How The U.S. Trained Killer Cops Across The Hemisphere

It’s not just that our domestic police are brutal. The U.S. has exported its police and military tactics to other countries as well.

The nationwide protests against police brutality sparked by the killing of George Floyd have reignited debates over American policing. But the state response to the protests has also raised the question of where exactly “domestic” law enforcement stops and starts. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), an organization which describes its mission as “safeguard[ing] America’s borders,” has stated that it is deploying its officers around the country to help contain the protests. They are among officials from a wide variety of agencies serving as police on the streets of Washington, D.C. right now, many of which have no identifying insignia at all. Though the CBP’s mandate is to police borders, it has the authority to conduct operations anywhere within 100 miles of a U.S. border, an area encompassing about two-thirds of the American population. But even that can’t explain why the CBP recently flew a MQ-9 Reaper drone, designed for military use, to spy on Minneapolis, a city 250 miles from the nearest border.

The lines between the different roles of the U.S. security state are thin. Local police receive surplus military equipment from the Pentagon, and often enforce immigration laws on behalf of immigration authorities. Active duty military, on the other hand, are deployed to the U.S. border and downtown Washington, D.C. These muddled roles help to illustrate how police brutality is not just a serious issue within the United States, but also one which the U.S. projects on our borders and all over the world. 

Nowhere is this exchange more visible than in Latin America, a region which has long been treated by the U.S. government as a guinea pig for testing out policy. From the Cold War, to the War on Drugs, to the War on Terror, the U.S. has encouraged the development of aggressive and militarized law enforcement forces throughout Latin America, an authoritarian set of policies which eventually echoes back to the U.S. and leads to further militarization of our own police.

U.S. training of law enforcement in Latin America stretches back to 1898, and researcher Jeremy Kuzmarov notes that its early history is instructive. As early as 1905, Secretary of State Elihu Root wrote that countries engaged in trade with the US needed forces that could “repress subversive disorder and preserve the public peace.” In 1917, Gen. Smedley D. Butler trained a police force in U.S.-occupied Haiti in order to protect American business interests there, one which became notorious for their violence. In 1929, Butler wore his military uniform when he was sworn in to serve as the police chief of Philadelphia. Using what he had learned in Haiti, he rapidly modernized and reorganized the local police. One citizen, likely missing the irony, complained that Butler used “military tactics which might do in Mexico and other places… [but] has no place in the administration of civil affairs.” He was quickly replaced as police chief, but many of his technological modernizations stuck over time. 

Years later, after a significant turn against his former views—he ended up writing a book called War Is A Racket condemning the military-industrial complex—Butler said of his Haitian police which served as his model for Philadelphia: “We used them for a couple of years and trained them to think nothing at all of killing or being killed.” 

During the 21-year U.S. occupation of Nicaragua, an Army Major who had served in WWI designed a plan to build a National Guard that would not only “gain political advantage by partisan and oppressive measures,” but also serve as “the sole agency for the enforcement of law and order and the main reliance for national defense.” The U.S.-backed force would commit numerous acts of state violence. In 1937, Anastasio Somoza Garcia would use his position as the head of this National Guard to overthrow the Nicaraguan government and launch a dictatorship that would last until the bloody Nicaraguan Revolution in 1979.

It was the 1960s, however, that introduced a dramatic expansion in foreign policing training. The U.S. was facing turbulent protests and rising crime rates at home, along with a new wave of democratization abroad that bred a number of foreign political movements and governments unwilling to submit to U.S. hegemony. Taking inspiration from earlier initiatives in the Eisenhower administration, the government launched a bipartisan policy of responding to an ever-growing number of social issues with cops. In Badges Without Borders: How Global Counterinsurgency Transformed American Policing, Stuart Schrader notes that “The War on Crime… emerged specifically in the context of an effort to use police to manage global decolonization.” 

