Peacekeeping and Military Operations by Latin American Militaries: Between Being a Good Samaritan and Servicing the National Interest

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By: W. Alejandro Sanchez, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

A December 14, 2009 report by the Spanish security-news agency states that Colombia is now prepared to dispatch a battalion of its Special Forces and air force personnel to Afghanistan. The Colombian involvement is being sponsored by Spain in order to aid Coalition forces now engaged in combat there as well as training local Afghan security forces. This initiative highlights a relatively obscure issue, which comprehends peacekeeping and other military operations overseas in which units of armed forces of Latin American states are participating, or are likely to take part of in the near future. While it is commendable that regional governments may want to post troops in order to stabilize distant countries as well as cooperate in combating terrorism, as may be Colombia’s intent, there are usually other, more compelling motives, placing altruistic ones to the side, encouraging such participation.

Peacekeeping 101: MINUSTAH and Beyond
In Bogotá’s case, involvement in Afghanistan would bring a major political gain—the strengthening of security relations with Washington as Colombia would be the only Latin American country deployed in Afghanistan. Colombians must be mindful that the Uribe administration is anxious to more decisively woo Washington’s backing for the hard days ahead for pending free trade measures. Meanwhile, regional powerhouse Brazil is the leader of the controversial UN Mission to Haiti (MINUSTAH). Brasilia’s decision to play such a prominent role in Haiti is more likely a calculated move to advance its diplomatic leverage in the region, rather than being a purely selfless act. Brazil may use its work with MINUSTAH (rendered so much more important due to the ferocious earthquake that recently hit Haiti) to showcase itself as a growing global power while increasing its credentials in a contest for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council. Nevertheless, the controversial events which figured in the creation of MINUSTAH (such as the forced ouster of constitutional President Jean-Bertrand Aristide) have considerably stained Lula’s bona fides as well as his initiatives.

The horrific earthquake that has virtually destroyed large sections of Haiti, effectively making it a devastated failed state, is the ultimate challenge for a peacekeeping mission that continuously has been beset by revealing and embarrassing moments. MINUSTAH will most likely have to take on additional responsibilities—some of them likely to be indisputably controversial because of past scandals, in order to keep the Haitian population under control and carry out disaster relief operations. This presupposes that the Haitian government security forces are able to effectively re-assert themselves as a viable force – something that it has failed to do in the past. The eyes of the world are on the MINUSTAH leadership. It badly needs a successful stint at managing the situation on the ground to help at least partially forget its controversial antecedents such as its anti- Aristide bias and its tendency for violence.

From the Democratic Republic of Congo to Israel’s borders, to Haiti, Iraq and Afghanistan, Latin American militaries have been involved in foreign operations for decades. Almost always, they act under the flag of the United Nations or, regarding Afghanistan and Iraq, representing a coalition of international forces. Unsurprisingly, in Latin America (as in other parts of the world) peacekeeping and coalition-type military arrangements are based on a combination of “good Samaritan” sentiments with a hearty a dose of politically motivated real politik.

MINUSTAH: Idealism Joins in with National Interests
The history of the UN Mission to Haiti has been star-crossed since its inception. The overthrow of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2004, reliably planned by the US, Canada and France, along with then-UN Secretary General Kofi Annan, brought to power the far more controversial government of interim Prime Minister, Gérard Latortue. As part of the international community’s intervention, the United Nations, far from working towards restoring Haiti’s constitutional order, acted as a force in persistent support of a troubling new political order on the island.

The now Brazil-dominated UN mission was formed by international peacekeepers coming from mostly Latin countries, including Brazil, Peru, Chile, Uruguay, and Argentina, as well as other military forces from around the world, including China, India and Jordan. As has been previously cited, the mission is predominantly Brazilian-run. In an interview with COHA, Michael J. Snell, a retired Canadian colonel who now works with the Canadian Pearson Peacekeeping Centre, explained that “from the start there was a very clear sense of ownership by the Latinos, MINUSTAH was to be a Latin mission, as seen from the Chilean initiative of training Haitian police in the peacekeeping center in Santiago.” It should be stressed that international intervention in Haiti usually came via Washington, as exemplified by the 20,000 troops sent to the island in 1994 by the Clinton administration to ostensibly oversee the return to power of Aristide, who had been overthrown by the military in 1991. Latin American interest in a greater local participation in peacekeeping operations in Haiti only really started after 2000, as Washington and Europe’s attention was mainly focused on the Balkans and then the Middle East and Central Asia.

The reasons for Brazil’s interest in heading MINUSTAH fall into two categories:
1. Idealism: The Brazilian leadership wants to promote peace worldwide and sees Haiti as a good regional location to manifest this desire.
2. Pragmatism: Brasilia wants to cement its status as being inside the tent of rising global powers and sees being a leader of the Haitian peacekeeping missions as a way to codify this perception of itself. In addition, as the country continues to lobby for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, being out front in a UN mission is a prudent way to strengthen its bonafides. Snell adds that “it seems clear that Haiti has become part of Brazilian nationalism; it is utilized, for lack of a better work, to showcase Brazil as a growing global power.”

