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A Quick Tour of U.S. Defense and Security Assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean

July 6, 1998 | Report


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For at least a century, the United States has heavily aided the security forces of Latin America and the Caribbean. U.S. military aid and training programs reached their high-water mark during the cold war, when Washington viewed the region's often repressive and corrupt armed forces as a bulwark against Soviet communism. When the cold war ended, however, the closeness and significance of the U.S. military relationship with the region did not.


In fact, the U.S. relationship with Latin America's militaries is quite strong, according to a year-long study carried out by the Center for International Policy and the Latin America Working Group. What has changed since the cold war is the rationale for cooperation and the ability of Congress and the public to oversee military cooperation programs.

Joint training: The map illustrates the 214 visits that U.S. Special Forces paid to Latin America to train with the region's security forces during 1998. These deployments -- which include both "JCETs" and counternarcotics training -- are just one example of many inter-military cooperation programs that the United States carries out in the hemisphere.

It is difficult to grasp the entire extent of today's security assistance to the region, as aid and training are fragmented across a welter of programs and initiatives. Foreign military programs go through many channels within the U.S. government, governed by different laws, carried out by different bureaucracies, overseen by different offices within Congress, and publicized with different degrees of openness. The picture has grown still more complex in the 1990s. As the U.S. government shifts its security focus in the hemisphere toward counternarcotics, it is involving new agencies and creating new assistance programs.

"Traditional" foreign aid programs and Defense Department programs

We can best appreciate the complexity of today’s defense and security programs in the hemisphere by taking a quick "tour" of the many programs used to channel aid. We will look first at programs governed by the United States’ traditional foreign aid legislation, then at programs that the Defense Department carries out on its own.

This division of security-assistance programs according to funding legislation is more than just legalistic hair-splitting. As the following "tour" will demonstrate, aid and training are increasingly being funded through the defense budget. This change may weaken citizens’ ability to supervise and oversee the U.S.-Latin American military relationship.

Each year, Congress approves the national budget by passing separate funding bills for different functions. Most military and police programs today are funded through two such bills: the Foreign Operations appropriation — the "foreign aid bill" that governs military and economic aid — and legislation governing the Defense Department’s budget.

Until relatively recently, the foreign aid bill accounted for nearly all significant military assistance. The defense budget did not pay the tuition bills of foreign military trainees, and did not fund shipments of weapons and other military equipment. The defense budget paid to keep the doors open at overseas bases and training facilities like the U.S. Army’s School of the Americas, as well as training exercises and operations of the U.S. Southern Command (Southcom), the "regional command" charged with protecting U.S. interests in Latin America and the Caribbean. Arms transfers and training were the exclusive purview of the Foreign Operations legislation.

This arrangement was good for oversight, as the unpopularity of foreign aid in the United States guarantees that the Foreign Operations bill receives close scrutiny every year. The two regularly amended laws governing the programs in the foreign aid budget bill — known as the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA, first passed in 1961) and the Arms Export Control Act (AECA, 1968) — are packed with reporting and notification requirements, as well as with restrictions on which countries can or cannot receive security assistance.

The foreign aid bill, however, is funding a decreasing portion of U.S. defense and security assistance to the region. Aid is flowing as well through the Defense Department budget, which carries far fewer restrictions and notification requirements for its programs with Latin America. As we shall see, this change carries serious implications for citizens' ability to monitor and influence the U.S.-Latin American military relationship.

Programs in the foreign aid bill

Our tour begins with an explanation of the "traditional" security assistance programs funded through the foreign aid bill. Information about these programs is relatively easy to obtain; the State Department, which is ultimately responsible for them, is required to inform Congress about their activities in its yearly budget request and several other well-distributed reports.

The yearly Foreign Operations bill also includes conditions and restrictions which can prevent a foreign military from receiving assistance through these programs. Some well-known restrictions include the yearly drug-certification process, which cuts off aid to countries perceived as uncooperative in the drug war, and the "Leahy Amendment," which stops the flow of assistance to foreign military units facing credible allegations of human rights abuses. The foreign aid bill may also single out a particular country as ineligible for certain forms of military aid, as has been the case with Guatemala for the past several years.

Arms transfers

The Foreign Assistance Act and Arms Export Control Act govern several programs and funding mechanisms that allow U.S. weapons to be sold, given away or leased.

The Foreign Military Sales (FMS) program is the main channel through which the U.S. government sells weapons directly to other governments. A country buying weapons through FMS does not deal directly with the company that makes them. The U.S. Defense Department serves as an intermediary, buying the weapons from the manufacturer, delivering them to the customer government, and often providing maintenance and training. According to U.S. government estimates, in 1998 the nations of Latin America and the Caribbean will purchase weapons, training and defense services valued at about $163 million through the FMS program.

