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Date: Fri, 17 Dec 1999 12:42:12 -0600 (CST)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
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Article: 84936
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Message-ID: <bulk.8537.19991218121510@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

[See www.lawg.org and www.ciponline.org]

Copyright 1999 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

US Military Influence Growing in Latin America

By Jim Lobe, IPS, 16 December 1999

WASHINGTON, Dec 16 (IPS) - In a week that saw the official end of the US military presence in Panama, the Pentagon's activities throughout Latin America remained on the rise, according to a report released here Thursday.

Even as the last US military bases were handed over to the Panamanian government, Washington was actively establishing new military capabilities, called "Forward Operating Locations" (FOLs) at bases in Puerto Rico, Ecuador, Honduras, the Dutch Antilles, and possibly even Costa Rica, in order to pursue the "war against drugs," the report said

"The handover of the Canal Zone doesn't signal any shift in US military priorities and presence in Latin America," said Adam Isacson, co-author of the report, 'Just the Facts: A Civilian's Guide to US Defense and Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean.'

"It's not ending; it's just moving around," he added.

Activists monitoring US military operations and their affect on Latin America are increasingly concerned and want the US Congress to exercise more oversight over operations there.

"Congress has got to start minding the store when it comes to oversight of US military programmes with Latin America," said Isacson. "US military training to the region continues to be extensive and largely unexamined, and in Colombia, the United States runs the risk of involving itself in that nation's civil war."

By culling thousands of government documents, the report - a joint production of the Washington-based Center for International Policy (CIP) and the Latin American Working Group (LAWG) - found that the US military last year trained nearly 10,000 military and police personnel from the region.

Of those, only 875 were trained at the School of Americas (SOA) in Ft. Benning, Georgia - a major focus of activists due to its notorious record of training some of the region's worst violators of human rights during the Cold War.

"There's been a lot of focus on the SOA," said Joy Olson, the report's other co-author. "But there's a whole lot more going on."

More than half of all US military training in the region, according to the report, actually took place outside US borders.

Of all in-country training, Ecuador was the largest participant. During 1998, the US military trained 1,325 Ecuadorean troops. Some 1,260 Venezuelan troops and 1,200 Colombian soldiers also received training during that year.

Some 1,100 Mexican soldiers were also trained in the United States last year and 736 Peruvians trained mostly at home, according to the report.

"Understanding the scope and location of training is important because training overseas, unlike the SOA, gets much less public scrutiny," said Olson, who is the director of LAWG, a coalition of activist church and human rights groups here.

At the same time, nearly 50,000 US troops were deployed in the region in 1998 to carry out a variety of operations, from military exercises to construction and humanitarian relief in the wake of Hurricane Mitch.

About half of the US military personnel sent to Latin America and the Caribbean to carry out training activities are Green Berets, Navy SEALS, and other Special Forces units, many of whom were strongly criticized during the US intervention in Haiti in 1994 for co-operating with Duvalierist forces in rural areas.

In addition, about half of all training in the region was devoted to counter-drug operations. "That kind of training overlaps with counter-insurgency training," according to Isacson, an analyst at CIP. They both include small-unit tactics, light- infantry skills, intelligence, and marksmanship.

At the same time, US military aid and sales to Latin America increased sharply, according to the report.

The State Department's International Narcotics Control (INC) programme, through which most military aid to the region is channeled, rose from 180 million dollars in 1998 to 430.5 million dollars in 1999, and could go even higher next year after Congress considers a new Andean drug initiative that the Clinton administration is currently preparing.

Most of the increase was directed at Colombia where, beginning last April, the Pentagon began training a new 950-man counter- narcotics battalion, which last month took the field against left- wing guerrillas accused by Washington of supporting drug- trafficking.

Two other such battalions were supposed to be trained over the next months.

The Pentagon also had developed an extensive riverine interdiction programme focused in Peru and Colombia, with up to 20 million dollars a year to train and equip naval units in the two countries. Only last week, however, one naval base in Colombia was overrun by guerrillas who reportedly killed dozens of marines and sailors.

Arms sales have been increasing, with the State Department projecting a quadrupling of the dollar value of such deals between 1998 and 2000.

The greatest increase in anticipated sales will be Chile's projected purchase of advanced fighter aircraft, following the US decision in 1997 to lift a ban on the sale of high-tech weapons to the region. Washington currently licensed about one billion dollars in direct commercial sales to Latin America each year.

The report lauded Congress for enacting laws requiring the Pentagon to disclose more details about its military-training programme and for extending the reach of the so-called Leahy Law named after Vermont Sen. Patrick Leahy, which bans US training and equipment to members of military units which include human-rights abusers

. The law has required US embassies to vet candidates for training to ensure that the beneficiaries of US aid and training have clean records.

But the report accused the Pentagon of interpreting the law as narrowly as possible with the result that individual members of abusive units who are not themselves implicated in abuses may receive training and aid.

"Punishing the entire group for the few abusers' actions . ..would provide a strong incentive to respect human rights and to prosecute abusers," according to the report.

The report also was guarded about recent pledges by the Secretary of the Army to reform the SOA's curriculum, possibly by removing some combat courses and adding more classes in human rights. In addition, the school is expected to be re-named early next year.

The pledges followed an unprecedented vote by the House of Representatives to delete funding from the foreign-affairs budget for the SOA next year. The funding was restored after an extremely close vote by a House-Senate "conference committee."

The report said that the Pentagon's continuing defence of the SOA's history belied a "questionable" attitude.

It quoted a set of SOA talking points prepared by the Army as including the statement: "Many of the critics (of the school) supported Marxism - Liberation Theology - in Latin America - which was defeated with the assistance of the U.S. Army."

"The assertion that the U.S. Army defeated a brand of theology is deeply disturbing," the report noted, adding that "the Army should publicly recognize that it has trained some of the hemisphere's worst human rights abusers." (END/IPS/jl/mk/99)


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