Argentina: Future Watchdog of the Americas?

01 April 1997

A surprising proposal presented to US President Bill Clinton by Argentine President Saul Menem during a visit in December 1996 to the White House seems to indicate a new role for the armed forces of this Latin American country.

A surprising proposal presented to US President Bill Clinton by Argentine President Saul Menem during a visit in December 1996 to the White House seems to indicate a new role for the armed forces of this Latin American country. Menem proposes a military alliance with the United States - outside of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) - since Argentina's entry into NATO has been blocked.

Such an alliance outside of NATO, in fact, already exists and includes the US, Japan, New Zealand, Israel and Jordan. The main objective of Argentina's involement would be to combat drug trafficking and terrorism - involving the armed forces in intelligence efforts (outside of Argentina), logistical support and control of air space in the continent. Washington apparently views the proposal favorably, considered yet another show of support for the US's continental policy. The proposal also has served to help overcome US resistance to involving the military in the anti-narcotics war. Meetings were held between Argentine Defense Minister Jorge Dominguez and his US counterpart William Perry, as well as between Chancellor Guido Di Tella of Argentina and US Secretary of State Warren Christopher. Dominguez had arrived in Washington to attend the presidential meeting, after having met in Panama with the commander of US Southern Command, General Wesley Clark.

Clark had commended the role of Argentine military contingents in international peace keeping missions and hinted at the possibility of granting the Argentine military further continental tasks, given its capabilities and trustworthiness. Judging from information coming out of the meeting it appears that future deals will include exchangeson a logistical level, Argentine access to lethal war materials (acquisition of which in the past had been prohibited by the US), training of personnel and the delivery of funds for the anti-drug war. The relationship with the US would involve close contact with Southern Command and would include the creation of high-level bilateral commissions set up to follow drug-trafficking matters. If the relationship is formalized, the accord would signify a profound restructuring of the armed forces, a task viewed by Menem as very necessary. Menem recently stated that the state must reform the military, in order to keep up with changes in the world, specifically: greater professionalization and more efficient administration. According to Menem, the armed forces should prepare for the new challenges awaiting, namely drug trafficking and fundamentalism - the two most important sources of international terrorism. To face these challenges, a new political role is needed for the military, which requires the reorganization of its structures, the modernization of equipment, a rapid response force, and training that will meet the needs of these new sources of conflict.

The armed forces will have a pentagon of their own

The restructuring of the Armed Forces had already been announced in November. Dominguez had made public the decision to begin a process of rationalization in the Armed Forces and the security forces. One measure would be the creation of an Argentine Pentagon. The construction of the building will begin this year and should be finished in 1998. The Defense Ministry, the three branches of the armed forces, the joint Chiefs of Staff and the National Border police (gendarmeria nacional) will be housed together in the complex. The Border police is under the authority of the Interior Minister, a situation that will not change in spite of the planned coordination with the military.

Once the armed forces is moved into the new offices, the Interior Ministry, the Federal Police, and the Naval office will occupy the army's present building, together with support agencies of the National Executive Branch, and the majority of State secretaries. Buildings currently occupied by these entities will be sold, and the funds that correspond to the Armed Forces - in cases in which the Armed Forces owned the buildings - will go toward bailing out the military's financial crisis. The idea of an Argentine Pentagon was viewed skeptically by some political analysts, who considered the measures nothing more than a real estate deal aimed at resolving a budget crisis at a time when several army units are being closed for lack of funds, equipment is being cut back and the armed forces (according to some critical officers) convertedinto a coast guard, without having the capacity to effectively defend Argentine sovereignty at sea. Nevertheless, with the recent proposal for an alliance with the US outside of NATO, and the involvement of the Armed Forces in the war on drug trafficking and terrorism, albeit in a supporting role, the construction of an Argentine Pentagon, the close relation between military with the Central Government, all leads to the conclusion that these changes are something more than a simple real estate deal.

A foreign enemy

The army's possible role in the drug war has been seriously analyzed by the military leadership, which was caught off guard by Menem's offer to the US. The positions taken on the issue differ notably, with some officers against the involvement, arguing that the law expressly prohibits the military from involvement in domestic mattersr, with its role limited to the defense of national security from foreign enemies. Narco-trafficking, as defined by law, is a political matter under the purview of the Security Forces. Aware of this limitation, President Menem made it clear that the role of the armed forces in this area would be in operations beyond Argentine borders, with limited responsibilities in intelligence, logistics and control, leaving direct involvement in operations to other agencies. In spite of these precautions, the decisions could still be violating Argentine law.

