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The Pentagon Seeks to Regain the Initiative in South America

Raúl Zibechi Jun 4, 2012

The recent visit by US Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta to three South American countries, and the installation of a Southern Command base in Concón, Chile, show the deepening of the military presence of the Pentagon in the region.

"We'll really try to develop a key part of our new defense strategy, which is to…reinforce some very innovative partnerships in a very important region of the world that represents a key security interest for the United States," said Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, aboard the military aircraft that took him on his first visit to the region as defense secretary.

Panetta made three stopovers: in Colombia he reaffirmed the mission of Plan Colombia, to export security to the countries of the region, in particular to Central America and Mexico; in Brazil he attempted to lure the country with promises, to bring the world's sixth-largest economy closer to Washington's orbit; and finally, in Chile his visit coincided with the opening of the first military base of the Southern Command in that country, specializing in urban warfare.

His words revealed the objectives of the Pentagon's policy in the region: innovate, modify and deepen security policies, in line with the new national defense strategy issued by President Obama in early January, 2012. The focus shifts from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region, and to attract allies, the US proposes building partnerships in the form of "a network of alliances across the globe," offering the partners "technology transfer, intelligence sharing and foreign military sales."

In each of the countries visited, Panetta's speech and objectives were appropriate for the current level of collaboration and the strategic objectives that were outlined.

Plan Colombia: Exporting Security

"For many years, Colombia was considered a simple recipient of aid, but some time ago it converted itself into an exporter of knowledge and skills," explained Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzón, in a press conference together with Panetta.

For years it's been known that Colombia trains Mexican police officers and soldiers; now it's also happening in Central America. In January 2011, the Washington Post published an extensive article in which it claimed that Colombia has already trained more than 7,000 Mexican police officers and soldiers to confront the drug cartels, with training sessions taking place in both countries.

According to the newspaper, the United States finances a part of the training (the US has contributed $9 billion to Plan Colombia) and turns to the Colombians to get around "anti-yankee" nationalism that exists in Mexico. For its part, Colombia is trying to position itself as a country that can contribute to resolving the security problems of the hemisphere.

The recent scandal in Honduras is a good example of the problems that lead to the intervention of US armed personnel. Four civilians were killed in early May – among them two pregnant women – in an operation involving the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). Days after the operation, the population of Ahuas, the village on the Caribbean coast where the operation took place, rose up, burned government buildings, and claimed that those killed were fishermen, not drug traffickers.

With the US economic crisis and budget cuts, the importance of Colombia as a provider of security services has only increased. "In the context of limited resources of the United States for defense…we have an opportunity to partner together with other nations so they become security exporters," said Pentagon Press Secretary George Little.

Mexico and Central America are not the only destinations of this "innovative" Colombian export. In a distant country, governed by a progressive president, the Colombian security "assistance" has been denounced by the Paraguayan branch of Service of Peace and Justice (SERPAJ-PY). According to a report by the organization, "the Colombian government has become the principal advisor to the Paraguayan government with regard to security," through "an agreement to receive advice, training and support from Colombian intelligence organizations and special forces."

The Colombian assistance manifests itself in three areas: arms sales, including more than 500 Galil rifles in 2010; advising and intelligence work "with prosecutors and judges, special police corps, and economically powerful groups such as ranchers and businessmen"; and the "training of the Operational Force of Special Police (FOPE)." Colombia's Unified Action Group for Personal Liberty (GAULA) spent two and a half months in Paraguay, training 35 police officers.

And lastly, several media outlets reported that in 2011 Colombia trained 107 police officers from 13 countries in the region: Mexico, Costa Rica, Brazil, Ecuador, Guatemala, Belize, Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay, the Dominican Republic and Panama. In the same vein, Panetta said he planned to establish a State Partnership Program between Colombia and the US National Guard, to cooperate with other partners "including Chile, Peru and Uruguay."

Chile and Urban Warfare

"Financed by the United States, a base was built in record time at Fort Aguayo for the training of soldiers specialized in urban operations," reported Chilean newspaper El Ciudadano. The facilities were built in Concón, 30 kilometers north of Valparaíso, and they constitute part of the Military Operations on Urban Terrain (MOUT) program of the Southern Command.

The Chilean military base at Fort Aguayo houses the 2nd Marine Detachment, "recognized as the best-prepared in the Chilean Navy." In 2003, "non-commissioned officers recruited candidates to work in private security outposts in Iraq for the US firm Blackwater."

The facilities for urban warfare (MOUT) were constructed in only six months, on the fort's grounds, with $456,000 contributed by the Southern Command. It was opened on April 5, 2012. The base "consists of eight buildings, one with two stories and the others with a single floor, that together resemble a miniature city," suitable for urban combat training.

When President Obama visited Chile in March 2011, a treaty of cooperation was signed between the two countries, involving the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). Six months later, Chilean Defense Minister Andrés Allamand "signed a cooperation agreement that permits the deployment of US troops on Chilean soil, in the event that the Chilean Army's resources are 'exceeded for some emergency situation.'"

