It’s something countless presidents have done: a daytime stroll through a local town promising residents new job opportunities and support early on in their mandate. But instead of a traditional security detail outfitted with radios and suits, it was members of the Kaibiles, Guatemala’s elite Special Forces, that were armed to the teeth and forming a tight circle around President Alejandro Giammattei last month.
Political leaders flanked by or calling on high-ranking members of the military, at times armed with high-powered weapons, in a show of force to send a clear message about a controversial decision that is about to be made — it’s a worrying scene that’s making a resurgence across Latin America.
Traditionally, there has been strong military influence in politics in the Northern Triangle region of Central America. In the past, brutal military dictatorships reigned over both El Salvador and Guatemala with deadly consequences, while the armed forces in Honduras have long had strong ties to the country’s political establishment.
For decades, the United States has enabled and outfitted both the militaries and the strongmen leaders they prop up. Years ago during the administrations of former presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, for example, millions of dollars were funneled to train and equip the armed forces in El Salvador. At the same time, the US government routinely turned a blind eye to egregious abuses — such as the massacre of innocent women and children at El Mozote in late 1981 — carried out by those same forces. Funding for the Northern Triangle’s armed forces over the years has continued through new programs like the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), despite doubts about the efficacy of such funding and concerns about the abusive forces those US funds enable.
Nonetheless, money continues to flow. Between just 2016 and 2017, for example, the United States poured nearly $130 million directly into the militaries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras for training and equipment, as well as counter-drug assistance and border security, according to data from the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
The somewhat rocky transitions to democracy in the Northern Triangle — which have taken place in fits and starts over the last few decades — put the armed forces under civilian control and back into the barracks. Recently, however, the militaries of these three countries have been creeping back into politics at the orders of civilian governments.
The latest example of militaristic mission creep came on February 9, when President Nayib Bukele put El Salvador on the brink of a constitutional crisis by calling on the armed forces to occupy the Legislative Assembly after opposition legislators stalled voting to fund a controversial security package. Some 90 percent of Salvadorans approved of the charismatic leader at the end of last year amid a historic drop to the country’s notoriously high murder rate, but his move on February 9 raised serious concerns he was pushing his popularity too far.
But while the political crisis appears to have subsided for now, the damage has been done. Bukele has since gone on the defensive publishing various editorials in major U.S. newspapers, trying to quell international alarms raised by his “populist bullying.”
Newly-elected Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei voiced his support for Bukele’s show of force, which many have criticized for bringing back memories of El Salvador’s brutal 12-year civil war, which left more than 75,000 dead.
For his part, Giammattei has filled some of his key cabinet positions with former service members, laying bare his intimacy with the institution, which falls in line with the right-wing, hard-line military support enjoyed by his predecessor, former head of state Jimmy Morales.
Most notably during the Morales administration, the former comedian-turned-president called on the military to support his crusade to stamp out the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or CICIG), which made important gains in the fight against corruption — including investigations that touched the former president himself — despite being booted from the country in September 2019 after 12 years of service.
Hours before announcing he would not renew the commission’s mandate, Morales had dozens of US-donated armored jeeps — sent to be used in anti-drug efforts primarily in border regions — surround the CICIG’s offices in Guatemala City. The jeeps later dispersed, but the power play’s message was clear: the military was on his side. The move also conjured up not-so-distant memories of military rule and a civil war that lasted nearly four decades, leaving more than 200,000 people dead and an additional 45,000 disappeared, the majority of whom were civilians of the Indigenous Maya population and killed by the armed forces.
However, whereas Morales may have needed the support of the army as a safety net to move forward with his wildly unpopular decision to oust the CICIG, Bukele’s use of the armed forces seemed more like a miscalculated bullying tactic that was an unnecessary overstep amid seemingly widespread approval of his administration’s security plan.
In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández is no stranger to relying on the armed forces either. Himself an army reserve who attended military school, Hernández has long counted on the institution to remain in power and quiet any momentum garnered by the opposition. Hernández leaned heavily on the military to crack down on dissent after his unconstitutional reelection in 2017, and just last year, he deployed the military to quell nationwide protests against his administration in the lead up to the 10-year anniversary of the US-backed 2009 coup d'état, when the army deposed of the then-democratically elected President Manuel Zelaya, helping pave the way for his ascent to the presidency.
“The military is the one institution that we’re seeing civilian governments in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras trying to lean on today in an effort to stave off issues associated with democracy,” said Brian Fonseca, an expert on Latin America and the director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University.
The military is one of the most trusted institutions with arguably the greatest hard power at its disposal. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, trust in the armed forces outpaced that of each nation’s police, according to data collected last year by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP).
Now under civilian rule, the military is generally seen as an institution that is professional, trusted and apolitical. Part of this is because the local population doesn’t interact with soldiers as much as they do with local police, whom citizens too often witness engaging in outright criminal activity and human rights abuses, according to Christine Wade, a Central America expert and political science professor at Washington College.
This is an enormous change in perspective since the war era, when the armed forces were at the heart of abuses carried out against the civilian population. The institution still has its issues, but the growing distance between the local population and the armed forces today has helped create a new narrative that civilians can’t make about the police, which are many times seen as being a part of, rather than an effective solution to, problems like crime and corruption.
However, what civilian leaders in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras are doing now is “pulling this trusted institution into politics, wiping them from an apolitical mandate and turning them into a piece of the political machine to stave off civil unrest or intimidate and bully the opposition,” Fonseca said.
This strategy might have myriad — or grave — unintended consequences. Not everyone within the institution in these three nations was happy with the transition to civilian rule, and some might perceive this moment as an opportunity to increase or enhance their political role, according to Wade. What’s more, this move into the streets could come with greater levels of corruption and more human rights abuses, which might chip away at the public trust these institutions are currently enjoying.
Indeed, while still more trusted than the police, civilian trust in the Honduran army in particular has been falling since at least 2016, according to LAPOP’s surveys. After President Hernández manipulated the constitution to pave the way for his dubious reelection in 2017, at least 31 people were killed by military police in post-election violence. Protesters took to the streets across the country in opposition to what many saw as a rigged election marked by fraud. Human rights experts from the United Nations and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights also denounced detentions at “military installations where [victims] have been brutally beaten and subjected to torture.”
In other cases, the military in Honduras has been used to repress Indigenous environmental defenders organizing against extractive projects that damage the country’s natural resources. Silencing activists via the armed forces — at times using live ammunition — is one way the government has furthered the implementation of polices that frequently benefit only a small, often elite, sector of society, further cementing support for those in positions of power.
Despite these obvious and troubling abuses, the United States continues to fund such forces. Federal statutes like the Leahy Law were put in place years ago to ensure the US government doesn’t provide funds to abusive forces, but the vetting process has failed to become a priority and has routinely fallen short, even amid seemingly widespread knowledge of the military’s involvement in everything from extrajudicial killings to massacres.
Military worries are longstanding, but in the current context, Wade stressed that the institution’s increasingly growing political role in Central America as a prop is “deeply concerning,” adding that it’s hard not to see how the armed forces are “becoming an instrument of social control” at the behest of civilian governments.
“It’s not only a great reminder of the historical role the military has played in the region, but you have to ask yourself, when you roll out the military in this way, can you put the genie back in the bottle?”