Asia | Latin America Security | Cuba | National Security | Global Financial Integrity | Americas Program | Avoided Deforestation Partners | Win Without War | TransBorder Project
Last Updated:5/22/03

Altered States: Post-Cold War U.S. security interests in Central America

December 1995

By W. Frick Curry

The Soviet military threat has disappeared, and with it east bloc
assistance to governments and opposition movements in Central America
and elsewhere. U.S. policy makers are left with a seemingly welcome
challenge: how to redefine U.S. security interests in a world devoid of a
competing superpower. The Clinton administration has acknowledged
this new reality and proposed a fresh direction: "There is now no credible
near-term threat to America 's existence," national-security adviser
Anthony Lake said in September 1993. "The successor to a doctrine of
containment must be a strategy of enlargement: enlargement of the
world 's free community of market democracies."1

The administration's July 1994 "A National Security Strategy of
Engagement and Enlargement" declares that with the end of the Cold
War, U.S. national security imperatives have fundamentally changed.
Although a complex array of new and old security challenges remain,
this "new era" requires efforts "to bolster America 's economic
revitalization" and "to promote democracy abroad."2

In Central America, this new reality has been marked by the end of two
internal wars and progress toward democratization. After two and a half
years, the Clinton administration has made a promising start toward a
new post-Cold War national security policy with this neighboring region.
In practice, however, this policy has been marked by occasional
inconsistencies and troubling reminders that Cold War obsessions have
not totally disappeared.

U.S. Perceptions of Security Threats in Central America

Although now receiving an abruptly reduced portion of the U.S. military
and foreign aid budget, Central America has been permanently
transformed by the role it played in U.S. national security policy during
the 1980s.

Moreover, due to the Central American states' size and economic and
political fragility, U.S. perceptions of greatly reduced or markedly
different threats from this region can entail significant dangers -- and

The Clinton administration's policy toward Central America has
manifested many of the same contradictions evident in its approach to
the broader post-Cold War world. On the one hand, there has been frank
acknowledgement of the altered situation: "There is no real security
threat to the U.S. in this part of the world," U.S. ambassador to
Nicaragua John Maisto said early in 1994, and that's why we can get
back to the real roots of U.S. values in foreign policy."3 In a May 1995
policy address, Secretary of State Warren Christopher observed that
"Central America is no longer a charnel house of conflicts driven by class,
race and ideology."4 Significantly, this general assessment was shared by
all senior U.S. diplomats and military officers interviewed by the Center
for International Policy during a fact-finding trip through the region in
December 1994. U.S. officials on the ground in Central America all said,
in effect, "There is no threat here."5

On the other hand, CIP interviews revealed that these same officials are
still eager to justify continuing U.S. ties with, and support for, Central
American military establishments. The justifications cited were similar to
many of the post-Cold War dangers cited in "A National Security
Strategy" while others date back to the very origins of U.S. military
relationships and intervention in the region.

Perhaps most worrisome was abundant evidence of the same mindset
that led to the establishment and nurturing of Central American military
institutions such as the Somoza family's National Guard and El
Salvador's Atlacatl Battalion. More than once CIP heard the seemingly
innocuous refrain urging continued U.S. assistance for "professionalizing"
Central American militaries in order to promote democracy abroad.

Corresponding goals, expressed with identical phraseology, appear in "A
National Security Strategy."6 This is the same patronal mindset that in
the past strengthened the military at the expense of the civil sector in
Central America.

Interviewees declared that it was in the U.S. interest to help subordinate
the military to civil society through professionalization. Education and
exposure to U.S. military personnel would "set an example of how to deal
with civilian society."

U.S. political operatives and military officers interviewed also echoed the
same concerns characterized in "A National Security Strategy" as
"transnational" threats to U.S. security. These include terrorism, narcotics
trafficking, environmental degradation, rapid population growth and
refugee flows.7 Curiously, despite administration characterization of
these threats as "non-military" in nature, the Central American militaries
were seen as an effective -- if not the only -- response to these perils.
More than one interviewee suggested that the military was the sole
functioning institution truly national in reach. Typical was the
observation that ". . . the military is predictable, and it can get things
done." 8

