Is George Bush Restarting Latin
America's 'Dirty Wars'?
by Benjamin Dangl
www.alternet.org, August 31, 2007
Signs are emerging of a new wave of U.S.-backed
militarism in Latin America.
Two soldiers in Paraguay stand in front
of a camera. One of them holds an automatic weapon. John Lennon's
"Imagine" plays in the background. This Orwellian juxtaposition
of war and peace is from a new video posted online by U.S. soldiers
stationed in Paraguay. The video footage and other military activity
in this heart of the continent represent a new wave of U.S.-backed
militarism in Latin America.
It's a reprise of a familiar tune. In
the 1970s and 1980s, Paraguay's longtime dictator, Gen. Alfredo
Stroessner, collaborated with the region's other dictators through
Operation Condor, which used kidnapping, torture and murder to
squash dissent and political opponents. Stroessner's human rights
record was so bad that even Ronald Reagan distanced himself from
the leader. Carrying on this infamous legacy, Paraguay now illustrates
four new characteristics of Latin America's right-wing militarism:
joint exercises with the U.S. military in counterinsurgency training,
monitoring potential dissidents and social organizations, the
use of private mercenaries for security and the criminalization
of social protest through "anti-terrorism" tactics and
In May of 2005, the Paraguayan Senate
voted to allow U.S. troops to operate in Paraguay with total immunity.
Washington had threatened to cut off millions in aid to the country
if Paraguay did not grant the U.S. troops entry. In July of 2005
hundreds of U.S. soldiers arrived in the country, and Washington's
funding for counterterrorism efforts in Paraguay doubled. The
U.S. troops conducted various operations and joint training exercises
with Paraguayan forces, including so-called Medical Readiness
Training Exercises (MEDRETEs). Orlando Castillo, a military policy
expert at the human rights rights organization Servicio, Paz y
Justicia in Asunción, Paraguay, says the MEDRETEs were
"observation" operations aimed at developing "a
type of map that identifies not just the natural resources in
the area, but also the social organizations and leaders of different
Castillo, in his cool Asunción
office, with the standard Paraguayan herbal tea, tereré
in his hand, said these operations marked a shift in U.S. military
strategy. "The kind of training that used to just happen
at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, is now
decentralized," he explained. "The U.S. military is
now establishing new mechanisms of cooperation and training with
armed forces." Combined efforts, such as MEDRETEs, are part
of this agenda. "It is a way to remain present, while maintaining
a broad reach throughout the Americas." Castillo said this
new wave of militarism is aimed at considering internal populations
as potential enemies and preventing insurgent leftists from coming
Bruce Kleiner of the U.S. Embassy in Paraguay
said that the MEDRETEs "provide humanitarian service to some
of Paraguay's most disadvantaged citizens." But this video
by Captain William Johnson shows that there's more to the MEDRETE
operations, with local Paraguayans being questioned as they receive
treatment, as well as events and ceremonies aimed at strengthening
ties between the military personnel of both countries. Often,
heavily armed men are seen walking past lines of local families
while they wait for medicine and questions. The lighthearted depiction
of these joint military operations seen in the video is in sharp
contrast with reports from local citizens.
A group of representatives from human
rights organizations and universities from all over the world,
including the Madres de la Plaza de Mayo in Argentina and a group
from the University of Toulouse, France, traveled to Paraguay
last July as part of the Campaign for the Demilitarization of
the Americas (CADA) to observe and report on the repression going
on in the country linked to the presence of U.S. troops. The local
citizens they interviewed said they were not told what medications
they were given during the U.S. MEDRETEs. Patients said they were
often given the same treatments regardless of their illness. In
some cases, the medicine produced hemorrhages and abortions. When
the medical treatment took place, patients reported that they
were asked if they belonged to any kind of labor or social organization.
Among the leaders of such organizations, dozens have been disappeared
and tortured in recent years, just as they were during Latin America's
"dirty wars" in the Reagan era.
While Orlando Castillo is adamant that
the historic military links between Paraguay and the United States
remain strong, the U.S. troops that arrived in 2005 have reportedly
left the country. In December 2006, the Paraguayan Senate and
executive branch, responding to pressure from neighboring countries,
voted to end the troops' immunity. Paraguay would have been excluded
from the lucrative regional trade bloc of Mercosur if it continued
to grant immunity to U.S. forces.
Castillo sees private mercenaries, or
paramilitaries, as another key piece of the new militarism puzzle.
In Paraguay, the strongest paramilitary group is the Citizens
Guard. "These paramilitary groups are made of people from
the community. They establish curfews and rules of conduct, and
monitor the activity of the community. They also intervene in
family disputes and can kick people out of the community or off
land ... this all very similar to the paramilitary activities
in Colombia." Castillo said that while this activity is illegal,
the police and judges simply look the other way. Many of the paramilitaries
are connected to large agribusinesses and landowners and have
been linked to increased repression of small farming families
that have resisted the expansion of the soy industry, a cash-crop
mostly for export. The shadow army of the Citizens Guard is as
big as the state security forces: These paramilitary groups have
nearly 22,000 members, while the Paraguayan police force is only
9,000 strong and the military has 13,000 members.