There exist two basic alternatives for resolving this situation: either modify the law, a solution insinuated by Menem himself, or redefine the phenomenon of narco-trafficking. In a document elaborated by the military, analysts argue that narco-trafficking can be seen as essentially a police matter, as it is currently qualified in Argentina, or as a threat to State security. By opting for this second interpretation the state would open the door to the legitimation of military participation. By accepting the principal that the participation of the armed forces could be increased once narco-trafficking, narco-terrorism or narco-subversion are considered a threat that exceeds the operative capacities of the system of internal security, then the integral participation of the armed forces could be authorized, and possibly without having to modify the law.

It would simply be a matter of interpreting legal norms. Along these lines, the commander of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice Admiral Jorge Enrico has stated that the military cannot remain passive in the face of narco-trafficking, arguing that the drug trade constitutes an extraterritorial threat. And in fact, the military is not going to stand aside. Monitoring activities are programmed related to the future installation of radars on the Argentine-Paraguay border and the Argentine-Bolivia border to monitor suspicious flights. For the moment, however, the role of Argentine contingents had been discarded as members of a hypothetical multinational army to repress narco-trafficking, under the command of the US. Although some sectors of the military strongly oppose such a role, given the generalized opinion that this would expose the institution to the risk of corruption and that the military would be granted powers over national security agencies, members of the army leadership have begun expressing their interest in this decision, apparently motivated by military and political issues unrelated to drug trafficking and terrorism.

The military factors

Beginning with the Argentine armed forces' return to their garrisons, leaving power in the hands of a democratically elected government, the national and international scenarios have changed so dramatically that the armed forces soon found themselves without enemies, a crucial reason fo their existence. The Berlin wall was brought down alongside the collapse of the Iron Curtain. The communist regimes no longer existed, the Soviet Union is but a memory and the world has turned incresingly toward a capitalist model. The west no longer feels threatened by an ideology that it once considered its most important enemy and which had been claimed as a guiding light by guerrilla groups around the world. In Argentina the military dictatorship wiped out the country's own armed groups, the Montoneros and the People's Revolutionary Army (ERP) - using a strategy of terror during the period between 1976 and 1983. The methods used added up to a state terrorism that aimed at wiping out all vestiges of opposition. Approximately 30,000 persons were disappeared or killed and a profoundly wounded society has never fully healed, in spite of efforts to bury a past in the name of national reconciliation.

Without a guerrilla movement and with an opposition legitimated within the democratic process, the armed forces were left without those internal enemies that supposedly - from the army's point of view - endangered the very State and the foundations of the nation, and which responded - at least in part, and always in the eyes of the armed forces - to foreign ideologies. If the internal enemies disappeared, the foreign ones began to take form. Argentina maintained differences with Great Britain over the sovereignty of the Malvinas islands, and with Chile regarding an ongoing border dispute. The war for the Malvinas resulted in the military defeat of the Argentine forces,which came out of the conflict totally devastated, and contributed to the army's retreat from political rule.

After that experience, Argentina, without giving up its claims, shifted its efforts onto diplomatic terrain, inaugurating a policy called the seduction of the Kelper population in the Malvinas islands in what has so far been an unsuccessful effort to win them over to the Argentine cause. The armed forces kept themselves on the sidelines, subordinated to the executive branch. As for Chile, the accord reached, Hielos Continentales, although it was controversial because it left in the hands of the neighboring country part of a territory that earlier had been assigned to Argentina, brings the dispute to an end, removing an important justification for an arms build up in the region.

Yet another factor defusing potentially conflictive situations is the creation of MERCOSUR, which has converted Brazil - a potential enemy of Argentina because of it economic strength - into a trade partner. The Armed Forces, without their traditional enemies, dragged down by its tarnished image as a defeated army, an inheritance of the war against Great Britain, repudiated by society for the crimes committed during the dirty war, regarding which it finally had to admit responsibility, has suffered an identity crisis, and is seeking a new one. Affected by structural adjustment, with major cutbacks in budgets that forced personnel cuts, the closing of barracks, reduced spending on equipment and material, the army tried to find new protagonism taking part in peace keeping missions by sending contingents of blue helmets to the theaters of conflict around the world, such as Cyprus and the ex-Yugoslavia, for example. The integration of the Multinational Forces of the UN is considered to be a mechanism that to some degree contributes to the rebuilding of a reputation lost both locally and internationally, and which allows for a new face and a new role for the military.