In 1962, the U.S. created the Office of Public Safety (OPS), an agency within the government’s foreign aid apparatus that trained foreign police forces for the twin goals of “prevent[ing] communist revolution and crime,” according to Schrader. At least 52 countries participated in the program, including 16 in Latin America (several other nations in the region sent officials to receive training, but did not directly participate in the program). From 1961 to 1962, the number of U.S. police advisers in Latin America nearly doubled.

The OPS, like earlier programs, referred to its tactics as police “professionalization,” a supposedly apolitical modernization of policing practices. In reality, they were dramatically expanding the role of the police. A conscious policy decision was made to handle the growing pains of modernization not through an expanded welfare state or community solutions that could address the root causes of crime, but through a militarization of traditionally domestic spheres of law enforcement so that they are able to address the crime that inevitably would emerge from unaddressed social issues. All problems became problems for law enforcement, and all problems for law enforcement became problems for national security. In 1966, the OPS organized the First Inter-American Conference of Uniformed Police in Peru, where one Bolivian official stated that the American concept of 

“…‘police’ has no ascertainable limits. Everything that tends to promote the public welfare is a matter for the police and for that reason its objective is extremely difficult to establish and extends to such extremes that its definition presents insuperable obstacles.”

Internationally, such an approach included supporting dictatorships who used their police forces as violent instruments of state control. This support for autocratic governments in Latin America and elsewhere was not seen as a flaw of our police training programs, but a feature: the U.S. government viewed right-wing dictatorships dedicated to the elimination of anyone even resembling a socialist to be a necessary evil, if not outright desirable. As early as 1957, government reports on foreign police training in Latin America warned that:

“U.S. programs to strengthen the internal security forces, which are often used as political instruments, may provide grounds for a belief that the U.S… has committed itself to the preservation of the status quo through repression of the political opposition, including noncommunist groups.” 

Such warnings were ignored. 

After Brazil’s democratically-elected President João Goulart was overthrown in a U.S.-supported military coup in 1964, for example, U.S. police training efforts in the country actually expanded, all the while thousands were tortured and executed by the new partners of the Americans. One U.S. official coyly described their explicit policy of support for military dictatorships as “working with a lot of nations where the governments are controlled by people who have shortcomings.” The echoes of these policies are still felt today, where police violence in certain parts of Brazil remains at some of the highest levels on Earth.

Though OPS would last only 12 years, its impact was large. The Johnson administration described it as “the international dimension to the Administration’s War on Crime.” But the program’s effects would not remain international for long. Byron Engle, an American police trainer who played a major role in the OPS, noted that his experiences training foreign police in “nonlethal riot control” allowed OPS officials to find “many principles and concepts which apply, whether it is Asia, Africa, or South America. Perhaps those same principles would apply in the United States.” In 1968, the U.S. Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, creating the agency that would later be known as the Office of Justice Programs (OJP) in order to provide grants and assistance to local police forces around the United States. Many OPS officials went on to work for the OJP, using lessons learned in Latin America to help reshape policing at home.

Another government agency, the U.S. Army School of the Americas (now known as the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, a rebranding prompted by years-long protests led by the School of the Americas Watchinitially sparked by the school’s role in the brutal murder of six Jesuit Priests in 1989), was founded in 1946 to train Latin American military officials and was also given greater power in the 1960s. Among the School of the Americas’ graduates were some of the worst human rights abusers in Latin American history. Countless future military dictators, death squad leaders, and narcotics traffickers were trained by the CIA and U.S. Army not just on traditional military tactics, but on torture, assassination, and more. Because these militaries were being trained to crush political insurgencies in their own countries, the line between military training and police training was greatly blurred. One training manual made this explicit when it stated that rebel insurgents “can be considered criminal by the legitimate government.”

Martha K. Huggins argues that U.S. training of law enforcement in Latin America “had none of the effects proposed by the stated U.S. objectives of democratizing and humanizing their practices,” but instead led to police forces that were increasingly efficient in committing human rights violations. Schrader agrees, noting that “building up the capacity of police forces to gather intelligence and monitor dissent… in some cases, later enabled the creation of death squads.” 

