Military Diplomacy in Latin America: The Case for Scaling Down

This post is from our guest writer, Yesenia Vargas. Currently, she is a second-year Masters student at USC in the Public Diplomacy program and an Intern at the Center on Public Diplomacy. 

The Special Operations budget for Latin America is growing, even as military aid to the region declines. But before heralding cooperation between U.S. and Latin American special forces as the solution to regional instability, the U.S. must consider the unintended consequences of the Joint Combined Exchange Training (JCET) program

U.S. military operations in Latin America have a long and controversial history, from support for dictatorships to outright invasion. It’s hardly surprising, then, that it faces widespread suspicion of U.S. involvement in peacekeeping or anti-narcotrafficking efforts.

Knowing this, America relies heavily on the military diplomacy of Special Operations Forces (SOF). From training their Latin American counterparts to providing technical and intelligence support, U.S. special forces address security concerns while building regional cooperation and trust.

When Army Green Berets or Navy SEALS train, equip, and oversee Latin American special forces, the impact goes beyond security and into public diplomacy. The U.S. is instilling a common methodology and culture, as well as making good on promises of multilateralism by engaging with Latin America as partners rather than targets.

But who exactly is America partnering with?

The U.S.-created Honduran TIGRES have been accused of corruption and intimidation in multiple high-profile cases. Only a few months into their inception in 2014, eleven members of this special forces group were arrested and dozens more fired over their theft of over one million dollars in drug money following a counternarcotic operation.

More recently, the TIGRES have been implicated in the murder of environmental activist Berta Caceres. In El Salvador, the anti-gang taskforce Fuerzas Especiales de Reaction (FER) has been accused of extrajudicial killings alongside their civilian counterparts, the Policia Nacional Civil (PNC). Yet both countries continue to receive the bulk of U.S. special forces assistance.

When American-trained forces commit these abuses, the image runs parallel to American military support of dictatorships in the past. This cannot continue without significant backlash to American image abroad, as well as possibly compromising joint security operations due to growing corruption.

U.S. special forces should endeavor to introduce stricter preconditions for regional partners, as well as assistance toward stronger investigative mechanisms within these organizations. Currently, JCET missions are not active in Guatemala, with the U.S. citing concerns over the military’s human rights violations in the country. The same conditions should apply to Honduras and El Salvador to incentivize core reforms.

For the partnerships cultivated through SOF diplomacy to come to fruition, regional partners must reflect the standards and values that the U.S. is trying to project. The current levels of corruption and impunity are empowered by a lack of internal controls and weak justice institutions, and the U.S. would do well to position itself as part of the solution rather than part of the problem.


Yesenia is currently a second-year student in the Master of Public Diplomacy program at the University of Southern California and an intern at the Center on Public Diplomacy. Her areas of interest are linguistic politics, transnational criminal communication networks, and musical diplomacy. Before coming to USC, she earned a B.A. in Political Science and B.A. in French at Centenary College of Louisiana.

As a Spanish and French speaker, Yesenia specializes in the areas of Latin America and West Africa, with a particular interest in the music and literature of the regions and across the diaspora. She has previously worked with the Cape Town Refugee Centre, the Louisiana Democratic Party, and Hope Medical Center for Women. In what free time she manages to get, she enjoys going out to concerts, trying new taco places, and playing and composing music.