United States Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel praised Colombia’s role as a “security exporter” within Latin America on a recent trip to the country, according to a Department of Defense press briefing transcript.
Noting Colombia’s expanding programs of security training for foreign troops, particularly in the Western hemisphere, Hagel commended the country’s regional and global leadership.
“The kind of capacity, capability, training that they have is a huge asset to the world,” the defense secretary said.
Colombia has trained nearly 22,000 foreign troops since 2009, the majority of which being other Latin American countries. Nearly half the participants have been from Mexico.
Hagel’s comments came in a press briefing held with Colombian Defense Minister Juan Carlos Pinzon after a demonstration by special operations forces at a military base in the mountains outside the Colombian capital of Bogota.
Concerns over human rights abuses
The U.S. has repeatedly described Colombia as a “success story” and praised its role as a security exporter. But critics question whether the Colombian model should be emulated considering the military’s detailed history of human rights abuses.
U.S. General John Kelly caused controversy back in April after commending the Colombian military for its role as proxy trainer for countries with whom Washington is restricted from working due to human rights laws.
“It’s important for them to [train these forces], 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 said at a House hearing earlier this year.
According to a report by the think-tank Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the training programs allegedly lack civilian oversight in the US, Colombia, and third party countries. This could mean that both trainers and trainees lack proper vetting to screen for any previous human rights abuses.
Furthermore, information regarding the nature of the courses and the type of training that is being provided remains largely undisclosed.
Criticism has also arisen regarding the long-term consequences of providing highly specialized military training to countries whose militaries are susceptible to corruption.
The sale of military knowledge and equipment has been a key policy for the Colombian defense minister for years. The South American country is fighting a number of leftist guerrilla groups and drugs trafficking organizations, but has seen income through US aid gradually decrease over the past years.
Bogota — supported by Washington — has in turn focused on financing its massive military through alternative means like military exports.
The country is currently negotiating peace with the country’s largest rebel group, the FARC, which — if successful — is likely to force a reduction in Colombia’s own military buying power in the coming years.
- Joint Press Briefing by Secretary Hagel and Minister Pinzon in Colombia (U.S. Department of Defense)
- Colombia, The United States, And Security Cooperation By Proxy (WOLA)