Interventions by the United States in Mexico and Central America: The continuation of the war economy

The Northern Command (NORTHCOM) is responsible for the internal defense of the United States, and covers Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and parts of the Caribbean.

By Santiago Navarro F. of Avispa Midia
Translated by El Enemigo Común

While the leaders of the Southern and Northern Command of the United States carried out a tour of strategic locations in Honduras, Mexico, and Guatemala early in 2017, the recently elected president of the United States, Donald Trump, threatened Enrique Peña Nieto, president of Mexico, over a possible military intervention in the event that the drug trafficking situation remained unresolved.

The Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) is one of six Unified Combat Commands of the U.S. Department of Defense, and is responsible for U.S. military operations as well as cooperation and the creation of military ties in a region that includes 31 countries and 10 territories in the Caribbean, Central America, and South America.

The Northern Command (NORTHCOM) is responsible for the internal defense of the United States, and covers Alaska, Canada, Mexico, and parts of the Caribbean, including Cuba.

Mexico

It was January 31st when the U.S. Air Force Gulfstream IV (C20-F) landed and taxied into a Marine hanger on Mexico’s southern border in Tapachula, Chiapas. Lori Robinson, chief of the U.S. Northern Command, Kurt Todd, leader of the Southern Command, and the U.S. ambassador, Roberta Jacobson, met with officials of the Mexican Secretariat of Foreign Relations (SRE). Among them was the undersecretary for Latin America and the Caribbean, Socorro Flores, and the minister Luis Videgaray. According to sources in Reuters, the participants requested anonymity. Among the issues tackled in the meeting, key topics were migration and organized crime.

This meeting was carried out at the same time that diplomatic calls between the Peña Nieto government and Donald Trump’s government in the United States grew increasingly tense, as Trump voiced demands that the Mexican president should pay for the construction of the border wall that divides the two countries. Trump also threatened Peña Nieto, stating that if the Mexican military was unable to combat the drug cartels, then he would have to send American troops to solve the problem.

It has been several days since this event, and Trump’s declarations look more and more like the continuation of a military intervention planned since even before 2010, according to a leak published by Wikileaks, dated September 10, 2010 (Latam) Mexico-100910. The document reveals that a group of Mexican intelligence and the then Mexican ambassador in the United States, Arturo Sarukhán, took part in secret meetings with the Northern Command in the Pentagon. The United States was represented by the Department of Homeland Security and representatives of the Air Force. The leak also maintains that the Commander of the Northern Command at the time, Admiral James A. Winnefeld Jr., had ordered the evaluation of possible military assistance to Mexico, going beyond the organization of existing exchange programs.

Although the Mexican president denied that his conversation with Trump had included discussions about a possible military intervention in Mexican territory, it seems that Trump’s declarations and the recent visit of U.S. military commanders have a broader meaning: Demanding the participation and cooperation on the part of Peña Nieto’s government in an intervention by U.S. military forces, which will join the war against drug trafficking as well as counterinsurgency efforts. Since the leak also affirms that Hillary Clinton compared the Mexican situation to the context of war in the Middle East, the war on drugs in Mexico must thus be considered as a counterinsurgency campaign.

In this Mexican war on drugs, where the U.S. has long been a participant, reality has produced statistics such as more than 200 thousand dead over the course of a decade, along with the growing strength of organized crime and the increasing flow of weapons and drugs. While these government leaders strive to exchange their most intelligent statements, at least two thousand weapons enter Mexico illegally every day. It is clear that these are part of the ten billion dollars in annual sales reported by the U.S. arms industry. Weapons are goods that obviously fluctuate in value according to the law of supply and demand. And, according to a report published in 2014 by the Mexican Center for Social Studies and Public Opinion (CESOP), most of these 2,000 weapons that crossed the border daily were purchased legally from one of the hundred thousand vendors who sell them in legally incorporated businesses or through the so-called “gun shows” that operate all along the U.S.-Mexico border.

One example is the AR-15 assault rifle built by the largest arms manufacturer in the U.S., Smith & Wesson. It is one of the preferred weapons of the drug trafficking organizations, but also is the exclusive weapon of the Mexican army and Central American military forces. This corporation, represented on NASDAQ as SWHC, registered 722.9 million dollars in sales. Weapons exports in the largest global manufacturers increased 14% between 2011 and 2015, compared to the previous five-year period, with the United States figuring as the principle weapons exporter at the global level, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), published in February 2016.

