin militaries during the Cold War. The major distinctions, they said, are that the U.S. troops are called trainers, not advisers, and give the Latin American troops some human rights training.

"We decide on the ground how far we can go," one senior officer said. "We can call anything counter-drugs. If you are going to train to take out a target, it doesn't make much difference if you call it a drug lab or a guerrilla camp. There's not much difference between counter-drug and counterinsurgency. We just don't use the [insurgency] word anymore because it is politically too sensitive."

A big component of the program is what U.S. military officials call "foreign internal defense" ( FID) training, designed to help foreign nations defend against existing or potential internal threats -- which the U.S. Southern Command says include narcotics trafficking.

"FIDs are the heart" of the special operations forces, Wagner said. "The threat depends on the country. The term grew out of counterinsurgency, but now we are building the capabilities of the host nations in a range of things from disaster relief to combating subversion, lawlessness and insurgency."

Wagner said that while anti-drug operations are a "sustained focus" of the special operations forces' effort in Latin America, the priority mission is "military-to-military engagement."

Several U.S. military officers, diplomats and independent analysts said, however, that in the absence of a more clearly defined Clinton administration policy in Latin America, the special operations forces are setting the agenda.

"The United States runs the risk of having [Southern Command] set its own policy," said Coletta Youngers of the Washington Office on Latin America, which monitors human rights and military issues. Military training "is undermining the Latin American trend toward demilitarization, democratization and respect for human rights."

Aiding the Generals

During the Cold War years of the 1960s and 1970s, the United States -- working mostly through military contacts -- supported the military establishments of Latin America's major countries, even as those generals staged coups against civilian governments and established brutal military regimes in the name of fighting Communist subversion. Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay and Uruguay all spent long, dark years under military rule. In Argentina alone, as many as 10,000 people were killed or "disappeared."

In the 1980s came Central America's turn. The United States advised and helped government armies fighting leftist rebels in El Salvador and Guatemala, and backed rightist rebels fighting the Marxist government in Nicaragua. Tens of thousands of people died in combat or at the hands of shadowy death squads with military backing or participation -- and, critics charged, at least tacit support of the U.S. military establishment.

Many U.S. officers view as a victory their involvement as advisers in that Central American war, which lasted from 1980 to 1992 and ended in a negotiated settlement between Marxist-led guerrillas and the U.S.-backed military. They view El Salvador as a milestone in learning how to engage a Latin American military to improve its combat capabilities and curb at least some of the worst human rights abuses.

"When we got involved, human rights violations by the [Salvadoran] military dropped dramatically. We kept the guerrillas from taking over and we learned how to teach the skills that were needed," said one veteran of El Salvador now regularly deployed around the hemisphere. "That is where we showed that our presence makes a difference."

As was the case in El Salvador, though, many question the commitment to human rights and democracy of the governments -- and, especially, the military establishments -- that the U.S. military is now becoming more involved with. Things have indeed changed dramatically: Every nation in the hemisphere except Cuba has a democratically elected government. But in many countries, including those where U.S. involvement is increasing most rapidly, serious problems remain and the armed forces are still at least a semi-independent power center.

To many, the biggest danger is not the training but the appearance that it is being carried on outside of any broader strategy of strengthening civilian governments or redefining the role of the militaries in the region.

Bernard Aronson, former assistant secretary of state for inter-American affairs, said the idea that "isolating the military makes you more pure is wrong. It is better to have a relationship than not."

But Aronson argued that having the special operations forces engage Latin American militaries without a broader policy objective is dangerous, and "it is not clear now there is a broader policy."

Robert Pastor, director of the Latin American program of the Carter Center and a former National Security Council expert on Latin America, said the United States is wasting a historic opportunity to change its relations with Latin America by working more closely with the civilian governments, not the militaries.

"The administration has not either formulated an overall strategy nor does it have the capacity on the ground or in Washington to do so," Pastor said. "The result could very well be a short-sighted gain for anti-drug fighters in the U.S. government and special forces on the ground but lead to a long-term failure."

U.S. Troop Numbers

The special operations missions are the most dynamic part of a larger U.S. military involvement with Latin America. In all, roughly 56,000 U.S. troops rotated through Central and Latin America in fiscal 1997, according to a newly published study by the Washington-based Latin American Working Group.

About 40 percent of those troops were from Reserve and National Guard units. The figure includes special operations deployments as well as high-profile humanitarian peacekeeping and road-building brigades, and personnel sent to relieve active duty troops and provide operational support.