Sales of high-tech weapons to the region (such as advanced fighter aircraft), which are now possible with the mid-1997 lifting of a twenty-year-old "ban," would most likely be carried out through the FMS program.

Top recipients of Foreign Military Sales Agreements
  1996 1997
1 Brazil $169,283,000 Colombia $74,987,000
2 Colombia 65,247,000 Venezuela 59,421,000
3 Venezuela 21,332,000 Mexico 27,663,000
4 El Salvador 19,173,000 Brazil 24,962,000
5 Honduras 19,173,000 Argentina 18,981,000
6 Argentina 17,382,000 Bolivia 9,127,000
7 Bolivia 10,643,000 El Salvador 6,703,000
8 Mexico 4,430,000 Ecuador 4,158,000
9 Chile 2,512,000 Chile 2,322,000
10 Jamaica 2,374,000 Uruguay 1,078,000

Countries purchasing weapons from U.S. companies without a government intermediary choose the Direct Commercial Sales (DCS) program. The State Department must approve DCS sales by issuing a license; according to the department's past estimates, roughly half of approved sales usually end up being completed. However, State does not track completed sales, so there is no way to be certain how many sales go forward. In 1997, DCS licenses valued at about $1.05 billion were approved for Latin America and the Caribbean.

Top recipients of Direct Commercial Sales Licenses
  1996 1997
1 Venezuela $711,891,676 Venezuela $358,510,064
2 Mexico 146,671,738 Brazil 301,668,125
3 French Guiana 125,439,680 Argentina 208,464,576
4 Argentina 81,579,458 Colombia 46,661,336
5 Brazil 75,941,338 Chile 36,856,028
6 Chile 44,527,076 Mexico 30,868,570
7 Peru 31,293,666 Uruguay 16,225,853
8 Colombia 27,934,542 Panama 11,951,826
9 Ecuador 23,694,504 El Salvador 8,243,070
10 Panama 9,148,361 Ecuador 8,108,548 

Occasionally, the United States foots the bill for arms sales. The Foreign Military Financing (FMF) program uses grants or loans to pay for other countries' FMS purchases (and, less frequently, DCS purchases). While this program was the largest conduit for military aid to Central America during the 1980s, the region has received almost no new FMF in the past few years.

The U.S. government may also transfer weapons through a mechanism called an "emergency drawdown." The Foreign Assistance Act authorizes the President to take weapons, training or services from the government's existing arsenal or budget to meet "unforeseen emergencies." Narcotics trafficking, according to the law, is an emergency that may justify a drawdown; a maximum of $75 million per year may be taken from the Defense Department and shipped overseas as counternarcotics assistance under this category. Congress is not empowered to approve or disapprove drawdowns, though it must be notified of them fifteen days in advance. In September 1998, the Clinton administration ordered a $75 million drawdown for several countries, as indicated in the following table.

Drawdown of September 30, 1998
Bolivia $12,000,000
Brazil 2,000,000
Colombia 41,100,000
Dominican Republic 550,000
Eastern Caribbean 1,500,000
Ecuador 1,800,000
Guatemala 600,000
Honduras 2,050,000
Jamaica 1,000,000
Mexico 1,100,000
Peru 5,300,000
Trinidad 1,000,000
Transportation 5,000,000
Total $75,000,000

The Excess Defense Articles (EDA) program allows the U.S. government to transfer surplus military equipment defense articles no longer needed by the armed forces to foreign security forces. While most EDA are given away, some are sold at heavily-discounted prices. Latin American countries were offered free excess articles valued at over $26 million (originally valued at $87 million) in 1997, most to Argentina and Mexico. As the only country in the hemisphere to have gained a largely symbolic "Major Non-NATO Ally Status," Argentina is given privileged access to more desirable excess articles. During 1996 and 1997, Mexico received 73 UH-1H "Huey" helicopters from the United States 53 via a drawdown and 20 through the EDA program.


International Military Education and Training (IMET) a sort of "scholarship" program for foreign security forces is the main mechanism for funding military training through the foreign aid bill. IMET funding allows students from over 110 countries worldwide to take courses at approximately 150 military training institutions (including the School of the Americas, discussed below). In some cases, IMET pays for visits by U.S. military training teams (MTTs), groups of instructors assigned to teach courses overseas. About 20 percent of IMET funding goes to a subset of the program known as "expanded IMET" or "E-IMET." E-IMET pays for courses in non-combat topics (law enforcement, defense resource management, civil-military relations) and are open to some foreign civilians. Latin America and the Caribbean are expected to receive IMET funding valued at $10.25 million in 1998.