In addition to so-called "transnational threats," U.S. officials interviewed
frequently cited economic stagnation, endemic corruption, the lack of
functioning criminal justice systems and rampant crime as threats to
regional stability, and therefore of serious and continuing concern to the
U.S. Other than "nation building" -- from constructing infrastructure to
educating their own recruits -- these officials were less than unanimous in
recommending how Central American militaries could ameliorate this set
of problems. Indeed, it was not unusual to hear interviewees blame local
military establishments for perpetuating at least one of these dilemmas --
that of official corruption. CIP interviews with U.S. officials in
Central America uncovered no hint of any concerns with potential
military threats to the United States. The days when a U.S. president
could spread fear of a Soviet-equipped Nicaraguan army marching into
Harlingen, Texas are long since past. Interviewees were equally
unanimous in citing the lack of any intraregional military threats. The
most formidable potential weapons of regional aggression -- U.S.-made
F-5E tactical fighter- bombers of the Honduran Air Force -- are now
grounded for lack of maintenance. In the words of one U.S. official:
"The military is looking for something to do. No one 's going to war --
there is nothing on the borders to defend against."

The Current Status of U.S. Military Ties with Central America

To the credit of both the Clinton administration and Congress, changed
perceptions of national security threats emanating from Central America
have led to the termination of the huge, overt military-aid programs that
dominated the U.S. approach to the region in the 1980s. None of the
region's states currently receives military assistance in the form of grants
or loans for weaponry, other than direct training, except for some
counter-narcotics programs.9 The emphasis of U.S. policy "...has shifted
to address problems of poverty and sustainable development in a time of

The sharp contrast between the current paucity of U.S. assistance for the
Central American military establishments and the torrent of aid flowing
throughout the Cold War cannot be overemphasized. Between 1950 and
1990 the U.S. provided $2.4 billion in constant 1990 dollars for military
grants, official sales and reimbursable credits to the five Central
American countries.11

Counter-narcotics programs in Central America

With the export of Communist revolution no longer a threat, the 1994
"National Security Strategy" paper could now justify U.S. support for
democracy and free markets as a necessary part of the campaign to
counter the burgeoning drug trade. United States anti-drug strategy was
to adopt a less confrontational stance in source and transshipment
countries. Secretary of State Christopher described the administration
approach as follows:

"Building democracies can better combat narcotics production and
trafficking...Our new strategy has broadened the focus of our overseas
narcotics efforts from interdiction to a more balanced approach...Our
central objective is to strengthen the rule of law, economic and social
development, and anti-drug institutions in the host nations.12

The institution-building aspects of the program could indeed be of great
benefit to Central America, especially AID programs to build the rule of
law and support sustainable development that will relieve the economic
pressures that encourage the drug trade. AID has an estimated $1 billion
in development programs underway in all of Latin America. Most of the
expenditures that directly target drug shipments and narcotrafficking
organizations are funneled through U.S. civilian law enforcement and
intelligence agency budgets.

For its part, the primary contribution to anti-drug efforts by the U.S.
military under Southcom (the U.S. Southern Command, currently
headquartered in Panama) is to provide ground-based and airborne radar
detection and monitoring of drug smuggling flights. "Target packages"
and "around-the-clock actionable intelligence" facilitate immediate
interdiction by host nations, as well as U.S. law enforcement agencies.
Southcom also maintains joint planning and assistance (JPAT) teams to
coordinate and advise anti-drug campaigns in Guatemala and Panama.13
The problem remains that the armies with whom the United States
collaborates in counter-narcotics programs have accumulated
disproportionate influence after decades of U.S. assistance. In some
cases, elements in the militaries are engaged in trafficking.

Recent experience with similar U.S. efforts in Haiti provides a cautionary
tale. The Central Intelligence Agency helped organize an anti-narcotics
unit in the Haitian army in 1989, in the course of which it identified
Raoul Cedras as "one of the most promising young officers in the Haitian
army." Among those who became paid CIA agents under this
anti-narcotics program were several prominent organizers of the 1991
military coup. Under the guise of a counter-narcotics program the CIA
and Pentagon communicated to top Haitian military officers that they
had a powerful patron in Washington. The program's success in curbing
drug trafficking was negligible, since the Haitian army itself continued to
transship drugs. But the signals sent by this collaboration encouraged
both the military coup and the three years of despotism that followed.