A rapidly growing body of evidence of U.S.-aided violence led Congress to pass a ban on the training of foreign law enforcement in 1974. But the ban had many exemptions, and thus, little effect. The Reagan administration circumvented the law in the 1980s to train Central American forces on how to effectively suppress leftist social movements and uprisings. John Negroponte, then U.S. Ambassador to Honduras, oversaw the arming and training of Contra death squads in their terrorist war against the Sandinista-led government in Nicaragua. The Contras were famous for publicly murdering young teachers and social workers in village centers so as to terrorize the residents, and described as “major and systematic violators of the most basic standards of the laws of armed conflict” by Human Rights Watch. (Later, John Negroponte would be repeatedly confirmed with wide bipartisan support by the Senate to roles such as Director of National Intelligence and Deputy Secretary of State in the W. Bush administration.) U.S. policy drew little distinction between arming right-wing paramilitary death squads and training of standing police forces. Foretelling future uses, the police-training ban exempted U.S. training for narcotics law enforcement, leaving a gaping hole for increased U.S. involvement during the War on Drugs.

In the United States, the War on Drugs helped make way for the use of increasingly aggressive police tactics which worsened police brutality. The U.S. also sought to blur its own lines between military and police by increasing the role of the National Guard in anti-narcotics efforts. The War on Drugs, along with serving as a cover for the repression of black people and the anti-war left, was aimed at solving a problem with roots in poverty and a weak public health system through sheer force. As such, it served as a perfect foundation for furthering U.S. law enforcement efforts internationally, especially in coca-producing regions of South America. 

The U.S. provided “encouragement and support for the region’s armed forces—including the U.S. military itself—to play a significant role in domestic counternarcotics operations, a law enforcement function reserved in most democracies for civilian police.” Police training efforts provided foreign police with “heavy arms and combat training inappropriate for the domestic, civilian role that police should play, thereby continuing to fuel human rights abuses.” Billions of dollars went into U.S.-led international anti-narcotics efforts like Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative with little to show for them except human rights abuses and a further erosion of the wall between cop and soldier. Once again, this dynamic abroad followed Americans home. In 1981, Congress passed a law loosening the separation between U.S. law enforcement and the U.S. military, put in place by the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act, in order to allow for greater cooperation in counternarcotics operations.

Despite the end of the Cold War and the mounting failures of the War on Drugs, the September 11th, 2001 terrorist attacks further renewed U.S. interest in foreign law enforcement training. Not only did the 9/11 attacks rapidly accelerate the militarization of U.S. law enforcement, but in the time since then the number of foreign military and police assistance programs has nearly doubled. 70 percent of these programs operate in Latin America. Between 2002 and 2003, Latin American military officials trained by the U.S. with domestic law enforcement roles in mind rose by 52 percent, leading to yet another “major expansion of the role of the armed forces in domestic affairs…” In 2006, the White House’s National Strategy for Combating Terrorism bragged that they had “broken old orthodoxies that once confined our counterterrorism efforts primarily to the criminal justice domain.” With the hammer of militarized policing already in hand, the government identified terrorism as yet another nail.

With all the assistance that the U.S. is still providing to foreign law enforcement, one could easily forget that Congress’ 1974 ban is still in effect, formally forbidding funds from being “used to provide training or advice, or provide any financial support, for police, prisons, or other law enforcement forces for any foreign government…” The U.S. government doesn’t even bother to pretend it is concerned with the spirit of this law. One Justice Department program boasts that it has “delivered training [to police forces] in every country in Central America, more than half of the countries in South America, and nearly all of the Caribbean.”