Working alongside Brazil as essentially the second in command of the UN mission in Haiti, Chile also has had its share of issues. Most notable has been the deployment of General Eduardo Aldunate as the second head of MINUSTAH. Aldunate, who attended the School of the Americas/WHINSEC, has been rumored, at the very least, of being aware (if not a participant) of human right abuses while he was a rising intelligence officer throughout the era of the General Pinochet dictatorship. Snell, who has never met Aldunate, explains that “it is never clear why some officials are chosen for a particular mission, sometimes one slips through the cracks or sometimes a member state carries out closed-door negotiations to get someone chosen.” The retired army officer chose to use the bizarre example of a retired Indian Lt. General, Dewan Prem Chad, who was in his mid seventies (76), to be the head of the UN mission to Namibia in 1989, even though his age clearly might have been a fact arguing against his being selected.

MINUSTAH: Old Challenges as well as New Ones Arising from the 2010 Earthquake.
Haiti is the poorest nation of the hemisphere, a sad distinction for a nation that became the second free republic of the Americas, following the U.S. Some would argue that the MINUSTAH mission attempted to bring order to the embattled country. For example, in September 2008, MINUSTAH blue helmets provided food and water to the Haitians who were stranded in the wake of Tropical Storm Hanna. Additionally, a January 2010 report by the Caribbean Media Corporation explains that the UN mission was supposed to assume some responsibilities with the upcoming February 28th legislative elections, though it is unclear if the elections will take place in view of the vastly destructive earthquake.

On Brazil’s role in MINUSTAH, President Lula has said,
“I believe that our presence in Haiti can be compared to a soccer game. In 2004, we were going through the first period. Now, we are starting the second period of the game. The first period was a complicated stage, getting to know the wiles of the adversary little by little, closing a solid defense, and not letting any goal get by. In the second period, it is time for us to take the initiative, and the tactic of the game here is strengthening our supportive presence more and more.” (Brazilian news agency Estado, May 29, 2008)
The analogy seems to point out that, in the eyes of the Brazilian leaders, the UN mission will not leave the island until the metaphorical “game” is decisively over. But, his words do not touch upon why Brazil was “playing” this “game” at this time.

There are opposing views on whether Haitian authorities and their police forces are ready to operate without MINUSTAH. Indeed, in June 2009 Gilda Motta Santos Neves, head of Itamaraty’s (Brazil’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs) UN desk, stated that “Brazil’s commitment with Haiti is long-term. There is no set timetable because the situation on the ground must be evaluated as security and development issues evolve. Development is the only thing that can sustain security over the long term.” Certainly, the earthquake translates into meaning that MINUSTAH will have to remain in the country for perhaps even longer than initially expected. Michael J. Snell explained to COHA that “they are facing challenges that no other UN mission had to face before they can’t rotate staff anymore, and its unclear what additional responsibilities will the new troops have to take at this point.”

As it is, MINUSTAH presents two different stories when it comes to the difficult task of policing the country, even with the fitful aid of the local police. In April 2008, protests in neighborhoods against the high cost of living in the lower class settlements of Les Cayes ended in UN blue helmets shooting and seriously injuring three people after protesters threw stones at the peacekeepers. The protesters then covered the area with burning tires and the skeletons of cars, making it impossible to enter the affected neighborhoods. Protests over food shortages and rising prices are hardly uncommon, and are most likely to increase in view of the huge impact that the January earthquake is having on every aspect of life on the island and until supplies from donor states can be effectively distributed and integrated in every affected community. In addition, the earthquake has caused the main prison in Port-au-Prince to collapse, allowing many of the inmates to escape. Considering that the Haitian police officers are most likely to be overwhelmed by using their depleted ranks in search-and-rescue operations, not to mention looking after their own surviving family members, the blue helmets may have to take on even greater police activities than before.

A number of Latin countries have already sent troops to Haiti, including Argentina, Chile, Colombia, Peru and Uruguay. MINUSTAH’s mandate was renewed for another year on October 2009 and its contingents currently comprise around 9,000 troops, with over 2,000 being used for narrowly defined policing missions.

Ongoing and Recent UN Operations
A number of Latin American states are currently involved or have been recently so in a variety of UN peacekeeping operations around the world. Colombia has deployed the “batallón Colombia” to the Middle East. It should be stressed that there is a distinct difference between a peacekeeping deployment, which includes regular troops who actually carry out patrols, and the deployment of military observers, which do not necessarily need to have the UN’s blessing. The following overview is not intended to provide a comprehensive list of all countries that have sent troops to participate in UN missions or serve as military observers, but rather is meant to provide an idea of what regional countries are the most involved in these types of operations.