CIP researchers found a significant difference in the perception of the
Central American drug threat between top U.S. officials and those
interviewed during the CIP fact-finding trip. Gen. George A. Joulwan,
former commander in chief of Southcom, testified before a Senate
committee that "The Secretary of Defense directed that combating drugs
is a high-priority national security mission." He added, "In my opinion
the narcotrafficking threat to Central and South America is more serious
than that posed in the past by Cuban and Soviet sponsored
subversion."14 The current Southcom commander, Gen. Barry R.
McCaffrey, further warns that "the scourge of drugs is presently the
greatest threat to democracy in several Latin American countries" and
advocates increasing security assistance to countries that cooperate with
the U.S. in anti-drug efforts.15

However, U.S. officials in the region interviewed by the Center for
International Policy tended to see any drug threat in Central America as
being more potential than real at this time. One interviewee
acknowledged that "civil society is so weak that narco money could gain
great power," but added that both civilian and military leaders in Central
America were aware of what had happened to Colombia and wanted to
avoid it for themselves. Only one of the interviewees identified drug
activity -- in the form of maritime transshipment -- as a significant
problem in the Central American country to which the official was

Military Civic Action Programs

U.S. interaction with the Central American military has been virtually
institutionalized through regularly scheduled HCA (Humanitarian Civic
Action) programs in which elements of the U.S. military -- often
including National Guard units -- work in conjunction with indigenous
militaries on non-combat projects. These can include construction of
roads and schools as well as the provision of medical and even veterinary

The most frequently conducted civic action program in Central America
has been the Fuertes Caminos ("Strong Roads") series of exercises carried
out in Belize, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. Because
of the permanent U.S. presence at the Soto Cano air base in Honduras,
that country is a favored location for U.S. military training operations,
many of which include civic action.

Especially noteworthy is the continuation of civic action in Guatemala, a
country still torn by a civil war. Guatemala's military possesses such a
dismal human rights record that it has been prohibited from receiving
U.S. military assistance since 1990. Nevertheless, the U.S. Milgroup
(Military Group) stationed in Guatemala will cycle 350 U.S. troops
through Fuertes Caminos exercises in 1995. U.S. officials defended
this program to the CIP fact-finding mission, claiming that it takes place
in "nonconflictive areas" without Guatemalan troops, and that "local
reaction has been favorable."

The Pentagon offers a broader rationale for these programs:

"Military civic action sees the use of military resources in such a way as
to enhance not only the national security posture of a country, but its
political stability, social cohesiveness, and economic development as
well...(and) would also serve to improve the standing of the military
forces within the population."17

Today, the U.S. military also justifies civic action as a way for U.S.
reservists and National Guard troops to get much-needed training and
exposure to the type of environments they might encounter in wartime.
The following opinion voiced to CIP by a U.S. military officer typified
the view of civic action held by U.S. officials in the region:

"The program has humanitarian intentions. It 's a kind of "make-work"
project so members of the National Guard can practice skills they would
otherwise have no opportunity to practice."

Although civic action is conducted in many developing countries with
which the United States has a military relationship, Central America --
perhaps because of its proximity to the United States -- is clearly the
favored program location. In fiscal year (FY) 1993, for example, over 71
percent of all funds allocated for civic action world-wide were spent in
Central America. However, even that proportion may understate
spending for the program in Central America given the difficulty in
determining overall spending levels.

For more than ten years, the General Accounting Office of the U.S.
Congress has been raising questions about the budgeting practices of
civic action. In its most recent evaluation of the program in 1993, the
GAO reported that "The full extent of the program is unknown because
some civic assistance projects are not being submitted to the State
Department for approval [as the law requires]."18 The GAO has
regularly reprimanded the Department of Defense for funding foreign
and security assistance activities -- including civic action -- from its
Operations and Maintenance accounts.

Showing another way in which actual amounts spent on civic action can
be obscured, especially in Central America, a 1994 report from the New
York State Adjutant General disclosed that New York State -- not the
Pentagon -- had paid $3 million of the $18 million cost of the Fuertes
Caminos 94 (North) exercises in Guatemala in which the New York
National Guard took part.19

Ultimately, civic action programs may have outlived their usefulness
given the changed conditions in Central America. At a time when the
region is attempting the difficult transition from war to peace and
toward democracy and free market economies, is it appropriate for the
United States to continue reinforcing the military's prominence at the
expense of the nascent civilian sector? Human rights groups argue that
civic action programs increase the political power of the military and give
it a legitimate economic role, further complicating efforts to reduce its
size. Benjamin Schwarz of the Rand Corporation agrees, suggesting that
civic action may be counterproductive at this critical juncture because it
"...assigns an expanded role to host militaries just when economic
conditions demand their reduction."20

For example, is it helpful for the United States to further the Honduran
military's role in non-military activities through extensive civic action
programs when that military already controls key economic entities such
as the national telephone company and other commercial enterprises?
Ironically, projects such as Fuertes Caminos could never be conducted in
the continental U.S. -- because in the U.S. the military is not permitted
to compete with private industry.21

In El Salvador, the continued cooperation of U.S. forces with the
Salvadoran military in community improvement projects may encourage
violation of the 1992 peace accord, which specifically limits the role of
that country's military to national defense.

