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U.S. sees Latin American armies as crime fighters

BOGOTA (Reuters) - The Pentagon sees crime, drugs and street gangs as Latin America’s top security problems and it wants the region’s soldiers, rather than police, to tackle them.

A member of a citizen security patrol takes aim at an imaginary gang member during a light moment on the streets of 'Barcenas' in Guatemala City September 5, 2007. REUTERS/Daniel LeClair

The U.S. military is generally prohibited from law enforcement at home but for Latin America, where many countries have had periods of military dictatorship, U.S. officials view the armed forces as the only institutions capable of responding to crises and combating organized crime.

“There was a line of thinking in the 1980s and the early 1990s that we needed to divorce militaries from police functions and try to push that within the hemisphere because the model that we have, of course, we believe is the model that everybody should have,” said a U.S. defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

But some Latin American countries lack competent police forces, the official said, citing Mexico as an example.

“It’s going to take several years of Mexico applying some brain power to this and also considerable political effort to convince its citizens that it needs a stronger police force,” said the U.S. official, who traveled with Defense Secretary Robert Gates to Latin America this week.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has won praise from Washington for deploying about 25,000 troops to fight drug-smuggling cartels since he took office last December.

The United States has sent billions of dollars in aid to Colombia for its army-led offensive against Marxist guerrillas and cocaine cartels in recent years.

Governments in Central America have also deployed troops to patrol cities ravaged by violent youth gangs known as maras.


The U.S. Southern Command, responsible for military operations in Latin America and the Caribbean, sees very little chance of a war between countries in the region and has identified crime and drugs as its biggest security threats.

Using army troops in traditional law enforcement roles, however, raises questions about the U.S. commitment to democracy in the region, some Latin America experts say.

“They should be saying ‘No, this is a civilian responsibility,’” said George Withers, an expert on regional military affairs at the Washington Office on Latin America.

Some Latin American countries, where memories of U.S.-backed dictatorships are still fresh, are reluctant to involve their armed forces in such a role. The Brazilian military has resisted joining the fight against drugs gangs in Rio de Janeiro, saying soldiers are not trained for such missions and it would be unconstitutional.

Cristina Neme of the University of Sao Paulo Violence Studies Center said the army’s function was to defend the country against an outside enemy. Crime must be tackled by policing, in a proper democratic way.

“They talk a lot about police being unprepared and corrupt in Latin America, but our state governments have to solve that problem by reforming their public security policy and institutions, not calling in the army,” she said.

The army could also be contaminated by corruption, she said.

Additional reporting by Andrei Khalip in Rio de Janeiro