A top US general has caused controversy after commending the Colombian military for training personnel that Washington is “restricted from working with” due to human rights laws.
General John Kelly, Commander of the US Southern Command, praised Colombia for its military partnership with the US at a House hearing on April 29, and expressed the advantages of having Colombia as a proxy for US military training of foreign troops.
“The beauty of having Colombia — they’re such good partners, particularly in the military realm…when we ask them to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans, the Hondurans…they will do it almost without asking,” said Kelly.
The general’s most controversial comments however were in regards to Colombia’s new role as the region’s top exporter of military training and security services.
“But that’s why it’s important for them to go, because I’m—at least on the military side—restricted from working with some of these countries because of limitations that are, that are really based on past sins. And I’ll let it go at that,” Kelly added.
Colombia’s “security export” program has long been criticized for allegedly providing military training to foreign units with questionable human rights records.
Kelly’s comments, critics allege, prove that the US is using the Colombian military as a proxy through which it can circumvent US human rights laws.
MORE: Colombia trained 22,000 foreign troops since 2009: Report
Concerns over human rights
Adam Isacson, a Senior Associate for the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), spoke with Colombia Reports about the implications of Kelly’s comments.
“If the Colombian military is training troops and units that US law forbids aiding, then these are either units that have committed serious human rights violations…or members of armed forces with a history of abuse, corruption, and illegality so severe, that Congress wrote specific conditions in the law to restrict aid to them,” Isacson said.
Considering the Colombian military’s well documented history of human rights violations, a primary concern for Isacson and other critics is the type of training that is being exported to third party countries.
“A key concern is messages,” Isacson said, “I’ve had many conversations with active and retired Colombian military and police personnel who show an inability to distinguish between a human rights defender and a violent guerrilla.”
“What happens when Colombian officers who might hold those views get in a room together with counterparts from other countries where human rights defenders face similar hostility,” he added.
Another controversial aspect of the program, according to Isacson, is that it lacks both oversight and transparency.
“Normally we can at least get identities of recipient units, course titles, and number of trainees funded by the United States. We have been unable to obtain that when the United States funds Colombians to do the training,” Isacson revealed.
Other information that remains undisclosed is the amount of funding that the United States has given Colombia for third-country training, and specifics regarding the type of training that is being provided.
In countries such as Honduras and Guatemala — among the top recipients of Colombian military training — many of the “past sins” that General Kelly referred to remain untried and unpunished.
According to WOLA, the militaries of both countries have also been accused of a number of killings and disappearances recently, as well as allegations of torture and collaboration with organized crime.
The Leahy Law, passed in 1997, prohibits the US Department of State and the Department of Defense from providing military aid to foreign military units who committed human rights violations without impunity.
MORE: False positives
As Colombia Reports reported in March, Colombia’s military provided training for 21,949 foreign troops from 47 different countries between 2009 and 2013.
Nearly half the participants were from Mexico, while other nations with large numbers of trainees include Panama, Honduras, and Guatemala.
The training is part of the US-backed “Action Plan on Regional Security Coordination,” which offers assistance to third-party countries in areas such as, counter-narcotics, organized crime, and operational capacities.
The sale of military knowledge and equipment has been a key policy for the Colombian defense minister, particularly as Colombia has seen income through US aid gradually decrease over recent years.
Bogota — supported by Washington — has in turn focused on financing its massive military through alternative means like military exports.
Colombia is currently negotiating peace with the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC, which — if successful — is likely to force a reduction in the country’s own military buying power in the coming years.
- Interview with Adam Isacson (WOLA)
- Joint Subcommittee Hearing: Confronting Transnational Drug Smuggling: An Assessment of Regional Partnerships (House Committee on Foreign Affairs)