Joint U.S.- Central American Military Exercises

Although few in number and small in scope, the United States on a
regular basis conducts combined exercises with Central American
militaries that do not have the humanitarian or "nation-building"
objectives of civic action programs. Generally speaking, these exercises
involve more than one Central American country and appear to be aimed
at enhancing coordinated command and control between U.S. and
Central American militaries should combined operations during war-time
conditions or drug-interdiction efforts be necessary.

In practice, prohibitions against military assistance have not precluded a
country's inclusion in these military training operations. Although U.S.
military aid to Guatemala was terminated in 1990, fifty Guatemalan
troops participated in "King's Guard 93" alongside U.S., Honduran and
Salvadoran forces in July 1993. Activities included "joint/combined naval
command post and field training exercises consisting of maritime
surveillance and interdiction exercises."

Recent examples include "King's Guard 94," held in both Honduras and
El Salvador in June 1994, and Fuerzas Unidas Centam 94 conducted in
Honduras during July 1994. Both were described as "joint/combined
command post" exercises with the latter including a computer-driven low
intensity conflict war game. Honduran and Salvadoran military
personnel collaborated with U.S. troops under the U.S. Southcom during
each operation. Military units from El Salvador were also recently
brought to the United States for participation in "low intensity scenario
exercises" at the Joint Readiness Training Center at Fort Chaffee,

U.S. Military Bases in Central America

Although slowly being drawn down in compliance with the 1977
Panama Canal treaties, the United States has nearly eleven thousand
troops and one thousand civilian support personnel stationed at several
major bases in Panama. These include Howard Air Force Base, Fort
Kobbe, Rodman Naval Station, the Jungle Operations Training Center
and Quarry Heights, the head quarters of Southcom. Although the
Southcom headquarters staff will relocate to Miami in 1997, current
plans call for a slow reduction in U.S. combat and support forces and
phased base closures with departure to be completed by December 31,

Less well-known than the U.S. occupancy in Panama is the permanent
U.S. presence at Honduras' Soto Cano air base. Approximately eleven
hundred U.S. Army and Air Force troops equipped with thirty-five
helicopters are stationed there along with counterdrug personnel and
aircraft of the U.S. Customs Service. Although originally established as
part of the covert campaign of support for U.S.-backed contras in their
war against Nicaragua, Soto Cano has taken on new importance to U.S.
military planners with the impending closure of U.S. facilities in Panama.
General Barry R. McCaffrey, commander in chief of Southcom, makes
the following case for a continued U.S. presence at Soto Cano:

"While the circumstances in Central America have changed dramatically
for the better in recent years...this organization and its facilities continue
to be useful...We fly supplies into this C-5 capable airfield from the
United States (and) distribute the supplies throughout the region...our
presence in Honduras allows us operational flexibility as we draw down
in Panama. Maintaining access to this facility...continues to be cost
effective and in our best interest."22

Arms Giveaways and Sales

As if to supplement and enhance its position as the world's leading
manufacturer and largest exporter of armaments, the United States
maintains an Excess Defense Articles giveaway program which it uses to
deplete its own inventories of outdated weapons. While it appears that
only nonlethal equipment is currently being directly exported to Central
America from this program, the final destinations of used, obsolete or
excess U.S.-made weapons are not always clear, especially if shipments
pass through a third country or are too insignificant to fall within the
legal requirements for reporting to Congress or the Defense

Of the approximately $10 million value placed on excess defense articles
reported as directly transferred to Central America in fiscal years 1994
and 1995, $9 million consisted of radar equipment given to Costa Rica.
The remainder included such items as used trucks as well as chairs, desks
and books shipped to the Salvadoran military. This recent shopping list
is in stark contrast to "excess" items such as armed patrol boats, tanks
and other weaponry that found its way to Central America from U.S.
arsenals in past decades.

Although the Clinton administration's 1994 "National Security Strategy"
paper declares that "Arms control is an integral part of our national
security strategy," the United States has come to dominate the world's
post-Cold War arms-sales market.24 However, Central America now
accounts for only a minuscule portion of U.S. military sales.
Furthermore, nearly all of what little materiel now reaches Central
America through the Pentagon-sponsored Foreign Military Sales (FMS)
program is non-lethal. The total value of reported U.S. arms sales to the
region in fiscal years 1994 and 1995 amounted to a mere $607,213. Of
this amount, only about $45,000 bought actual weaponry -- 215
U.S-made assault rifles destined for the 370 soldiers of the Belizean
armed forces.