Uruguay: In October 2008, rebel troops fighting in the Democratic Republic of Congo used artillery fire to attack 300 Uruguayan peacekeepers as well as troops from India and UN civilian staff at a UN base in Rutshuru. A month before the incident occurred, a ceremony was held in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, to congratulate the Uruguayan blue helmets for their work in the country. In attendance was Ross Stewart Mountain, Deputy Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in the DRC, who highlighted the work of the Uruguayan peacekeepers in crises in local towns like Bunia, Bukavu and Kinshasa, among others. Uruguay contributes around 1,300 troops annually to the UN mission in the DRC, which totals just over 20,000 blue helmet troops, making it the biggest peace operation in the world. Uruguay may serve as an example of a military force that is attempting to re-invent itself. Having no external security threats (a war with either of its bordering countries, Argentina or Brazil, would be out of the question), and with a new generation of officers wanting to separate themselves from the era when a dictatorial military junta ruled the country, the Uruguayan armed forces are looking at peacekeeping as a way to transform themselves into being relevant and a self-respecting institution in their own country.

Peru: The Andean country’s forces have served in a number of UN missions. According to the Peruvian Armed Forces’ website, varying numbers of Peruvian troops have served in Western Sahara (1991-1992), Sierra Leone (2000), Cyprus (2002-2006), Burundi (2004-2006) and Sudan (2005-2006), among others. Peru usually sends a small levy of troops on its African missions, numbering between three in the Côte d’Ivoire and 17 in Sudan. In 2008, Peru received the distinction of having Rear Admiral Mario César Sánchez Debemardi, who already had served as a military monitor with the United Nations Transition Assistance Group (UNTAG) in Namibia from 1989 to 1990, to be appointed as Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission in Cyprus (UNFICYP). Meanwhile, a new contingent of Peruvian troops, consisting of 204 soldiers and officers, departed to Haiti from Lima in June, 2009.

Argentina: Argentine units have served in the UN Peacekeeping Force in Cyprus since 1993. According to reports, Argentine forensic experts have worked as part of a team on the island to identify remains of Greek Cypriots missing since the 1974 Turkish invasion of the island as well as trying to identify Turkish Cypriots missing since the early 1960s. Argentine blue helmets also have been sent to be part of the UN missions in Sudan, Côte d’Ivoire, as well as Cambodia, Western Sahara, among others.

Colombia: Apart from preparing for the possible deployment of its troops to fight in Afghanistan, Bogotá also has sent its forces to be part of MINUSTAH. In addition Colombian troops are also part of the independently-organized Multinational Force and Observers (MOF) who were deployed after Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty in 1979. The MOF presently compromises around 2,000 troops from 11 countries.

El Salvador
: Another country increasingly involved in peacekeeping operations, although on a small scale, is El Salvador, a fact demonstrated by the troops it has sent to Iraq. San Salvador appears to have a growing interest in being involved in all types of international Samaritan missions. In June 2008, San Salvador sent 52 peacekeepers to participate in the UN mission in Lebanon. In February 2009, the Central American country deployed five policemen from its Civil National Police to Haiti to aid with peacekeeping operations.

Peacekeeping Initiatives and Training
The Organization of American States (OAS) has been involved in a number of peacekeeping initiatives, exemplified by the agency’s training of Argentine and Uruguayan peacekeeping forces to be deployed in the prevention of human trafficking. Such specialized-peacekeeping exercises have already taken place involving the forces of other countries like Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador, and Honduras.

In addition, a number of Latin American states have come together to create the Latin American Association of Training Centers for Peace (ALCOPAZ – Asociación Latinoamericana de Centros de Entrenamientos para Operaciones de Paz), based in Rio de Janeiro. It should be noted that ALCOPAZ is a new organization and it remains to be seen how it will work with the plethora of regional organizations, ranging from a hemispheric agency like the OAS to already existing regional bodies. So far the agency’s role in the regional effort mounted in response to the Haitian earthquake is not evident. Regarding the structure of ALCOPAZ, Michael J. Snell observed that “Canadians like to join different organizations and bureaus and promote inter-agency cooperation, it is mind-boggling to us how many agencies there are in Latin America and why they are not more interconnected.”

Latin American presence in Afghanistan and Iraq
The possible deployment of Colombian troops to Afghanistan is a notable development for a number of reasons. Spain is serving as Colombia’s mentor. According to the Spanish security news service, Colombia is scheduled to deploy between 80 to 200 troops. As far back as August 2009, Spanish Vice President Maria Teresa Fernandez de la Vega had declared that Spain would sponsor a Colombian unit to serve as part of the International Security Assistance Force deployed to Afghanistan. The mission of the troops would be to train the Afghan Army and carry out demining and anti-narcotics operations. Regarding the possibility that the deployed troops could be involved in combat with local Taliban insurgents, Colombian Defense Minister Gabriel Silva Lujan informed the public that “because [the Colombian troops] will be in a combat zone, it would be very difficult that they would not have to fight at some point.”

