Repression and Security in Latin America

By W. Alejandro Sanchez

Latin America faces a series of security challenges, which affect not only regional stability, but also the security of the United States. While Latin American governments are taking proactive measures to deal with their internal security threats, particularly drug trafficking and criminal violence, there is still much to be done to ensure that enhanced security does not mean sacrificing citizens’ rights. Additionally, U.S. security policy has limitations in how much aid can be provided to Latin America, which further impacts the state of security in the region.

The State of Security in Latin America

The current security situation in Latin America is vastly different than it was during the Cold War. Latin America’s remaining guerrilla movements, like the Colombian FARC or the Peruvian Shining Path, are too weak to achieve regime change. However, these groups and other criminal syndicates are earning a profit from the very lucrative drug trade in Peru, Colombia, and Bolivia, which are the three major producers of cocaine in the world. The drug lands in U.S. territory and Europe because it is often transported through the main corridors of Central America and the Caribbean, as well as West Africa. This drug trafficking has led to consequences that range from U.S. efforts to end the trade to illegal sales and violence.

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Growing citizen insecurity is also a major concern in Latin America. Countries like Argentina are experiencing a crime wave, which has prompted vigilantism. In one extreme incident, an 18-year-old Argentine was killed by a mob because he was suspected of robbing a woman’s purse. As for Central America, insecurity stems from criminal groups like the Maras and Barrio 18, two transnational gangs. These criminal entities have a particularly strong presence in Honduras and El Salvador that severely impairs the ability of these two governments to govern.

Fortunately, Latin American governments have taken measures to increase security to protect their people. For example, Mexico has apprehended various cartel leaders, like Sinaloa’s Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán and Hectór Beltrán Leyva, head of the Beltrán Leyva Cartel, who was recently arrested.


Repressive Security Tactics

Indeed, Latin America has a troubled history regarding upholding human rights, and regional security agencies are known for their repressive tactics. One critical concern is how far regional governments are willing to go to achieve internal stability.

This is prominently demonstrated in the allegations that the Mexican army summarily executed 22 individuals in June. Originally, the army claimed that the alleged delinquents were killed during a firefight, but recent discoveries contend that the soldiers executed the suspects after they surrendered.

Meanwhile, leaders like President Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador support creating more militarized police units to combat crime. In a recent speech at the United Nations, he called for the international community to support El Salvador as it faces internal security challenges. While this is a logical stance, the United States should be wary of supporting governments that have dismal records of human rights abuses like Mexico and El Salvador.

U.S. Aid in Latin America

As far as the United States is concerned, the task of improving hemispheric security falls largely on U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM). The odds of U.S. security policy changing to further support its Western Hemisphere allies are slim.

SOUTHCOM’s 2014 Posture Statement acknowledges the low-priority status of the region and offers an explanation as to why the U.S. administration is not significantly involved in Latin American security affairs. The document states that “over the next ten years, the Services are reducing deployments…in the context of tightening fiscal constraints…[and] the lowest priority Geographic Combatant Command [SOUTHCOM] will likely receive little, if any, ‘trickle down’ of restored funding.”

In spite of a diminished budget, U.S. security forces continue to combat transnational crime in Latin America. For example, during a routine patrol on September 8, 2014, the Coast Guard Cutter Bear stopped a suspicious vessel in international waters, northeast of Panama, and the boarding team found 719 kilograms of cocaine (valued at US$23 million).


Apart from drug trafficking, the United States is also concerned with the expansion of Mexican cartels and the Maras throughout border states like California and Texas. Hence, it is in the U.S. administration’s best interest to strengthen and train its southern neighbor’s security forces — by selling Black Hawk helicopters, for example. However, the United States should be wary of providing too much support for governments that carry out major human rights abuses, like the aforementioned massacre by the Mexican Army.

The future doctrines of U.S. security agencies have to navigate the problematic thin line of what form of aid, such as financial, training or weapons sales, they should provide to regional allies, not simply due to budget considerations, but also because of the ever-present possibility that Latin American governments could potentially utilize this aid to carry out repressive tactics against their populations.