1. Update
  2. Peacebuilding, U.S. Wars & Militarism

The Failure of Security Assistance – From Latin America to North Africa

By Sean Langberg, January 27, 2015


Our government must stop providing foreign security forces with millions of dollars of training and weapons with little oversight, accountability, or success metrics.

Last June, Mexican security forces allegedly executed 15 suspected gang members in Tlatlaya and then tortured and sexually assaulted two witnesses. Less than four months later, Mexican police attacked43 students in Iguala and turned them over to a gang called Guerros Unidos, who allegedly murdered them.

The groups that carried out these abuses are, in part, funded by U.S. taxpayers.

Since 2007, the U.S. has provided Mexico with $2 billion in security assistance through the Merida Initiative, a program aimed at combating organized crime and drug trafficking. However, like many other U.S. security assistance programs, the initiative bolstered a weak security apparatus that routinely commits human rights abuses. Despite this track record and pressure from advocacy groups, the Obama administration seems set on funding the forces.

This image contains a map of the world labelled with the total amount of US military and police aid given to each continent in 2014. Total top four recipients: 1. Afghanistan, 2. Israel, 3. Egypt, 4. Pakistan. Latin American and the Caribbean: $604,282,387 Europe- $233,981,191 Middle East and North Africa-$5,540,145,228 Central Eurasia and South Asia- $7,218,201,941 Africa- $1,907,773,699 East Asia and the Pacific- $159,356,623 Source: Security Assistance Monitor

This commitment reflects the broader trend within U.S. foreign policy of providing foreign security forces with millions of dollars of training and weapons with little oversight, accountability, or success metrics. According to the Security Assistance Monitor, the U.S. doled out approximately $90 billion of military and police aid in the last five years alone. Not surprisingly, funding nascent or fledgling armies and police leads to unintended consequences. The recipients of the most money -- Afghanistan, Israel, Egypt, and Pakistan -- often use security forces, funded in part by the U.S., to kill in the name of counterterrorism.

There are numerous other examples of the U.S. funding abusive security forces including:

Mali (~$114 million from U.S. from 2010-14)* After a decade of security assistance, American-trained general Amadou Sanogo led a coup against the democratically-elected government in March 2012. Forces loyal to Sanogoallegedly committed torture and intimidated journalists, family members of detained soldiers, and disappeared members of the Mali military who were later found in a mass grave.

Libya (~$33 million from U.S. from 2010-14) After years of supplying Libya with security assistance, a counterterrorism training program abruptly ended when an armed militia entered a training base outside of Tripoli and stole U.S.-supplied weapons and other equipment, forcing the withdrawal of U.S. Special Operations forces. In the following year, militias have proliferated in the country, culminating in the seizure of Tripoli in September 2014.

South Sudan (~$230 million from U.S. from 2010-14) When conflict broke out in Jonglei state only two years after the country’s creation in 2011, the South Sudanese military attacked and killed 96 Murle people, most of whom were civilians. In December 2013, the military fractured into competing forces led by President Kiir and former Vice President Riek Machar. The resulting violence has killed over 4,000 people so far.

Section 1206 was codified last year with almost no debate despite a dearth of data supporting its effectiveness in building peace and stability.

These examples, and many more, show that U.S. counterterrorism security assistance programs that fund over 130 countries are in dire need of a comprehensive review. For example, one of DOD’s largest counterterrorism “train and equip” programs, known as Section 1206, was codified last year with almost no debate despite a dearth of data supporting its effectiveness in building peace and stability. The goal of authorities such as Section 1206 is narrow and singular – build a country’s military and police to violently eliminate perceived security threats. They say little to nothing about improving governance, promoting economic development, or ensuring human rights. At a minimum, Congress should begin asking tough questions of administration and Defense Department officials about how these authorities align with broader national security goals and about their basic efficacy.

Sean Langberg

  • Former Program Assistant, Peacebuilding Policy

Sean Langberg was a program assistant for peacebuilding policy from 2014-2015.