It should be noted that this is not the only deployment of Latin American contingents. El Salvador, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and other regional countries deployed troops to Iraq after the U.S. intervened in that country in 2003. Initially, El Salvador sent 380 troops to the region, but since then gradually has reduced its numbers. In August 2008, it was reported that 200 Salvadoran troops were being sent to Iraq to replace the 280 who were already there. In February 2009 the Central American country pulled the last of its troops out of that country. At the time of the pullout, El Salvador’s head of state was Tony Saca, a staunch ally of the Bush administration. The withdrawal of the Salvadoran force was the last of the Latino presence in Iraq.

Like El Salvador, Colombia is one of the last close allies of Washington in Latin America. Hence, the deployment of military personnel to Afghanistan can be seen as a new and less disruptive way for Bogotá to further cement its political relationship with Washington. Nevertheless, it should be mentioned that it’s not just Colombia and several Central American countries that have historically used overseas deployments in support of Washington’s causes, for possible political gains.

A History of Peacekeeping and Military Operations
It should be stressed that, while it appears that interest in peace and military operations among Latin American countries has increased in recent years, this phenomenon has had a reasonably long history. For example, Latin American involvement in military operations overseas can be traced back to Brazil sending troops to fight with the Allies in World War II. The Força Expedicionária Brasileira (Brazilian Expeditionary Force – FEB), comprised of 25,000 troops, fought in Italy and in the South Atlantic Ocean sector adjoining the country. In addition, the Colombian army sent four of its battalions to fight in the Korean War from 1951-1954. The forces suffered 146 fatalities out of 4,000 Colombian forces sent there, where they fought as part of American units, mainly as helping to make up the 7th U.S. Infantry Division.

One of the earliest examples of a major involvement in UN peace operations on the part of a Latin American country was the “batallón Peru,” a unit of the Peruvian army that, during the rule of General Juan Velasco Alvarado (1968-1975), was dispatched to serve as peacekeepers after the war between Israel and Egypt. The battalion was involved in the peacekeeping efforts, associated with putting an end to the Yom Kippur War in 1973, and stayed there until 1974. In an interview with COHA, a Peruvian colonel who helped lead that Peruvian battalion explained that the army was “looking for physically fit, single men who spoke English and had a clean record sheet.” The now retired officer added that “everyone wants to go on these types of missions in spite of the dangers; there was a cap of 20 lieutenants but 100 applied.” The official explained that the reason for Peru sending troops to the Middle East was based on the fact that, at the time, the country was a member of the UN Security Council, hence it was a matter of national pride for Lima to contribute troops. “[President] Velasco was proud that we were going. Before the deployment, the entire battalion marched in front of him.”

Peacekeeping and Military Operations for all Seasons
The cornerstone of manpower required for UN peacekeeping operations worldwide originates in Third World nations, with more industrialized ones providing the financial resources in support of them. For countries like Uruguay and Brazil, this is a way to increase their international status and visibility. Indeed, due to the fact that inter-state warfare for Montevideo with its neighbors is essentially out of the question, the country’s military, for pragmatic reasons, is primarily focused on peacekeeping operations. Regarding Brasilia, while Lula and his successors will want to cement Brazil’s status as a rising global power via a continuously strong UN presence, particularly as the country looks to gain a hoped-for permanent seat in the UN Security Council, there is danger that it will continue to be involved in peacekeeping operations, no matter how controversial these may be. The events surrounding the creation of MINUSTAH and some of the mission’s alleged abuses are examples of situations that might taint, more than anything else, Brazil’s concern for its good name and its expansive intentions.

Brazil’s use of the UN and its current leadership status in Haiti, aimed at achieving Brasilia’s international goals, is understandable. Likewise, Colombia and the Central American countries have become involved in Washington’s war in Iraq (and soon in Afghanistan), more than anything else for political gains. While some good may come out of such operations it is clear that military deployment in service of peacekeeping and collective military deployment represent the future of the region’s military institutions’ raison d’être, particularly if regional inter-state warfare in Latin America continues to be thankfully scarce.

By: W. Alejandro Sanchez, Senior Research Fellow at the Council on Hemispheric Affairs

For more information visit
Peruvian Armed Forces in UN Peace Operations.

Global Peace Operations Initiative

The Global Peace Operations Initiative: Background and Issues for Congress. Serafino, Nina. Congressional Research Service. June 11, 2009.

Latin American Association of Training Centres for Peace ALCOPAZ.

Argentine Centre for Joint Training for Peace Operations.

Peruvian Centre for Joint Training for Peace Operations

Pearson Peacekeeping Centre

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