The use of private security is on the
rise throughout the Americas. Journalist Cyril Mychalejko reported
that the Bush administration was recently incriminated in a scandal
involving Chiquita Brands International Inc. and their funding
of paramilitaries to repress a discontented labor force in Colombia.
The paramilitary group, the United Self-Defense Force of Colombia
(AUC) is designated by the State Department as a terrorist organization.
In 2003, a former executive at Chiquita told Secretary of Homeland
Security Michael Chertoff that they were paying the paramilitary
group. Chertoff looked the other way, allowing the company to
pay an additional $134,000 to the AUC throughout that year.
Castillo's comments about the new U.S.
military strategy for the region apply to all of Latin America.
Carrying on the legacy of the School of the Americas, the International
Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA) was recently opened in El Salvador,
where similar training is going on to broaden the military's reach
in the area.
Exporting the "War on Terror"
Anti-terrorism rhetoric and legislation
is being mixed into this deadly cocktail in Paraguay, as it is
across Latin America. The Paraguayan Senate is scheduled to pass
an anti-terrorism law that will criminalize social protest and
establish penalties of up to 40 years in prison for participating
in such activities. A large march against the passage of the law
took place in the country's capital on July 26.
The U.S.-based corporate media plays a
part in what has become a war against labor movements and leftist
politicians. Ciudad del Este, Paraguay, has regularly been portrayed
in the American media as a haven and training ground for Middle
Eastern terrorist organizations. Regional analysts believe this
terrifying narrative has aided the Pentagon in its military plans
for the country. Terrorism talk is similarly being used for political
purposes elsewhere in Latin America. The U.S.A Patriot Act was
used to revoke the U.S. travel visa for Bolivian human rights
leader and labor organizer Leonilda Zurita shortly after leftist
president Evo Morales came to power.
In Venezuela's national divide between
pro- and anti-Chavez citizens, everything is political. CNN recently
entered the fray when it aired footage that Venezuelan governmental
officials said falsely linked Chavez to Al-Qaeda. The Venezuelan
government has filed charges against CNN for the act. Information
Minister William Lara said CNN showed photos of Chavez alongside
those of an Al-Qaeda leader. He explained that "CNN broadcast
a lie which linked President Chavez to violence and murder."
CNN denied having "any intention of associating President
Chavez with al Qaeda "
In Nicaragua, the media has recently been
used as a tool by Washington to promote its foreign policy agenda.
A long time lab rat for U.S. imperialism, Nicaragua is the poorest
country in Central America and the site of a socialist revolution
in the 1980s when the Sandinistas overthrew the Somoza dictatorship.
The specter of a Sandinista-led government still haunts the White
House. In a 2001 presidential election in Nicaragua when Sandinista
leader Daniel Ortega was running for re-election, (right after
9/11) similar tactics were employed, and the media was a key tool.
In an ad in the Nicaraguan paper La Prensa, Jeb Bush was quoted
as saying: "Daniel Ortega is an enemy of everything the United
States represents. Further, he is a friend of our enemies. Ortega
has a relationship of more than 30 years with states and individuals
who shelter and condone international terrorism." The tactic
worked, and the pro-free market, right-wing Washington ally Enrique
Bolaños beat Ortega. In the lead up to the presidential
election on Nov. 5, 2006, former U.S. Lt. Col. Oliver North visited
Nicaragua to warn voters not to elect Daniel Ortega. In the 1980s
North was convicted of violating U.S. law to organize the Contra
guerrillas against the Sandinista government. North reminded voters
that the same terror could return to Nicaragua under a new Ortega
administration. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., threatened another
trade embargo and to prevent money sent from Nicaraguans in the
United States from reaching their families at home. U.S. Ambassador
to Nicaragua, Paul Trivelli said that if Ortega won the elections,
the United States would "re-evaluate relations" with
the country. The media was used against Ortega as well, with TV
commercials showing corpses from the Contra war in the 1980s,
warning citizens against voting for the left's choice. This time,
however, the media campaign backfired, and Ortega won the election.
Paraguayan journalist Marco Castillo shook
as head while contemplating this new landscape of repression.
Dozens of social organization leaders and dissidents have been
disappeared and tortured in recent years. "Impunity reigns,"
he said. "This is as bad as it was during the worst years
of the Stroessner dictatorship."
Benjamin Dangl won a 2007 Project Censored
Award for his coverage of U.S. military operations in Paraguay.
He is the author of The Price of Fire: Resource Wars and Social
Movements in Bolivia (AK Press, 2007).