Janine Davidson

Defense in Depth

Janine Davidson examines the art, politics, and business of American military power.

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In Latin America, Lines Between Crime and War Begin to Blur

by Janine Davidson
April 29, 2014

Members of Mexico's military salute Members of Mexico's military salute during an official reception for U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Canada's Defense Minister Rob Nicholson in Mexico City, April 24, 2014. (Shannon Stapleton/Courtesy Reuters)


While attention was focused last week on President Obama’s trip to Asia, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel was on a separate mission to boost military-to-military relations in another important part of the world: Latin America. Hagel’s trip to Mexico and Guatemala, two countries plagued by spiraling drug violence, highlights the increasingly blurred line between military activities and law enforcement.

Where drug traffickers have proven too much for local police to handle, as has been the case in Mexico and Guatemala, governments have called in their military. To assist in this fight, the U.S. is negotiating a deal to sell $680 million in Black Hawk helicopters and is considering providing drones as well. U.S. advisers have also helped set up anti-drug and anti-trafficking interagency task forces in the region to coordinate efforts among military, intelligence, and law enforcement agencies. In this expanding mission, U.S. military advisory activities stretch conventional boundaries.

Traditionally, U.S. military-to-military engagement is meant to build professional militaries and hone “normal” war-fighting skills – those oriented toward external enemies and interstate conflict. But when a partner country’s greatest threats to security come not from invading armies but from exquisitely well-armed criminal drug cartels, it is not clear what type of assistance should be provided and from which agency of the U.S. government.

People might rightly be uncomfortable with both ends of the spectrum – militarizing police or training militaries for internal security operations. Our own legal authorities limit the U.S. military to “supporting” roles in which law enforcement takes the lead in tracking criminals. Even when the cops are outgunned (as they increasingly have been), the military is not authorized to engage.

The problem is that today’s “bad guys” have learned to operate in this gap between cops and soldiers. Drug traffickers use rocket-propelled grenades and have even built narco-submarines and tanks. In such cases, a measured and “appropriate” police response falls well short of addressing the problem and our paradigms about what constitutes “crime” and what defines “war” continue to blur.

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  • Posted by Axel Schroeder

    Policies and military strategies are always changing. Karl Martell could not have thought of standing, professional armies of the 18th and 19th century, same as Prussian military reformers Generals Scharnhorst and Gneisenau couldn’t have envisioned areal combat and guerilla warfare of the scale the 20th century has seen. So, now in the 21st century we have to think again. Criminal and/or terrorist organizations that operate on a multi-national level are a new threat, allied nations have to come up with new and innovative strategies to protect their citizens.

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