In addition to illegal weapons, we can add the weapons purchased by nation states. One example is Mexico. From 2012 to 2015, Enrique Peña Nieto’s government increased its purchases of military equipment from the United States, including airplanes, helicopters, all terrain vehicles, and high-powered weapons. These acquisitions were made through the Foreign Military Sales program, and amounted to more than one billion dollars, according to a report published in 2015 by the Senate Armed Services Committee and the Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) of the United States. This means that the U.S. military industry is making a profit on both sides of the war — from organized crime and from the government — while the more than two hundred thousand lives lost in this context are counted as collateral damage, and those who are forced to migrate are turned into “illegals”.

Military spending per person increased between 2004 and 2014; in Honduras it rose from 9.0 to 30.7 dollars, and in El Salvador, from 26.8 to 41.0 dollars per person.

So, when we speak of the war on drugs in Mexico and Central America, we must necessarily consider the flow of weapons one of the basic pillars that supports not only organized crime, but also the war industry.

The chart below shows military spending in four Central American countries from 2004 through 2014. The final column on the right shows the rise in percentage over those ten years for each country:

  • El Salvador = 19.8%
  • Guatemala = 28.3%
  • Honduras = 149.1%
  • Nicaragua = 80.1%
  • Total = 50.6%

Another example is the purchase of arms from the United States in the framework of the war on drugs and terror in Central America. The countries that increased their purchases of arms and military hardware are: Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua. According to data that was documented in the “State of the Region” report by the National Council of Public University Faculty in Costa Rica, purchases from the United States increased by 2.015 million dollars in the period between 2004 and 2014. Honduras accounted for 75.4% of the regional total ($1.518 million), while the country with no army, Costa Rica, counted for $1.426 million, coming in second.

This context of a war on drugs and terror in Latin America is presented as the new political economy, dictated by the international market of the military industry. Thus, everything is adjusted according to the guidelines set by U.S. national security interests, which in turn are guided by mega-projects with regional scope, such as the Mesoamerican Integration Project, which has created a framework of extractive complexes and special zones, where raw materials, goods and services circulate, enter, and exit – along with weapons and drugs. It is clear that in order to maintain the rhythm of production in any industry, there must be demand in the market — and for the military industry, the greatest demand is found precisely in the context of war, such as the war on drugs and terror. Therefore, the possible intervention by the United States in Mexico has another meaning beyond the idea of ending the war — since ending the war on drugs would mean the end of an arms market in the region.

A military intervention by the United States in Mexico would mean closing the second part of a pincer movement that is currently lacking an official U.S. military presence in what is part of its broader sphere of influence. The seven countries that make up Central America (Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Belize, and Panama), on the other hand, have all hosted U.S. troops under the framework of the fight against organized crime and terrorism, but this does not mean that the results have been good.

U.S. Army Operations to Advance in Mexico

Guatemala

On the same day that the leaders of the Southern Command and Northern Command of the United States visited southern Mexico, they traveled to Guatemala, where they visited the Tecún Uman Inter-institutional Task Force, created in 2013 to combat drug trafficking, contraband, and other activities of organized crime in the Mexican border region. The unit is composed of more than 250 elite troops. The Southern Command visit is not the first one to take place in Guatemala. In fact, the first official visit took place on the occasion of the inauguration of the first Tecún Uman Task Force, in April 2013, as a demonstration of the continuing transnational security cooperation between Guatemala and the United States. General Frederick S. Rudesheim, who was the commanding officer of the Southern Command at the time, visited this Central American country to give a green light to the initiation of the training of the Tecún Uman Inter-Institutional Task Force, in San Marcos. A press bulletin issued before the inauguration announced that the U.S. embassy had donated 43 Jeep J8 tactical vehicles to the Ministry of National Defense, at a cost of 5.5 million dollars. This was supplemented by 9.2 million dollars in personal and organizational equipment, and 10.71 million dollars for the construction of an operations and logistical support base.

“The Inter-institutional Task Forces are intended to be positioned in the main border areas with Mexico, Belize, El Salvador and Honduras. We are talking about around 7 Task Forces put together by the United States, with infrastructure, an institutional framework, and financing provided by that country. That is to say, the U.S. is behind these Task Forces,” explained the investigative journalist Luis Solano. Solano is also the author of the book “Guatemala Petróleo y Minería en las Entrañas del Poder.”