The number of U.S. special operations deployments in Latin America increased from 147 in 1995 to a projected 198 in 1998, according to information provided by the U.S. Southern Command.

Perhaps nowhere is the new U.S. military involvement in the region more clearly seen than in Colombia. The United States wants to further the fight against Colombian drug cartels without becoming involved in counterinsurgency. But for the Colombian military, the more urgent problem is the guerrillas, who have denied the government full control of nearly half the nation's territory. The guerrillas earn much of their income by protecting cocaine and heroin laboratories, clandestine airstrips and fields of coca and poppy, the raw materials for cocaine and heroin.

The increased attention of the U.S. military dates to the early 1990s, but details of the early engagement have not been previously reported. U.S. and Colombian sources with direct knowledge of events said that, as the drug war intensified, the Bush administration in the fall of 1990 sent a 14-person team led by a Navy captain from the Defense Intelligence Agency to analyze the Colombian military's intelligence organizations.

In 1991, according to U.S. and Colombian sources, Colombia's high command issued a secret order -- number 200-05/91 -- implementing the U.S. team's recommendations by creating a system of intelligence networks. Many of the intelligence groups, which mainly employed retired officers, were later accused by human rights organizations of organizing the killings of civilians.

"We had a good relationship and they did organize their intelligence along the lines we recommended," said a U.S. official. "We worked very closely with them. Only later did the military intelligence squads start going south."

But even as those problems were developing, the Bush administration ordered even closer collaboration.

Delta Force Operation

In July 1992, recently arrived U.S. Ambassador Morris Busby was faced with the embarrassing jail break of Medellin drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar. Immediately after the escape, Busby asked for covert special operations assistance and received a six-man Delta Force team and a similar Team 6 Navy unit, according to four sources with direct knowledge. Both were deployed to work with the Colombian police and military to hunt Escobar.

The sources said Delta team collected and analyzed intelligence, trained Colombian troops in hand-to-hand combat and urban warfare techniques, disseminated operational and "real time" intelligence and brought in sophisticated surveillance and communications equipment.

Escobar was located in December 1993 and killed by Colombian police trained by the Delta Force. Almost immediately afterward the Delta team was deployed to Cali, the sources said, where it trained police and helped map out the strategy for capturing the leaders of the Cali cocaine and heroin syndicate. The forces were withdrawn in mid-1994.

Busby, the sources said, moved quickly to increase other U.S. military deployments in Colombia to combat both drug traffickers and Marxist guerrillas, arguing the line separating the two was so blurred as to be meaningless. He also relaxed rules of engagement for the U.S. troops.

By the end of 1992, the number of trainers rotating through Colombia had grown to about 200 at any given time, including at least three secret deployments of U.S. Marines to arm and train special Colombian police units in urban combat and special-warfare tactics. The Pentagon secretly equipped Colombian units with night-vision equipment and heavy weapons, including M-60 machine guns and motion detection sensors, according to sources and classified documents. In addition to the trainers, some 300 Army engineers were deployed to build two radar bases.

According to three sources who participated extensively in the training program at that time, Busby gave the trainers a great deal of latitude on how far to go in accompanying Colombian troops on combat missions to critique their operations and evaluate the training. Busby declined to comment for the record.

Retired Col. Robert Lewis, who oversaw the riverine training in Colombia in the early 1990s, said he and his men would accompany Colombian troops until they reached the "final objective site," then would wait while the operation was carried out.

"We bent the rules and would go as close as we could without violating the spirit of the law," Lewis said.

Military aid to the Colombian armed forces was substantially reduced by the White House in 1995 after Congress limited training to counter-narcotics exercises. And in 1996 and 1997, Clinton triggered a cutoff of almost all remaining military aid and sales by reporting to Congress that the government of President Ernesto Samper was not cooperating in the anti-drug effort.

But according to Defense Department documents and U.S. officials, the special operations training continued.

The Pentagon has offered conflicting figures on the number of missions carried out. According to Defense Department documents, U.S. troops were involved in 10 training exercises in fiscal 1996 involving 114 U.S. troops and 651 Colombian troops. But according to the Special Operations Command of the Southern Command, there were 28 deployments in 1996. The Defense Department documents said only three JCET exercises took place in 1997 involving 143 troops, while the U.S. Southern Command lists 29 involving 319 troops.

