The Remilitarisation of Latin American Streets

The military was once a central pillar of authoritarian dictatorships in Latin America. Now, democratic governments are relying on them to restore law and order, bypassing failing police forces. This is a high-risk strategy, policymakers need to ensure that civilian control of militaries remain paramount.

By Elizabeth Deheza and Ugo Ribet for

In Honduras 'Operación Relampago', in Venezuela 'La Guardia del Pueblo' and in Bolivia 'Operación Ciudad Segura': armed to the teeth, the military forces are making their presence felt on the streets of Latin America. In trucks, tanks or on foot, patrolling every corner of major cities, they aim to reduce the unprecedented levels of violence in the region.

On the night of 17 March 2012 in the midst of a wave of assassinations and kidnappings and in tandem with severe drug trafficking activities, the Bolivian President, Evo Morales was forced to deploy 2,300 military personnel to support local police forces in La Paz, El Alto, Cochabamba and Santa Cruz de la Sierra. This operation which is meant to last 90 days, is the latest measure in an effort to maintain order 'and neutralise insecurity' in the Andean state.

With this new strategy, Bolivia has joined the growing list of Latin American countries implementing military force to combat insecurity and crime. These measures constitute an ominous return of the army to an increased position of power, rather than a mere 'trend' with a 'domino effect'.   

Re-calling the military

Since the 1980's the entire Latin American region has progressively made historic achievements moving from authoritarian and repressive regimes towards democracies that have managed to return the army to their barracks under closer regulation and through democratic processes. 'The legal and institutional efforts of the past thirty years were to move and keep the Armed Forces away from the streets, concentrating their performance in traditional missions of national defence and use them only for extreme cases, particularly for internal security' explains Erubiel Tirado, expert on security from the University Iberoamerica in Mexico.[1]

Despite these efforts, the necessity to combat organised crime and to establish control of gangland strongholds has pushed the hand of several governments to recall the military to the streets of Latin America.

In Colombia, since the year 2000 the military has been used to fight serious organised crime and insurgencies. 'Plan Colombia' was meant to reinforce the military in the 'war on drugs' with aid and training from the US. The use of the military to fight an insurgency is nothing new in Latin America: in the 1990's this tactic was used in Peru to combat the Shining Path which had evolved into a drug trafficking organisation. More recently in Mexico, upon assuming office in 2006, President Calderón decided to intensify drug enforcement operations. The government initially sent troops into Michoacán and then cities such as Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, even ordering the police to surrender their weapons. The number of troops deployed went from 6,500 soldiers initially to 45,000 today.[2] Increasingly present in operations around the country, the military has been supported by the US through a security co-operation agreement know as the Merida Initiative.[3]

Faced with similar problems, and using Mexican tactics as an example, in November 2011, the Honduran Congress voted to change its Constitution to allow armed forces to be used for policing. In light of the 2009 coup that Honduras experienced, strengthening the military was a highly controversial and delicate decision, but having the highest homicide rate in the world (82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants) pushed the country to adopt these measures. Guatemala also followed the footsteps of its neighbours, with newly elected President Molina calling for the army to 'neutralize organized crime' only a day after his inauguration in January 2012. High homicide rates in Venezuela have also led the government to deploy the military into the streets, creating the 'Guardia del Pueblo' (guard of the people) to fight drug trafficking and increase crime investigation and civilian protection.

Even the regional power, Brazil, is turning to military policing. In November 2010, the military were sent into the Favelas of Rio de Janeiro to capture gang leaders following a wave of killings. However, what was initially supposed to be a short operation is still in place today. The military have remained in the Favelas with a 'Pacifying Force' of 1,600 soldiers to maintain order and fight drug trafficking. The Government announced at the end of last year that troops would remain in place for at least eight more months.

With a few exceptions, such as Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, the Latin American paradox is evident: strong progress in democracy, civil liberties and economic conditions since the end of authoritarian rules in the 1980's, while at the same time, in recent years, the military which is still associated to the 1970s-80s repressions, has been sent back onto the streets to fight organised crime.

Divided opinions

In an eye opening statement, the President of the International Development Bank (IDB), Luis Alberto Moreno, pointed out a few days ago that in Latin America and the Caribbean, 350 people are murdered, on average, every day, six of the ten countries with the worst homicide rates in the world are in Latin America and 1/3 of the world homicides are in the region.[4] Thus, the common denominator to all of the regional military-policing initiatives in the region seems to be violence and homicide rates. This insecurity has increased public demands for improved security and protection, putting pressure on decision makers to act. A reluctant Evo Morales was forced to resort to the use of the military in light of street protests demanding him to take action. A risk faced by decision makers of not intervening or not reacting to public demands is more disorder: in many instances, due to a lack of policing and justice, citizens have taken these roles into their own hands, resulting in the lynching and burning of the perpetrators.