Although every member of the Task Force has access to specialized technology such as heat sensors and night-vision goggles with a range of 2 kilometers, used to carry out nighttime operations, as well as high-powered armament and tactical vehicles, activities related to the drug trade have not diminished. According to Solano, the Task Forces are contaminated by corrupt government structures that should have been cleaned up in the beginning, with the creation of the first Inter-institutional Task Forces. “After the fall of the Otto Pérez Molina government and all of the structures around it, this fall from power was presented as a process of cleaning out key state institutions, but they are the same ones that make up these Task Forces. However much financing there might be, there hasn’t been any decrease in drug trafficking,” Solano said.

A series of drug traffickers have been captured and extradited from Guatemala, but the high command of the army and police, who have been linked to organized crime haven’t been touched, according to the journalist. “Yes, there have been many arrests and extraditions, but the structures themselves are untouched. In fact, they restructure themselves, and the result is internal struggles. What we see in Guatemala is a cyclical change in who’s in command of the drug cartels. The state also has an important presence and a strong influence. There are even reports of the existence of a drug trafficking organization within the police force, which is in charge of seizing shipments and passing them to other cartels,” explains Solano.

Indeed, in 2014, a report apparently produced by intelligence and anti-drug agencies in the United States, and published by the newspaper elPeriodico, refers to these corrupt police as the “Charola Cartel”, and affirms that it emerged after various traffickers began to pay certain police officials for protection of their shipments of drugs in the 90s. According to the investigation, some police officers began to steal from these shipments (a practice known as “tumbe” or “knocking over”) to sell them to other traffickers in the border zone between Guatemala and Mexico.

Although elPeriodico neither specified how it obtained the intelligence report, nor identified its authors or date, Luis Solano states that “in the case of the army, this is who really controls drug traffic through the country. The drug trafficking organizations don’t function without the support or at least a link — either through intelligence or counterintelligence — to the military or zone commanders. There is always a link. This isn’t new, it’s historic — in the ‘90s, there was an organization that called itself Los Capitanes. They arrested 10 Army captains who had control over the drug trade in that period, but not one of them was extradited, and none of the high command was detained.”

The creation of a Task Force in Mexico may or may not be the exception, in the sense that it may not be built on a corrupt structure, but that something similar to what happened in Guatemala might happen again — that it won’t end the problem, but become part of it. What is for sure is that this elite group created by the United States closes the pincer movement of U.S. military presence in the region.

“The Task Forces, much like other programs implemented by the United States, have not met their stated objectives. On the contrary, the infrastructure mega-projects for the extraction of minerals, petroleum, water, and gas have increased violently, and together with drug trafficking have been a factor in the expulsion of people from their communities, as they see themselves being forced to migrate. Guatemala is still a key site for the passage of drugs toward Mexico and the United States — in all possible forms, by air, land, and sea. All the routes begin in Honduras and El Salvador, and end in Peten, Huehuetenango and San Marcos, which are the departments bordering Mexico. Here, there are an impressive number of crossing points, which have not changed in the least since the formation of the first Task Force which is supposedly present in the area,” says Solano.

Honduras

Honduras is a country known for its great cultural wealth, as well as the common goods nature bestowed upon it, but also for the high rate at which defenders of the environment and indigenous rights are being killed. The case of Berta Cáceres, who was killed on March 2nd, 2016, turned the eyes of the world toward Honduras. More than 100 activists who had been defending their land against high-impact projects of national and transnational companies were murdered between 2010 and 2016, news that can be contrasted with the increasing militarization in the country, including a U.S. military presence that was created to establish “order and peace.”

The Southern and Northern Command had also visited this country one day before their landing in southern Mexico. They were received by the ambassadors of Honduras and Brazil in the Soto Cano Air Base, located in Comayagua Valley, Honduras. This base houses 600 U.S. troops and 650 U.S. civilians and Hondurans, as Conjunta-Bravo Task Force.

“It has more to do with the support of transnational companies that are sacking our country — the same ones who are seizing land for monoculture farming or their conservation politics.”

“The reasoning behind the visit”, according to the official website of the Task Force, “is to strengthen understandings between Northern Command and Southern Command around the security interests along the Mexico-Guatemala border to better fight crime.”

