Using Militaries as Police in Latin America: A Discussion on Citizen Security and the Way Forward

September 8, 2015 presentation at a discussion panel hosted by the Washington Office on Latin America and the Center for International Policy

Using militaries as police is an important topic for discussion that is not just relevant to Latin America but all of the regions countries, including this one! I am neither in favor of the militarization of citizen security nor the militarization of the police. Let’s not forget the images of “military like” vehicles that shocked so many in Ferguson, Illinois this summer or the ongoing litigation in Canada following the excesses of the G8/G20 meetings. Perhaps most importantly, let’s not forget that rule of law does not mean just law enforcement but equal access and protection under the law.

One of my objectives at the OAS has been to try and introduce a culture of evidence and citizen outcomes rather than the anecdotal and ad hoc solutions based on numeric targets. In a heterogeneous region like the Americas, it is a mistake to assume that a one-size security solution fits all, and that what works in Toronto will work in Tegucigalpa. Therefore, the evaluation and evidence gathering of national security systems, and their accompanying challenges, are a vital part of security sector reform and governance. Having said this, at the outset of my work as Secretary for Multidimensional Security, I was struck by the paucity of data and overdependence on anecdotal and personal assessments of the state of play as well as the absence of structured institutional responses. In other words, there was lots of chest pounding and declarations of intent but little real evidence of a strategic response. Providing security is, undoubtedly, a state response; yet time and again, we were finding pockets in which state institutions at all levels were either absent or disconnected from citizens and each other.

Traditionally, security diagnostics or assessments have been used on a national level to determine the effectiveness of individual actors involved in citizen security—particularly the police. However, these vertical approaches have been limited in scope, because they fail to recognize the diversity of and interconnectedness between actors in the security ecosystem. A national citizen security system should be a set of interwoven state institutions (federal, state, and municipal) and social, economic, and political actors in a country or jurisdiction with the common goal of contributing to the safety and well-being of its citizens. This “ecosystem” should not just react to the threats and challenges arising from violence and crime, it must seek to prevent such actions from occurring by understanding their root causes. The systemic character of this ecosystem implies that the sum of the actors’ relationships is more than the mere addition of the parts.

The limitations of a vertical approach and the successful practices that I have seen in other areas led me to believe that we needed to define a new multidimensional approach.   What emerged from this process was the development of our own security diagnostic methodology and toolkit built on rigorous evidence-based assessment that recognizes the existence of other relevant actors and understands their interrelationships. This latter point is essential to achieving the highest degree of efficiency and effectiveness and drives systemic results. This is not just about creating lists but understanding the who, the what, and the how of the horizontal relationships necessary to develop integrated, affordable, and effective solutions.  It was based on the diagnostic in Honduras, for example, that led me to become involved in the five person Commission to Reform Citizen Security. Through this we developed “a political pact for citizen security” which was accepted by all of the parties except the one that won! Similarly we started work in El Salvador on the peace process with the gangs following a full system diagnostic.

Within the spirit of this I asked the IADB in 2012 to undertake a study on the use of the military in public security. Not surprisingly the results were conclusive; in all the countries that have armed forces, (Panama, Costa Rica and some of the Caribbean don’t) the armed forces, including in the US and Canada, are being used in one way or another to provide some aspect of citizen security. The report listed the laws and authorities used in each case but did not go into any thorough analysis of international law, protocols, or questions of interoperability.  This will hopefully be part of the next version which the IADB is now undertaking.

My intent was to generate debate, which it did, due to the highly emotional and at times ideological history that the armed forces has in many counties of the region that have been through too many coups and civil wars. So much so, that in the follow up conference which I was going to co-host with the IADB I had to recuse myself as many member states did not want to confuse citizen security with issues of defense. Since then the IADB has held a number of useful meetings, creatively titled the “Armed forces in non-traditional roles…” This, however, does not get to the premise of this session on how to resolve the issues of citizen security.

In my view, the issues that drive insecurity can be best understood in the form of an equation or formula. This includes three factors that, taken together, are predictors of greater levels of crime and violence, less satisfaction with democracy, and increased distrust between citizens and their institutions. The three causal factors that lead to such results are best represented by: 1) social vulnerabilities, 2) state and institutional fragilities, and 3) accelerants. Therefore, identifying what the problem is at its roots, its dire consequences, and the causal factors and their relationships are fundamental for any serious security sector analysis and reform. This allows us to frame the discussion and develop a roadmap for future solutions, turning discussion into action.

It is in light of this equation that I believe we have to review the role of the military and police in helping states and regions counter the challenges they face in a sustainable manner. In an earlier paper, titled “The Police that We Deserve,” I proposed a number of points for discussion on the necessary reforms for our police services; needless to say it is not more force. In terms of the military, I have a long and positive experience working with them on provincial reconstruction teams (Rwanda, Somalia, and Sudan); blending what we then called defense, diplomacy, and development. We knew then what we know now, that we are not going to resolve conflict with more conflict, but by winning the hearts, minds, and pocket books of those on the margins.

As the risk of traditional state-on-state kinetic conflict subsides we need to better understand how we are going to deal with the gangs, cartels, and transnational criminal organizations that are driving much of the violence and conflict in the region. This is where I think we should be headed in terms of the next generation of white papers and confidence building measures within our region.

Take the three components of the equation; the military are ideally suited to help us address vulnerabilities whether they are through planning and mitigating humanitarian crises or natural disasters. In most countries the military are model institutions with long traditions of discipline and professionalization; indeed according to Latinobarómetro and LAPOP they are often perceived as the most respected institutions in many of our countries. This is why they are often deployed to support citizen security in the first place.  I would argue that we should take the same models that make them successful institutions and apply them to the other parts of the security ecosystem that I mentioned earlier. Finally, in terms of dealing with the accelerants of violence the military do play an important role in maritime and air interdiction of many of the products of the illicit economy from drugs, to arms, and people. There is no doubt that firearm marking, tracing, and destruction is something that could benefit from military involvement and certification. We must also be concerned by the management of arsenals and military or police equipment that must not fall into the wrong hands.

A prerequisite for any national deployment of the military, regardless of their intended role, has to be very clear objectives and the appropriate coordination and protocols with civilian authorities.  This is not a binary discussion; we need to modernize and professionalize the rule of law ecosystem –now!

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