However, even if no significant amounts of new or more sophisticated
arms are entering the region, there is a vast overstock already there that
can have a destabilizing effect inimical to national reconciliation and
U.S. interests. After years of internal wars, the proliferation of
military-style weapons exacerbates a growing crime problem. The
following comments are typical of concerns expressed by U.S. officials
during the CIP interviews:

"...there are tons of weapons of war out there, M-16s, AK-47s and
grenades. It will get worse before it gets better. Criminal bands are a
major threat to stability."

Police training

U.S. officials in every country visited by CIP cited the growing menace of
criminal violence and the degree to which it reflected the weakness not
only of criminal justice systems but civil society at large. More than once
did we hear "The main threat to internal stability is crime." Receiving
blame for this situation was the easy availability of weapons, widespread
unemployment and the corruption of criminal justice systems.

The United States now justifies a number of specifically targeted
programs as responses to the crime problem. These include police aid
under the Administration of Justice initiative administered by the
International Criminal Investigation Training and Assistance Program
(ICITAP) in the U.S. Department of Justice. The Drug Enforcement
Administration, also operating out of the Department of Justice, posts
U.S. agents as trainers and advisors in Central America and elsewhere.
In addition, specialized training may also be provided by the Bureau of
International Narcotics Matters and the Coordinator for
Counter-Terrorism in the Department of State. AID has its own
programs promoting the rule of law and good governance.

These programs of police aid, fragmented among a number of civilian
U.S. agencies, have come about partly in reaction to a congressional ban
on the direct transfer of military weapons and service to police forces.
However, U.S. assistance to police forces must be included in any
analysis of U.S. ties to regional militaries because of the traditional
military control of civilian police functions in most Central American

For example, there was considerable criticism, especially from human
rights groups, of ICITAP aid to the Guatemalan police -- then a part of
the military -- in the late 1980s during the height of the government's
brutal counter-insurgency campaign. Although the police in Guatemala
and El Salvador have now been officially removed from military
jurisdiction, in Honduras the police remain a branch of the military.

IMET and the School of the Americas

As noted above, U.S. officials in Central America interviewed by CIP
were nearly unanimous in proclaiming the importance of enhancing the
"professionalization" of Central American militaries. Not only combat
effectiveness, but respect for democracy, civilian rule and human rights
are said to be increased by exposure to U.S. military personnel and
doctrine during joint exercises and, especially, through formal U.S.
military training.

Central American military personnel sent to the United States for
training were said to "...come back with a better attitude." Although
"professionalization" may contribute to institutional continuity and
improve the combat effectiveness of some military units, little empirical
evidence exists to support interviewees' assertions that it helps "promote
democracy, the peace process and civilian control".25

Because training was until recently primarily budgeted under
International Military Education and Training (IMET), this has been
one of the most readily quantified U.S. ties with Central American
militaries.26 From fiscal years 1993 through 1995 Belize, Costa Rica, El
Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras received approximately $4.5 million
worth of military training from the U.S.

Central American officers and enlisted personnel receive U.S. training
and guidance in their own countries from U.S. Milgroup advisers, both
civilian and military. With peace has come a significant reduction in the
U.S. Milgroup presence in Central America. In El Salvador, for example,
the Milgroup has ceased all direct advising activities and been reduced in
size from a staff of eighty at the end of the civil war to six today.
Typical of the makeup and role of Milgroups currently posted to Central
America is the contingent in Honduras, which consists of nine U.S.
military personnel, two U.S. civilian employees and a ten-member
Honduran support staff. Technical training is often done by North
Americans on temporary assignment, such as the fourteen Air Force
personnel who were training Hondurans on use of a new radar system at
the time of CIP's fact-finding mission in December 1994.

IMET also provides for the training of personnel at counter-insurgency
warfare schools maintained by the United States in Panama and at
selected schools in the continental United States. Small numbers of
foreign officers are also offered scholarships at one of the three U.S.
service academies. One of West Point 's best-known Central American
alumni was Nicaragua 's former president, General Anastasio Somoza.

However, most Central Americans are likely to receive their U.S.-based
military training at the School of the Americas operated by the U.S.
Army. Established in 1946, it has provided courses for more than
fifty-eight thousand Latin American soldiers and officers. Although it
was moved from Panama to Fort Benning, Georgia in 1984, the SOA has
maintained the distinction of being the only large U.S. training facility in
which foreign military personnel are not integrated into regular U.S.
military training courses.

