The transformation of security in Latin America: a cause for common action.

Author:Marcella, Gabriel
Position:Security - Report

Since the end of the Cold War, there has been a transformation of security in Latin America. Latin American countries have been moving toward the concepts of multidimensional security and security of the individual and society, and away from the classical understanding of the security dilemma posed by an external threat to the state. Illegal narcotics, the proliferation of guns, and other transnational threats, combined with undergoverned space and the weak state syndrome, generated an extraordinary crime wave, which gives the region the highest murder rate in the world. Moreover, crime imposes a heavy cost on economic growth and democratic governance. This insecurity crosses international borders, and the institutions of public security--police, military, and judicial systems--are hard pressed to meet the challenge. The privatization of security is a symptom of the problem and a potential source of abuse. The United States shares responsibility for the violence due to U.S. demand for illegal drugs and the fact that it is a supplier of arms to Latin America. At the same time, there is a growing consensus in support of common action, as evidenced by the international coalition that is operating under Operation Martillo--the antinarcotics effort in the Caribbean and Central America. Moreover, a number of Latin American countries contribute to international peace operations. Accordingly, the new strategic consensus among Latin American countries should be a cause for common action.


On 21 September 2001, the Organization of American States (OAS)passed resolution that condemned the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in support of the United States. (1) That would be the last collective security action under the Inter-American Treaty of Reciprocal Assistance of 1947, also known as the Rio Treaty. The assumption in 1947 was that threats would come from outside the Hemisphere. For the next four decades, that threat was international communism.

Unlike NATO, the Rio Treaty never developed a robust defense alliance that integrated a political decision-making process for using military force, in part because Latin American countries were relative bystanders in the East-West struggle. Moreover, the enormous asymmetry in military power between the United States and Latin American countries created reluctant partners, based on the fear that this power could be used against them. The more the United States pushed for collective defense, the more Latin America resisted, leveraging the instruments of inter-American security to promote their own security and to balance American power. This studied ambivalence did not prevent the emergence of a strategic consensus for common action against the communist-inspired insurgencies of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. The Alliance for Progress and U.S. military assistance programs to Latin American countries were important elements in the effort to stem communism.

Alliances tend to weaken when the threat diminishes. After 1989 the support for collective security declined even further, and a new system of regional security emerged. It responded to a threat matrix that was unthinkable in 1947: extreme poverty and social exclusion, terrorism, international organized crime, trafficking in weapons and drugs, environmental degradation, delinquency, cyber crime, diseases, asset laundering, and human trafficking. This was the consensus on security issued by the OAS Special Conference on Security, held in Mexico City in 2003. (2) In recent years, climate change for example, affecting the disappearance of Andean glaciers, has entered the agenda.


Latin America has been a laboratory for doctrines on economic development, international law, human rights, and collective security. In the 1950s and 1960s, a doctrine emerged in Latin America that security depended on social and economic development--in Portuguese, seguranca e desenvolvimento. This simple and elegant equation was jointly elaborated by civilian and military intellectuals who were concerned that poverty would impede the accumulation of national power and thereby make the defense of the nation problematic in a world ruled by the security dilemma and abetted by the menace of communism. (3) Underdevelopment was the real enemy; it had to be overcome.

Developmental nationalism reached a crescendo. The concept of promoting integrated national development via state action still influences strategic planning in a number of countries in the developing world# For example, in 2004 the Conference of the Defense Ministers of the Americas enunciated the security and development concept in the form of multidimensional security: (5)

Security constitutes a multidimensional condition for the development and progress of their nations. Security is consolidated when its human dimension is promoted. The conditions for human security improve with the full respect of dignity, human rights, and the basic freedoms of the people, in the framework of the rule of law, as well as by promoting social and economic development, education, the fight against poverty, disease, and hunger. Security is indispensable to create economic and social opportunities for all, and to generate a favorable environment to attract, retain, and productively use the investment and trade that are necessary to create sources of employment and fulfill the hemisphere's social aspirations. Extreme poverty and social exclusion of broad sectors of the population are also affecting stability and democracy, eroding social cohesiveness, and undermining the security of the States. THE LATIN AMERICAN SECURITY DILEMMA

The realist paradigm in international relations posits that one state's defensive preparations may seem offensive in posture to another state, thus creating a security dilemma. The dilemma generates mistrust and feeds power competition that can provoke conflict. (6) Today--compared with other regions of the world--Latin America is a zone of relative peace in terms of state-to-state conflict. Yet, it might be premature to herald the arrival of a "democratic peace," in part because the retreat from democracy in some countries could endanger peace in the future. Nonetheless, militarized borders (e.g., Peru-Chile) are few, and potential war scenarios (e.g., United Kingdom-Argentina) are even fewer and remote. Small defense budgets are the norm; cooperative security is the guiding principle in the ministries of foreign relations and defense; and a number of countries participate in international peacekeeping. (7) The security dilemma in Latin America is not driven by asymmetries in power; it is rather the insecurity dilemma of weak states with uncontrolled borders confronting criminal groups over the monopoly of force, control of territory, and the hearts and minds of people. A "broken windows" theory of international relations threatens to prevail, whereby inattention to minimal security can lead to the deterioration of both public and international security.

The response to transnational threats calls for the redefinition of defense strategies and military missions, and the appropriate balance between the police and military in providing public security. The latter process is essential, given the defective capabilities of the police to protect public security and the traditional reluctance of military organizations to do police work. In many countries the police are poorly trained and equipped and are often outgunned by criminals.


On 1 March 2008, Colombian armed forces launched an attack against the camp of Raul Reyes--a senior commander of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC)--in the remote province of Angostura located in the tropical forest of Ecuador's extreme northeast, 1,800 meters from the Colombian border. Operation Phoenix killed Reyes and sixteen other FARC members, including some international supporters. The event resulted in celebration in Bogota, but shocked the Ecuadorian government of Rafael Correa into breaking relations, which were eventually restored. It also created an international crisis that included bluster and a tepid mobilization of troops by Venezuela, intense diplomacy within the OAS, and the establishment of a South American Defense Council to promote conflict resolution and cooperative security. (8)

Angostura laid bare the new threat to Latin American security, namely, the nexus of insecure borders with ineffective territorial control by states (termed undergoverned space), the illegal international narcotics trade, and other criminal activity. Neither Ecuador nor Colombia effectively controlled the border, which allowed the narcotics-funded FARC to rest, reequip with impunity inside Ecuadorian territory, and then wage war in Colombia. Colombia's borders with Panama, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela are far from secure. (9) To be fair, Ecuador has increased its defense effort on the border with Colombia, deploying a better-equipped force of about 12,000 troops. In 2012, the force conducted forty-eight operations...

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