Chile has gained in importance in the Pentagon's strategy ever since several countries in the region – such as Argentina, Bolivia, Uruguay and Venezuela – stopped sending troops to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), formerly known as the School of the Americas. In contrast, Chile, which sent over 3,800 soldiers to train at the School of the Americas, has in this new stage been sending "roughly 190 students every year since 2006."

Panetta's visit to Chile occurred at just the moment when the third phase of exercise PKO-A 2012 (Peacekeeping Operations-Americas) took place, coordinated by the Southern Command. The first phase took place in Concón, and the final phase in Santiago. According to Minister Allamand, "in Latin America the days of military interventions – internal as well as external – have come to an end; today the proper word is cooperation."

The director of the Chilean Joint Peacekeeping Operations Center (CECOPAC), Colonel Claudio Zanetti, explained in clear terms what "cooperation" means: "Since it is very complicated for US public opinion when soldiers are sent to die in other countries, after the invasions in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US opts instead for the training of soldiers from other countries who now act under the mandate of the United Nations." Zanetti added that "the term 'enemy' is no longer used because one is going to establish or impose peace."

As we can see, it is the same logic as when Colombia takes care of training Mexican and Central American soldiers: it avoids the direct involvement of US troops. Panetta used more diplomatic language in Chile: it is not the United States looking after the security and defense of countries in the region, but "rather together to face common enemies."

Social movements were swift in their criticism. Human rights lawyer Alejandra Arriaza, executive secretary of CODEPU, said that "they are going to give the old enemy the name that they deem appropriate for those whom they want to fight," and that the current training was created to "destroy any kind of social mobilization."

Human rights organizations mobilized and sent a letter to the Chilean defense minister in early May. It was signed by: SERPAJ-Chile, OLCA, the Víctor Jara Foundation, Le Monde Diplomatique-Chile, CODEPU, the Martin Luther King Ecumenical Community, the Argentine League for the Rights of Man, the Alternative Nobel Peace Prize, Paraguayan Martín Almada, and others.

Alicia Lira, president of the Association of Relatives of the Politically Executed (AFEP), linked the training center for urban warfare in Concón with the popular uprisings in Aysén and Calama and the student movement. But the groups are seen as "a scheme of insurgency" because they are considered an "enemy within."

Brazil: Attract or Neutralize?

Panetta's most important stop was in Brazil. The crucial moment was the speech he delivered at the Superior War College in Rio de Janeiro, the most prestigious military institution in the country, founded in 1949 and frequented by business and political elites. It was a fine speech, well formulated to keep Brazil within Washington's sphere of influence.

Panetta began by mentioning a few locations, praising the "great beauty" of the city and "its beaches," then divulging that he is the son of poor Italian immigrants, as a way to explain that "I feel a very strong connection to this place."

Soon he came to the main topic: defense. "We are at a critical point in the history of our two nations where we have the opportunity to forge a new, strong, innovative security relationship for the future," said the secretary of defense. Therefore, "we have before us a truly historic opportunity to build that defense partnership – a strategic partnership based on mutual interest and mutual respect."

He analyzed the five aspects of the new US defense strategy: forces that are smaller but more agile, armed with better technology; "rebalance our global posture to emphasize the threats in the Asia-Pacific region"; build defense alliances on all continents; maintain the capacity to defeat more than one enemy at a time; and "prioritize and protect investments in new technologies" for unmanned systems, space, cyberspace and special operations.

Panetta said the White House has approved almost 4,000 export license requests to Brazil for advanced technologies, from weapons and aircraft to integrated combat systems for navy ships and submarines. He said that the government of the United States does this "only for our closest allies and partners." He then advocated the purchase of Boeing Super Hornet fighter aircraft. (Brazil is currently leaning towards the Dassault Rafale aircraft from France.)

In addition he explained that the new strategy assumes the incorporation of additional nations to the global security regime. In this context, he advocated a "new dialog" with Brazil, which in his opinion had been initiated by Obama and Dilma Rousseff in Washington months before. But he included a sentence that reveals how he understands the collaboration: "With our deepening partnership, Brazil's strength is more than ever our strength."

Everyone can judge for themselves the kind of alliance the Pentagon is proposing to Brazil. In my view, it's about observing what is there behind the speeches and the acts, the undeclared objectives that are pursued, as Noam Chomsky describes when analyzing the war on drugs: "To determine the real objectives, we can adopt the legal principle saying that the predictable consequences constitute evidence of intent."

"The war on drugs," Chomsky says, "is an attempt to control the democratization of social forces," because "it is a thin cover for counterinsurgency abroad" and "at home it functions as … 'social cleansing'," resulting in the mass imprisonment of black youth. Therefore, he concludes, the "failure" of the war on drugs is "intentional," since what it seeks is the destruction of the social fabric by violence, and "to destroy autonomous economic efforts of diverse communities in the region, to the benefit of powerful interests."

In the case of relations with Brazil, the Pentagon's objective appears to consist of accepting that Brazil will expand its military power – that much is inevitable – but subordinate to the United States. And if Brazil does not agree to be a subordinate? Could it run the risk of being considered an enemy country?

This article was originally published by Upside Down World and the Americas Program. Translation by Jim Rudolf.

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