Although a key part of its mission is to "professionalize" military trainees
by teaching respect for human rights and civilian authority, the records
of many of the SOA's Central American graduates leave much to be
desired.27 SOA alumni from the region include Panama's former
president, Manuel Noriega, now serving time in a U.S. prison for drug
trafficking, and Roberto D'Aubuisson, organizer of Salvadoran death
squads. Lesser-known Salvadoran SOA graduates have also made their
mark on that country's unhappy modern history. Nineteen of the
twenty-six Salvadoran officers cited by the Truth Commission for
planning, carrying out and covering up the 1989 murder of six Jesuit
priests and two associates were trained at Fort Benning. More recently,
in Guatemala, the three most senior officers who backed President
Serrano's failed "auto-coup" in May 1993 were all SOA alumni.
Human-rights and church groups in the United States are leading an
ongoing campaign to close the School of the Americas. These critics
charge that the extensive record of abuse by many of its graduates
demonstrates that SOA fails to instill deference to civilian rule and
regard for the rules of war and human rights.28 Efforts to close the SOA
in Congress have been led by Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II
(D-Mass.), who has lost two increasingly close votes in the past two years
to eliminate SOA funding.

Representative Kennedy and other SOA opponents point out that closing
the facility will not bar U.S. training of Latin American armed forces --
but simply require that it take place in the same way thousands of other
foreign troops receive training -- alongside U.S. military personnel in
regular classes.

For its part, the U.S. Army has reacted to efforts to close the SOA by
hiring a civilian research firm to evaluate the school's future. Awarded in
May 1995, the consulting contract cites changes in the army 's mission
due to the end of the Cold War and adds: "The question of the
continued need for SOA has surfaced. There is a need to determine
whether the SOA should exist and for what purpose."29

The CIA in Central America

For well over forty years the CIA has been deeply involved in Central
America. Little is known about the agency's activities, however, since
most are carried out in secret. Only when operations are spectacularly
successful, or spectacularly unsuccessful, do they come to the public's

The first publicized "success" came in 1954, when the CIA helped
overthrow the government of Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala. Arbenz, who
had been democratically elected, was a reformer who had clashed with
the United Fruit Company. In the 1960s, as part of the Kennedy
administration's Alliance for Progress, the United States spent huge sums
to strengthen local militaries throughout the region, and provided the
armies with intelligence units. These national intelligence units became
firmly established in most countries, and most could now sustain
themselves even if all support from the CIA were ended.

The CIA was extensively involved in the contra war against Nicaragua's
Sandinista government during the 1980s. In March 1981 President
Reagan submitted a finding to Congress authorizing $19.5 million for
covert actions in the region to undermine the Nicaraguan government.30

The presidential finding laid the ground work for covert paramilitary
operations in Nicaragua and Honduras that continued for almost a
decade, and ultimately involved activities in every country in the region,
including Panama.

The veil of secrecy covering current CIA activities in Central America was
lifted in March when Representative Robert G. Torricelli (D- N.J.)
charged that a Guatemalan army colonel on the CIA payroll was involved
in the killing of an American innkeeper in 1990 and the 1992 torture
and murder of a Guatemalan rebel leader married to an American

As a result of the widespread outrage in Congress and the press about the
U.S. link to the murders, President Clinton suspended all CIA funding of
the Guatemalan army 's D-2 intelligence unit. In recent years, according
to press reports, the CIA has spent between $5 million and $7 million a
year in Guatemala.31 This funding continued even after U.S. military
aid was suspended to protest the 1990 murder of the American

At the end of March, President Clinton ordered a review of past U.S.
intelligence and military activities in Guatemala. An internal CIA
investigation concluded that CIA field officers consistently failed to
disclose their covert activities in Guatemala to two U.S. ambassadors,
Congress, and the agency itself.32

The executive branch reviews and planned House and Senate intelligence
committee hearings on American involvement in Guatemala are to be
accompanied by the declassification of large numbers of documents.
These should provide the first detailed account of how the United States
has established and supported a local intelligence operation in Central
America. Moreover, the reviews will try to determine how much
American military and intelligence officials knew about the Guatemalan
army's responsibility for the murders of more than one hundred
thousand of its own citizens over the last three decades.

