For the Rockefeller Brothers Fund By IBI Consultants
This report is an anthology of studies examining the remilitarization processes in the Northern Triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) undertaken by leading academic researchers in each country with the support of the Rockefeller Brothers Fund. In these countries, the United States is and has historically been the dominant external actor. As a comparative case we examine Nicaragua, more closely aligned with Russia. In every country the military had either governed directly or through civilian proxies for most of the previous 150 years.
In the 1990s, the negotiations that ended the region’s three civil wars brought the first steps toward real democratic reforms, allowing Central America to pivot away from the civil wars, revolutionary struggles, and bloody proxy battles of the Cold War. Each country turned to building new, fragile liberal democratic institutions. Comprehensive structural, constitutional and doctrinal reforms to the military as an institution were rightly understood to be foundational for building more inclusive, equitable societies with functioning institutions governed by the rule of law and subject to democratic norms.
Today, the once-hopeful foundation is eroding, fueling rising authoritarianism and parallel crisis of legitimacy, rising human rights abuses, massive corruption, deinstitutionalization, and waves of migration to the United States and elsewhere to escape the new, destructive return to the past. It increasingly drives scarce resources to militaries that have no credible external threat to combat.
The stakes are now very high: Whether democratic forces can sustainably reclaim lost ground against the military and authoritarian forces seeking to return to the past, or whether the past 25 years of fragile democratic progress is a reversible historic anomaly that can be washed away.
Despite these stakes, U.S. policymakers and other regional stakeholders barely reference remilitarization as a root cause of the region’s crisis. The Biden administration has unveiled three major strategies that could and should address the phenomenon yet none even mentioned the return of the militaries to prominent roles in internal security, economic development, and political interference as fostering authoritarianism.
In every country, the current situation culminated in watershed events that consolidated the remilitarization paradigm. At each rupture point, the military and the elites strengthened their alliance through each side’s willingness to protect the other and reknit the old model. In each case the military reaped enormous economic benefits, in increased budgets and access to profits from key civilian sectors of the economy.
There is no question that the Northern Triangle faced enormous security challenges throughout the first two decades of the 21st Century. The mass deportation in the 1990s of Central Americans who served U.S. prison sentences to their home countries was a key factor. As described in the studies, the post-war governments immediately defaulted to empowering the militaries to address these challenges, rather than addressing the root causes of the violence through the lens of incomplete reforms, stark lack of political will, mounting corruption and the under-resourcing of key non-military actors such as civilian police, prison reform, judicial reform, and anti-corruption institutions.
In each case the military was called back to internal security roles despite the new reforms. Initially, military intervention was at least nominally under the command of civilian police officers. Over time, the military – often with the encouragement and funding from the United States to support counter-narcotics missions – became dominant.
The reliance on the military rather than addressing underlying socio-economic problems has led to a policy driven by the understanding that the solutions to the growing social problems and high crime rates are a problem of territorial occupation by state forces, leading to more violence and minimizing the potential impact of non-violent policy initiatives.
In El Salvador we see the military playing a key and unconstitutional role in the mass arrests of 53,000 alleged gang members carried out during the ongoing State of Exception invoked by President Nayib Bukele in March 2022. In a time of deep economic depression and Covid pandemic collapse the military is seeing historic increases in its budget and personnel while the now-servile judicial system arbitrarily closes cases of historic human rights abuses that implicate the military.
In Guatemala the military’s increased role and influence disproportionately impacts indigenous communities and municipalities who live near foreign operated commercial mines benefitting the political elite, as is exemplified in the State of Siege levied on El Estor, Izabal. It also impacts communities living in areas with a significant drug trafficking presence.
In Honduras, the increased reliance on the military to respond to public security challenges disproportionately impacts communities in Gracias a Dios, Olancho, and along the Caribbean Sea, where drug trafficking thrives in combination with the high concentration of land ownership. Indigenous communities and environmental activists face significant threats as they advocate for hard-won land rights against the desires of the oligarchic group there. The military’s systemic violence against women and targeted harassment of LGBTQ+ individuals, is visible there.
In Nicaragua, the regime’s chief ally, Russia, has fully embraced the authoritarian practices of the Ortega family and provided both weapons and intelligence equipment to keep the regime in power though the use of force. The armed forces are a key part of the widespread repression while carrying out predatory economic extraction in the mining, timber and fishing industries as the price for loyalty to the regime.
As the researchers show in these studies, the region is close to a tipping point beyond which recovering even the fragile and flawed democratic processes will take decades and enormous resources to achieve. This would not only be a tragedy for the region, which is still recovering from the conflicts that tore its societies apart, but also for U.S. strategic interests and the stability of the Western Hemisphere.l
When the tide of turning back military influence was on the rise, it grew to engulf most of the hemisphere. The reverse is also true. As Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala return to the structures of the past, the lessons will be learned, posing a looming tragedy that must be addressed at all levels, whether locally, nationally, and beyond.