Remilitarization in Central America

Photo of Central America Sydney Angove / Unsplash / CC

On Thursday October 12, 2023, the Inter-American Dialogue hosted a private event with IBI Consultants to celebrate the publication of the report “Remilitarization in Central America: A Comparable and Regional Analysis,” with support from the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. The report provides a historical framework and analytical insights for understanding the militaries’ current rise and return to political prominence in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras – all long-time US allies – and Nicaragua, a strong Russian ally as a point of comparison.  

None of the countries fully demilitarized but significant progress was made, especially in El Salvador and Nicaragua. The military’s resurgence in each country represents the unraveling of civilian controls put in place in some of the most significant reforms resulting from the negotiated ends to the region’s civil wars in the 1990s. The military has become a primary support structure for the growing ideologically agnostic authoritarianism consolidating across the region. The report provides original data on the growing size, budget, and purview of each country’s military, despite transparency and security challenges of collecting this data.  

The event provided an opportunity for US policy stakeholders and experts to discuss the US role in this phenomenon, the lack of policy attention to and issue posing strategic challenges to US interests and the survival of democracy, and the unintended consequences of US security training and aid in Central America and fragile democratic processes. Stakeholders were asked to consider the question of developing concrete recommendations for US institutions active in the region, including opportunities for future research regarding economic analysis of the military’s entrenched power in each country. 

Among the main points made in the discussion were: 

  • Growing military repression and empowerment is a result of the inability or lack of power of governments to negotiate with diverse sectors of civil society and mediate disputes, or unwillingness to tolerate dissent. 
  • At critical junctures in dispute between civilian and military power in each country, the military won out and civilian oversight was weakened, and the police lost power.
  • Remilitarization weakens civilian police forces, and the militaries are now emboldened to use the weakened police as the front door to acquire power rather than the back door.
  • Militarization is not an end but a means for corrupt actors and organized crime to acquire power and influence.
  • Is it time to recognize that key, long-existing US training programs for the military have failed? If so, what are the alternatives? 
  • Research on the growing roles of the militaries in each country’s economic life might provide new tools to confront the remilitarization issue through commercial and trade actions.  
  • Should the US and others provide information to the public on human rights abusers and corrupt actors as it did in the past, and has done recently in Ukraine and Syria? Could this generate more scrutiny and accountability? 

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