U.S. involvement with recent military abuses of human rights in Central
America has not been limited to Guatemala. An investigation by the
Baltimore Sun uncovered U.S. collaboration with the Honduran army's
Battalion 316, which kidnapped, tortured and killed hundreds of
Hondurans in the 1980s. Declassified documents and interviews reveal
that the CIA not only equipped Battalion 316 and trained its members
in the United States, but hired Argentine counterinsurgency veterans
from that country 's "Dirty War" to help CIA instructors further train the
battalion near Tegucigalpa. While its exact number of victims will never
be known, as of late 1993 the Honduran government still listed one
hundred and eighty-four people as missing and presumed dead after
being kidnapped by Battalion 316.33

The long-term impact of the recent Guatemalan and Honduran
revelations is likely to be limited unless the CIA and other U.S.
intelligence agencies themselves are reformed. The lack of accountability
that has allowed the CIA to keep death-squad killers on its payroll in
Central America is a systemic problem.

The new CIA director, John M. Deutch, who has said privately that he
believes the CIA has no business operating in places like Guatemala, is
already confronting institutional resistance to investigating and curbing
the agency's clandestine activities.34


The more the United States attempts to articulate its post-Cold War
security concerns in relation to Central America, the less they tend to
resemble any credible strategic military threats. The security matters
U.S. officials now articulate can more accurately be categorized as social
and economic concerns than as dangers to U.S. territorial integrity or
national survival. In the words of Assistant Secretary of State for
Inter-American Affairs Alexander F. Watson, "sound political and social
conditions are indispensable to a positive long-term trade and investment

Nevertheless, there remains a web of U.S. military and intelligence
collaboration with the military establishments of Central America, while
police training has been revived for the first time since the early 1970s.
The fact that the military ties are now under the rubric of
counter-narcotics and civic action programs and that police and military
training emphasizes instruction in human rights and democratic values
does not resolve the apparent dilemma of continued U.S. support for the
most repressive sectors of Central American society; it merely justifies it
in new terms. The rationale has changed: Cold War, ideology-based
concerns have been discarded in favor of new ones more consistent with
democratic values and post-Cold War concerns. But the liability of
collaboration with historically anti-democratic actors remains.

Anne Grant contributed to this article. Funding was provided by the
United States Institute of Peace.