Another aspect of public pressure for the use of the military in Latin America is the lack of support and trust of police forces, often known to be rife with corruption and handicapped by severely limited resources. The Latinobarometro 2010, a public opinion study on Latin America, highlights that 31 per cent of those surveyed see corruption as the main problem with the police, 22 per cent the lack of personnel, 17 per cent inadequate training, 13 per cent shortage of resources. More worryingly, in Mexico, a study (Buendia & Laredo 2011) shows that only 7 per cent of the population trust the state police and 5 per cent the municipal police. Such mistrust has further strengthened the call for the increasing involvement of the more regimented military to respond to unconventional threats from powerful, transnational criminal organisations that the police are simply not able to neutralise on their own.

Joaquin Villalobos, a regional security expert, explains that drug trafficking organisations are violent, with no moral barriers and a strong corrupting power. He stresses that thinking this could be resolved without confrontation and violence is naïve: this enemy needs to be faced with all the power of the state.[5] Similar reasoning has also encouraged the actions of other Latin American state authorities who cannot accept losing control of parts of their territory to violent, highly organised and trained groups.

On the other side of the spectrum, criticism and concerns over the use of the military for civilian-policing have been voiced. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) stated on various occasions its preoccupation with the (recurrent) use of armed forces to preserve public order. The IACHR believes it is not legitimate to use armed forces for policing or preserving citizen security because they are not prepared and lack the capacity to deal with civil issues.

The worrying aspects of the militarisation are thus: First, handing over too much power and funding to the military and, second, the lack of training and preparation of the military to deal with civilian issues, which can lead to human rights abuses as reported by Human Rights Watch in Colombia and Mexico. In agreement with this, Elisio Guzmán, director of the Police of Miranda in Venezuela, reacted strongly against the government's plan to deploy troops.[6] Juan Battaleme, a security expert from the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa (UADE), recognises the utility of the military due to its capabilities and resources, but stresses the importance of maintaining proper control by the executive and legislative branches over civilian oriented military operations.[7]

A strategy here to stay?

The use of the military for policing purposes is spreading across the region as well as bilateral exchange of knowledge and best practices in military policing and fighting organised crime - a collaboration that Colombia and Bolivia recently embraced. It has also been seen that the initial deployment of the military on the streets in Latin America becomes either bigger or permanent as the increase of troops deployed in Mexico and the extended stay of forces in Brazilian Favelas.

Juan Bettaleme describes the Brazilian case as rather successful due to co-ordination and co-operation between the police and the military. Indeed, 83 per cent characterise their community's security situation as 'better' or 'much better' compared to a year before.[8] Similar results can be seen in Colombian and Mexican cities where homicide rates have fallen. Medellin for example, once the deadliest city in the world, experienced the 'Medellin Miracle' (drop of crime by 77 per cent since 1991) following 'Operación Orión' in 2002 which was accompanied by social and reinsertion programmes.[9]

However, the use of the military to fight crime can also have serious consequences. An obvious example is the situation in Mexico where the deployment of troops has led to an escalation of violence leading to 47,515 deaths over the past five years.[10] Moreover, drug cartels are still in control of many areas of the country, contesting the effectiveness of the military use. Surprisingly, despite five years of extreme violence and mixed results, 2011 polls (Pew Global) suggest that 84 per cent of Mexicans endorse the use of the military to fight drug traffickers. This demonstrates the amplitude of the security problems in Latin America, both in terms of the 'enemy' that the states are fighting and the weakness of their security institutions such as the police and the judiciary system.

Given the re-emerging trends in recent months and the spread of criminal organisations in the region, the use of the military for policing is likely to continue. It is seen as an effective tool for stabilisation that helps overcome police weaknesses and respond to public demands. However, the risks associated to the use of a state's legitimate last resort measure are its immediate exposure, the structural deterioration of its professionalism and the possible delegitimisation by the population, states Erubiel Tirado. Despite a growing concern of this practice in a civilian context, it has nevertheless gathered momentum and strong public support, thus legitimising it, at least for the time being. Crime and insecurity need to be tackled at their root.States should, therefore,  increasingly include security operations with personnel professionally trained on citizens' protection as part of a comprehensive strategy, accompanied by investment in social programmes and infrastructure as the Brazilian example successfully demonstrates.

The views expressed here are the author's alone and do not necessarily reflect those of RUSI


[1] Interview with Erubiel Tirado (Coordinator of the Programme: National Security in Mexico at the University Iberoamericana, Mexico), 22 March, 2012.

[2] El Pais, 'Ejercitos frente al 'narco' ', 21 March 2012,

[3] US Department of State, December 2008,

[4] Luis Alberto Moreno, IDB President, 'A way out of the labyrinth: Citizen Security in Latin America and the Caribbean', Presentation in Montevideo, Uruguay on 19 March 2012.

[5] Joaquin Villalobos, 'Doce mitos de la guerra contra el narco', 1 January 2010,

[6] Luis Velarde, 'Venezuela y su Inseguridad', Voz de America, 19 November, 2011,

[7] Interview with Juan Bettaleme (a security expert from the Universidad Argentina de la Empresa), 21, March 2012.

[8] Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA),  'Taking Urban Violence in Latin America' June 2011

[9] Ibid.

[10] Federal Attorney General's Office (PRG ) Statistics, 'Base de datos por fallecimientos por presunta rivalidad delincuencial', 12 January 2012


Elizabeth Deheza

Research Fellow, Climate Change and Security Programme

View profile

Explore our related content