All of these programs have contributed to feed bloated Latin American police forces who are frequently engaged in astonishing corruption and brutality. Two-thirds of Latin Americans distrust their police, and in a handful of nations the police are the single most distrusted public institution. In 2014, local police forces in Iguala, Mexico, together with the Federal Police, likely on the orders of a Mexian Army official involved in drug trafficking, detained and slaughtered 43 students of a rural teachers’ college. Their bodies were later likely incinerated en masse at a Mexican army base, though the Mexican state has worked hard to obscure the responsibility of its police and armed forces in the massacre. (The parents of the 43 students led a mass protest movement across Mexico demanding their children be ‘returned alive’, to no avail.) This occurred despite—or perhaps partially due to—the extensive presence of the U.S. in training, supporting, and directing a Mexican drug war which has left perhaps sixty thousand disappeared, and many more dead. While rates of police killings are far higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy nations, police in El Salvador—to take another Latin American example—have rates roughly 33 times that of the U.S. Even the most violent units of the Salvadoran police have received U.S. funding. To argue that “crime reduction” and “public safety” are the principal roles of police in Latin America is to stretch credulity.

With communism, drugs, and terrorism losing their potency as narrative justifications, the new excuse today is immigration. In order to keep out refugees and immigrants who are fleeing the violence that U.S.-trained forces have escalated in Central America and Mexico, spending on border enforcement has more than quadrupled since 2001. Customs and Border Patrol abuses have run rampant, with multiple examples of CBP murder of immigrants on the border, including shooting and killing an unarmed Mexican teenager who was on Mexican soil. Immigration enforcement inside a vast archipelago of detention facilities has been marked by widespread cases of rape and other abuses, even before the international scandal of Trump’s family separation policy erupted. And like decades of U.S. foreign law enforcement training has encouraged abroad, Border Patrol pays little attention to the separation between their externally-focused mission and the task of internal policing, a disregard on clear display in Minneapolis and Washington, D.C. In some sense, CBP flying military surveillance drones over U.S. cities to monitor protests is the perfect metaphor for the extent to which U.S. law enforcement policy recognizes no border, including our own.

What unifies these various programs and initiatives is a belief in the expansion of the scope of policing, moving from traditional law enforcement agencies with separate, narrow jurisdictions to increasingly militarized security forces which are given broad authority to handle virtually every issue the nation faces. The American government has repeatedly faced its own systemic underfunding of quality public education, public housing, addiction treatment, mental healthcare, school counselors, community centers, homeless shelters, and safe neighborhoods. Rather than rectify these issues in a just and humane way, reducing crime by improving human welfare, the government has noted the success of its repressive police training efforts abroad and determined that it is better to create massive bureaucracies of unaccountable law enforcement officials who are armed to the teeth and have a seemingly ever-growing jurisdiction over every aspect of life both at home and abroad.

The U.S. military’s two decades of occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan has produced a similar feedback loop into American policing. U.S. police agencies have imported large numbers of police officers and military grade equipment from the U.S.’s Middle Eastern theaters. Foreign military occupation and domestic policing have both been cast as part of the “War on Terror,” military counter-insurgency language and tactics have been brought home and applied to domestici citizens, including the disturbing willingness to sacrifice civilian life at the first hint of a threat to the police officer/soldier. The interchange of war abroad and siege mentality, where police increasingly view themselves as an occupying force maintaining order over an ever-threatening populace which could erupt into chaos at any moment.

America’s police problem did not develop in a bubble. As the U.S. has adapted an increasingly expansive understanding of what law enforcement means, it has put considerable resources into exporting this idea abroad, especially South of the U.S.-Mexican border. In turn, training foreign police to do everything from destroying political movements we dislike to destroying crops we dislike has helped build the groundwork for additional policies of police militarization within America. Once they were finished using Latin America as their own policy laboratory, government officials brought their favorite tools of social control back home with them. Americans who turned a blind eye to violent U.S. foreign policy abroad now are forced to face its effects manifest in their own towns and neighborhoods.

IMAGE: A U.S. Army Special Forces Soldier demonstrates to U.S. and Panamanian security forces how to secure a casualty Feb. 1, 2018, prior to an air evacuation during a training exchange in Colon, Panama. (U.S. Army photo by Staff Sgt. Osvaldo Equite/RELEASED)

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