Top recipients of IMET funding
  1997 1998, estimated
1 Mexico $1,008,000 Mexico $1,000,000
2 Dominican Republic 622,000 Colombia 900,000
3 Argentina 603,000 Argentina 600,000
4 Bolivia 509,000 Bolivia 550,000
5 Jamaica 487,000 Ecuador 500,000
6 Peru 483,000 El Salvador 500,000
7 El Salvador 455,000 Honduras 500,000
8 Ecuador 425,000 Jamaica 500,000
9 Honduras 425,000 Dominican Republic 500,000
10 Chile 395,000 Chile 450,000
10     Peru 450,000


The State Department is legally considered the "lead agency" for international drug control policy. Its Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) funds and manages the International Narcotics Control (INC) program, which offers aid to the governments and security forces of countries in which drugs are produced or transported. The INC program can pay for a wide variety of activities, among them crop- substitution efforts, fumigation programs, judicial reform, or arms transfers and training for militaries and police forces. Military and police aid make up the majority of INC assistance region-wide. INC is a large and rapidly growing program: in 1998, it is expected to spend over $181 million on activities in Latin America and the Caribbean, with about $128 million slated for military and police assistance.

In Colombia, the INC program pays for an extensive aerial coca fumigation program. U.S. contract pilots, flying U.S. government-owned planes, spray herbicides over Colombian coca fields most of them rebel-controlled while escorted by Colombian police and military aircraft.

The "Western Hemisphere Drug Elimination Act," legislation enacted by Congress in October 1998, would increase the INC program's budget by about $225 million between 1999 and 2001. $201.25 million of this amount would go to buy new or upgraded hardware including six UH-60 "Blackhawk" helicopters for the Colombian National Police (CNP). During the first half of 1998, Republicans in the House had fought bitterly to transfer three Blackhawks to the CNP through the INC program. The State Department resisted, however, claiming that the helicopters were a poor use of limited resources.

Top recipients of INC funding
  1997 1998, estimated
1 Bolivia $45,500,000 Colombia >$57,000,000
2 Colombia 33,450,000 Bolivia 35,000,000
3 Peru 25,750,000 Peru 31,000,000
4 Mexico 5,000,000 Mexico 5,000,000
5 Guatemala 2,000,000 Guatemala 3,000,000
6 Bahamas 800,000 Jamaica 600,000
7 Brazil 700,000 Venezuela 600,000
8 Jamaica 650,000 Bahamas 500,000
9 Ecuador 600,000 Brazil 500,000
10 Venezuela 600,000 Ecuador 500,000

Defense Department programs

Though its budget is legally separate from the "traditional" foreign aid process, the Pentagon has always used some of its own resources for cooperation with Latin American security forces. U.S. military bases, regular joint exercises, and extensive deployments of U.S. troops, among other activities, have long maintained steady contact with the region's militaries while transferring advice and skills.

Because they make up a tiny sliver of the Pentagon's enormous budget, the department's military assistance activities in Latin America undergo far less congressional scrutiny than do traditional foreign aid programs. Defense budget aid carries fewer conditions which would prevent abusive militaries or units from receiving assistance. These programs also have fewer reporting requirements, making information about the Defense Department's activities in the region more difficult to obtain.

Pentagon counternarcotics programs

Until recently, the defense budget did not fund foreign military training or transfers of military equipment. These activities were governed solely by the foreign aid bill, with its numerous conditions and notification requirements. While security assistance through the foreign aid bill has decreased during the 1990s, Defense Department-funded programs have grown markedly, expanding to include some training and equipment-transfer activities.

The drug war explains much of this re-channeling of assistance. In 1989, Congress made the Defense Department the government's "lead agency" for overseas narcotics interdiction. In 1991, the U.S. military's counter-drug role was expanded still further by a short-term provision in that year's defense budget authorization law. Known as "Section 1004," this provision allows the Pentagon to use its own funds to train foreign militaries and police, as well as to transfer some equipment, as long as it can be claimed to be for counternarcotics.

These programs closely resemble much aid provided through traditional foreign aid channels, though they are subject to far less oversight. The law does not even require that Congress be told how much aid each country gets.

Top recipients of Section 1004 funding
  1997 1998, estimated
1 Colombia $32,883,000 Peru $25,235,000
2 Mexico 32,077,000 Mexico 23,205,000
3 Peru 27,086,000 Colombia 22,028,000
4 Venezuela 9,005,000 Venezuela 10,250,000
5 Brazil 3,096,000 Brazil 3,632,000
6 Ecuador 3,014,000 Ecuador 2,635,000
7 Panama 2,799,000 Panama 2,234,000
8 Bolivia 2,217,000 Bolivia 2,153,000
9 Honduras 818,0

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