Even so, for the members of the Civil Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras, (COPINH), which was founded by Cáceres, the presence of the U.S. army on their lands “has more to do with the support of transnational companies that are sacking our country — the same ones who are seizing land for monoculture farming or their conservation politics,” said José Martínez, Community Coordinator for COPINH and a member of the Lenka indigenous group.

The heavy blow that members of this group suffered upon losing one of the main figures in their movement has forced them to move forward with even more determination, all while considering the high costs that this could have. “It has been this way since before and during the coup d’état. Members of COPINH have been spied on. At home, I’ve received numerous anonymous death threats. Juan Orlando Hernández (president of Honduras) is one of the individuals who has great investments in the country, and he’s the one who is handing our country over to U.S. and European transnationals on a silver platter. 35% of the national territory is subject to concessions. And this is why he’s strengthening the military — for example, the military police has been trained by the United States,” says José Martinez, speaking to Avispa Media.

The visits of both Commands in Central America are meant to strengthen the proposals that were launched by Orlando Hernández since he assumed power following the coup d’état in Honduras, including the creation of a multinational force that would be able to combat drug trafficking throughout Central America, although it seems that the proposal isn’t this president’s own idea, as Central American countries have more or less simultaneously created their own Task Forces, with the support of the United States based on the same policies around the fight against drug trafficking and terrorism.

In 2014, the president of Honduras announced the Maya-Chortí task force’s activities on the border between Honduras and Guatemala. “We are establishing a high-level group with Guatemala as well as with the United States. We are working with a high-level group in Mexico on security, and the work with them is already in process. At the same time, we are about to begin working with Panama and Nicaragua, and we’ve developed an excellent security relationship with both of them.” These were the words of the commander during the inauguration of the Task Force.

In Honduras, aside from the Conjunta-Bravo Task Force, there is also the Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force-South. The commander here, after a series of complaints by diverse NGOs and civil society organizations, assures us that it is not violating the sovereignty of his country. “I want to make something clear. Palmerola (the Soto Cano Air Base) is Honduran territory. Palmerola is a Honduran military base, and doesn’t belong to anyone else, so let there be no doubt, here or elsewhere, that this is Honduran territory,” stated Orlando Hernández in April 2015.

Dr. Adrienne Pine, anthropologist and professor at the American University, revealed in December 2012 that the Soto Cano Air Base was used during the military coup that took place in 2009 during the government of Manuel Celaya. “The United States always says the same thing, that this isn’t our base, that it’s a Honduran base and we’re invited to be there. We know that this is a lie.” The professor, together with her colleague, the anthropologist David Vine of the American University, has identified “13 bases or installations within Honduras that have been constructed or financed by the United States: Soto Cano, Caratasca, Gunaja, La Venta, Mocoron, El Aguacate, three kinds of advanced operating bases in Puerto Castillo that have been for operations in Iraq, Puerto Lempira, La Brea in Rio Claro, Naco, a training area in Tamara, and Zamorano, which is a rifle range used for training.”

When we asked José Martinez, a Lenka indigenous person, about his thoughts on the presence of the U.S. military in his country, he responded without hesitation and with a great sense of confidence: “As our Zapatista brothers say, this is definitively a war against the indigenous people that they weren’t yet able to wipe out. The presence of the United States in Honduras is geo-strategic position, because it seeks to ensure that companies can finish sacking our peoples through the Meso-American Integration and Development Project, but they’re also building more bases because they want to attack other similar processes elsewhere in Central America. If we don’t stop these projects, in the span of 30 years the earth will end up killed, because these projects are murderous. This is why Lenka territory is being militarized,” said the COPHIN member.

Martinez has lived a long time, and has a great wisdom and understanding of his people and his organization. He knows that his life might be taken away at any moment, but he doesn’t feel any fear for himself. He fears more for his comrades: other members of his organization, some of whom are very young, in their twenties. “We are in the eye of the hurricane, in terms of the transnational corporations, and the government is just following guidelines set by the United States, the European Union, the World Bank, and the International Monetary Fund. But we have to struggle, with our knowledge and our indigenous wisdom, because this is a war of extermination. Because for the United States, we indigenous people represent a threat to capitalism. We are its enemies because we don’t believe in its development discourse. Its development is responsible for the devastating climate change that our mother earth is suffering at this moment.”

This post is also available in: Spanish

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