1. Stephen Metz, America in the Third World: Strategic Alternatives
and Military Implications, Strategic Studies Institute, May 20, 1994, p.
2. The White House, "A National Security Strategy of Engagement and
Enlargement," U.S.G.P.O., July 1994, pp. i-1.
3. Envoy in Nicaragua Says U.S. Won t Meddle, The New York Times,
February 10, 1994. This is a refreshingly different perspective than that
expressed early in the Reagan administration by the U.S. ambassador to
the United Nations, Jeane Kirkpatrick: El Salvador is today the most
important country in the world for the United States.
4. Warren Christopher, Secretary of State, Remarks to the Council of
the Americas, May 22, 1995, p.3 of official transcript.
5. The Center for International Policy conducted inter views with seven
high-ranking U.S. civilian and military officials responsible for
monitoring events and implement ing U.S. policy in Belize, El Salvador,
Guatemala and Honduras in December, 1994. All interviews were on a
not-for-attribution basis.
6. A National Security Strategy, pp. 1-3.
7. Ibid., p.1; pp.8-10.
8. Emphasis by interviewee.
9. The last military assistance monies in the pipeline to Central America
were Foreign Military Financing grants obligated as of FY 1993 to El
Salvador ($11 million) and Honduras ($1.5 million).
10. Brian Atwood, Administrator, U.S. Agency for International
Development, Senate Committee on Appro priations, Subcommittee on
Foreign Operations, Export Financing and Related Programs; Hearings
on Appropria tions for Fiscal Year 1995, March 2, 1994, p. 392.
11. Robert H. Holden, U.S. Military Power in Central America, The
International History Review, Vol. XV, No. 2, May 1993, p. 302.
12. Warren Christopher, Secretary of State, Senate Com mittee on
Appropriations, Export Financing and Related Programs, Hearings on
Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1995, March 2, 1994, p. 166.
13. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, commander in chief, U.S. Southern
Command, prepared statement for U.S. Senate, Committee on Armed
Services, Hearings; Department of Defense Authorization for
Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1995 and the Future Years Defense
Program, part I, 103d Cong., 2nd sess., April 20, 1994, p. 161.
14. General George A. Joulwan, commander in chief, U.S. Southern
Command, statement before Senate Committee on Foreign Relations,
Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics and International Operations,
Feb. 20, 1992.
15. Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, Ibid., pp. 155 and 160.
16. Curiously, this country has not been the recipient of direct U.S.
assistance for narcotics interdiction and eradication. In Central America,
only Guatemala has recently received such aid: $2 million in FY 1994
and $2.55 million in FY 1995.
17. Captain Craig L. Smith, Military Civic Action, The Journal of
International Security Assistance Management, Fall 1985, p. 85. Smith
quotes Joint Chiefs of Staff Publication #1.
18. U.S. General Accounting Office, Changes Needed to the
Humanitarian and Civic Assistance Program, Report to Congressional Requesters, November 1993, p.2. The report also raises serious questions about whether many HCA project are coordinated with U.S. foreign policy objectives, provide beneficial training for U.S. troops or meet the needs of host countries, pp. 6-9.
19. Major General Michael S. Hall, New York Air National Guard, The Adjutant General, letter to Commit tee on U.S.-Latin American Relations, June 28, 1994, p. 2.
20. Benjamin C. Schwarz, Peacetime Engagement and the Underdeveloped World: The U.S. Military 's Nation Assistance Mission, The Rand Corporation, November 1991, pp. 23-4.
21. U.S. Department of Defense, Joint Staff Info Service Center, Public Affairs Guidance on Fuertes Caminos in Guatemala, December 1994, p. 1.
22. General Barry R. McCaffrey, commander in chief, United States Southern Command, prepared statement for U.S. Senate, Committee on Armed Services, Hearings; Department of Defense Authorization for Appropriations for Fiscal Year 1995 and the Future Years Defense Program, Part I, 103d Congress, 2nd sess., April 20, 1994, p. 156.
23. The last officially reported shipment of lethal items transferred to Central America at no cost was $7,030 worth of World War II-era small arms ammunition sent to Honduras in FY 1993.
24. National Security Strategy, p. 12.
25. Lars Schoultz, Human Rights and United States Policy toward Latin America, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981. See especially pp. 230-237 for documentation and analysis of the difficulties in promoting respect for civilian rule and human rights through U.S. military training.
26. Beginning with FY 1995, foreign military training expenditures
have been recategorized as part of the congressionally mandated restructuring of IMET intended to emphasize h uman rights training and civilian control of the military. Known as Expanded IMET, the program is now subdivided under the budget headings of Building Democracy and Promoting Peace." Since Building Democracy can include police and civilian training and scholarships, training monies devoted specifically to military personnel have become more difficult to break out.
27. Courses specifically devoted to human rights were made a regular part of the SOA curriculum in 1989.
28. See especially The U.N. Truth Commission Report on El Salvador
and the U.S. Army School of the Americas, Washington Office on Latin America, August 27, 1993. More complete lists of SOA graduates responsible for human rights violations, war crimes and military coups are available from Amnesty International and the Latin America Working Group, both in Washington, DC.
29. School of the Americas Will Be Evaluated, The New York Times, May 11, 1995, p. B10.
30. For details about the covert war against Nicaragua, see Peter Kornbluh, The Covert War, in Thomas Walker, Reagan versus the Sandinistas, Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1987, pp. 21-38.
31. Defense Department to Investigate U.S. Military Role in Guatemala, The Washington Post, April 1, 1995, p. A2.
32. Tim Weiner, CIA Says Agents Deceived Superiors on Guatemala Role, The New York Times, July 26, 1995, p. A1 and A11.
33. Gary Cohn and Ginger Thompson, Unearthed: Fatal Secrets, The Baltimore Sun, June 11, 1995, p. 1 and 10A.
34. Walter Pincus, CIA Officials are Cleared in Slayings, The Washington Post, July 27, 1995, p. 1 and A32.
35. Alexander F. Watson, Assistant Secretary of State for Inter-American Affairs, Trade and Other U.S. Priorities in the Americas, Remarks to the Council of the Americas, May 22, 1995, p. 8 of official transcript.


Copies of this report, complete with charts and helpful graphics, are
available for $1.50 apiece from the Center for International Policy, 1755
Massachusetts Avenue NW, Suite 312, Washington, DC 20036


A Publication of the Center for International Policy

Copyright 1995 by the Center for International Policy. All rights
reserved. Any material herein may be quoted without permission, with
credit to the Center. The Center is a nonprofit educational and research
organization dealing with U.S. policy towards the Third World and its
impact on human rights and needs.

ISSN 0738-6508

Search WWW Search

Asia | Latin America Security | Cuba | National Security | Global Financial Integrity | Americas Program | Avoided Deforestation Partners | Win Without War | TransBorder Project

Center for International Policy
1717 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 801
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 232-3317 / fax (202) 232-3440