In 1997, the United States and Colombia signed an agreement to ensure U.S. military aid was being used to fight drug trafficking, not guerrillas. To receive the aid, military units are to be vetted and suspected human rights abusers must be removed and investigated. But units receiving special operations training are exempt from that requirement.

On any given day now there are still about 200 U.S. military personnel in Colombia, according to the Southern Command. About 24 deployments involving 274 U.S. troops are planned for fiscal 1998, it said.

According to Southern Command, the percentage of the special operations deployments classified as having a counter-drug mission rose from 48 percent in 1995 to 62 percent this year. But as the recent deployment in Ecuador showed, on the ground counter-drug training can cover a lot of ground.

While the mission was designated a counter-drug program, much of the training centered on preparing troops to combat Marxist Colombian guerrillas should they come across the border.

"Our objective is to eliminate the 'narco-guerrillas' that operate in this area, to neutralize their influence and preserve our national sovereignty," said Col. Carlos Vasco, commander of the Ecuadoran forces participating in the operations.

Similar anti-drug deployments are being held throughout the region. In Iquitos, Peru, where the special operations forces this year built the largest riverine interdiction center in the hemisphere and are conducting training classes, U.S. trainers also train land units in basic infantry skills and in how to carry out land operations.

In addition, each year the Army Green Berets train hundreds of Mexican troops who form elite counter-drug and counterinsurgency battalions. The training is so politically sensitive in Mexico that the Mexican troops are flown to the United States for instruction. Because Mexico's constitution bans training military units in foreign countries, the members of the units are sent up in small groups and reassembled in Mexico after the training is concluded.

Not all of the JCETs deployments are about narcotics. Special operations forces conduct nearly continuous basic infantry training for El Salvadoran troops. Paraguayan soldiers are learning riverine, weapons and patrolling skills. In Venezuela, special operations forces have conducted combined airborne operations, light infantry and weapons training; in Guatemala a JCET deployment focused on medical and dental relief work in the Peten region, long the site of fighting between the army and guerrillas.

U.S. commanders say the contacts they have made pay off in increased U.S. influence. For example, in the past year, Green Beret teams have been sent to Paraguay and Colombia to persuade officers they knew there to abort planned military coups. U.S. special operations forces officers also talked to their counterparts on both sides of the 1996 border war between Peru and Ecuador in an attempt to limit the conflict.

Throughout the region, however, there has been tension between U.S. Army commanders at the Southern Command and U.S. embassies over control of the special operations deployments, military and civilian sources say. In one widely remembered incident in 1994, Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, then chief of Southern Command, circulated a letter asserting his authority over the troops, infuriating the region's ambassadors. Ambassador Charles Bowers in Bolivia was so angry he threatened to expel U.S. troops from Bolivia.

Often, however, military officials said State Department officials in the embassies had no interest or control over the military's activities. "They knew so little about what we were doing it was astounding," a retired Marine said. The civilians "were clue-less and never even asked to debrief me for the normal type of intelligence on what was going on."

Staff writer Dana Priest contributed to this report.


Since the end of the Cold War, the Pentagon has forged new military contacts with countries around the world, using special operations forces such as the Green Berets and Navy SEALs without White House and congressional oversight. This series of articles will examine how those deployments have grown, how they have influenced U.S. policy and how they have led to U.S. training of foreign armies accused of corruption and human rights violations.

SUNDAY: A 1991 law has enabled special operations forces to establish programs in more than 100 countries while avoiding many restrictions placed on other U.S. military assistance. Although designed with the narrow intention of training U.S. troops, the law has helped make America's premier soldiers unofficial diplomats in remote corners of the world, often bringing them into conflict with broader aims of U.S. policy.

TODAY: Special operations forces are training every army in Latin America, exempt from White House and congressional restrictions on aid. The forces have prompted questions from U.S. and Latin American critics about whether such unmonitored involvement with the region's militaries is appropriate when fledgling democratic governments are struggling to consolidate civilian rule.

TUESDAY: The story of the U.S. relationship with the Rwandan military illustrates the complications that have occurred when training operations by the Pentagon have become a prime instrument of American policy. A program advertised as promoting human rights has been overshadowed by questions about whether Rwandan units trained by Americans later committed atrocities.

The articles will be available on The Post's Web site at

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

Tom Kruse / Casilla 5812 / Cochabamba, Bolivia Tel/Fax: (591-4) 248242 (*** NOTE CHANGE IN TEL NO. ***) Email: tkruse at

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