Nevertheless, as a tool for saving the military, this strategy is seriously limited. The struggle against drugs and terrorism, even though it is seen as below the military's dignity (especially if their role is subordinated to US agencies), could, however provide the opportunity for starting over again, with the establishment of a privileged relationship with the US. This seems all the more plausible in light of ease with which the Argentine government abandoned a long tradition of non-alignment to participate next to North Americans in the Gulf war, becoming Washington's most dependable ally of Washington in this continent.

The government's unfinished business

If the military is in search of a lost identity, the government is in need of improving its deteriorated image abroad, following its involvement in a series of scandals, and of dealing with several pending issues with the US government itself. The proposal of an alliance assumes, therefore, a specific dimension which is not only one of calming an officer corps upset with the adjustments, with disclosure of its role in the repression, and with seeing itself increasingly marginalized in Argentine society and politics.

The alliance can be seen as an effort by the scandal-ridden government to recover its credibility with the US, at a time when the government sees the need to be viewed as trustworthy in the eyes of the US, and before international lending institutions. A rash of scandals undermines the credibility of the Argentine government, including:

  • the discovery of a parallel customs office - a contraband structure that operates within the official agency - and which appears to used, among other things, to cover up the sale of drugs and arms;
  • the illegal sale of arms to Ecuador during its conflict with Peru, in spite of having signed to Protocol of Rio de Janeiro, which establishes territorial limits between the countries and whose inapplicability is a source of tensions and wars;
  • the sale of arms to Croatia, undermining an international embargo, while contingents of Cascos Azules from Argentina operate in that country, trying to guarantee a weak peace;
  • the reported scandals linked to the contracts between the US firm IBM and the Banco Nación;
  • and lastly, the trafficking of gold.

If one adds to all of this the change in the economic cabinet, with the departure of ex-minister Domingo Cavallo, who was the architect of the new Argentine economy, the situation becomes increasingly complicated for the government of Argentina and for the maintenance of smooth relations with the US. Cavallo left the government after acccusing the president with involvement in the above-mentioned acts of corruption, as well as the government's failure to handle appropriately proposed changes in patent legislation and labor laws. The proposal of an alliance, then, could have as a goal, the highlighting of Argentina's potential as an unconditional ally for the US, in an effort to create a climate favorable to bilateral relations, with economic and commercial advantages badly needed to buoy an economy increasingly dependent on foreign capital.

The dangers of an alliance outside NATO

In the event that the alliance outside NATO becomes a reality, the consequences could be nefarious. The Argentine armed forces could be converted into the watchdogs of America, following US orders and defending US interests in theontinues to be a zone of strategic interest. With its new continental role, the Argentine military could contribute to the creation of a new approach to hemispheric security, replacing the outmoded National Security strategy, implemented and placed into action in the 1970s.

In the era of globalization, National Security would become Continental Security. The phantom of communism would be replaced by the threat of the new enemies, international terrorism, and narco-trafficking in its version of narco-terrorism and narco-subversion. In the Americas, the worsening social and economic problematic could be converted into elements that feed into, not only narco-trafficking, but a guerrilla movement as well, which after a period of demobilization and stagnation, seems to be resurging with renewed force. The economic and social models that are being imposed are causing an unprecedented concentration of wealth, resulting in increasing marginalization for broad sectors of society, who are increasingly excluded from economic benefits and increasingly vulnerable due to the cutbacks in social programs. The alternatives offered to this population include the informal economy, which does not always guarantee subsistence, or the illicit economy, with all of its impliations.

The absence of short- and long-term perspectives, and the lack of viable alternatives, are determinant factors in the increase in violence, characteristic throughout the region, with the increase in delinquency, with social unrest, or the resurgence of guerrilla groups with new proposals and platforms directed at society as a whole, along the line of the Zapatista army in Mexico.

In this context, Continental Security would not be an invention for placating a demoralized and frustrated military. Instead it would constitute a conceptual and operative instrument designed to contain, control and repress phenomena that threaten the status quo.

Continental Security and its agents would thus play the role of defending interests that range from economic to strictly political; and Argentina, quite possibly, could be one of its representatives, with a role subordinated to the orders of Washington. The process in itself would not be novel for Argentina. During the dictatorship, military advisors backed the de facto government of García Meza in Bolivia, sending officials who were experts in anti-subversive struggle and the dirty war. Then, once democracy was installed, these officers, or the unemployed labor force as they are often called in Argentina, comprised of repressors who no longer have assignments, were contracted as advisors to the Security Forces and the armies in countries such as Perú, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. In Mexico, military adveiors were sent with the blessing of presidents Menem and Zedillo. In some political circles in Argentina, expressions ofconcern are heard regarding the role of the armed forces in a new hemispheric security strategy.

Some consider that the Armed forces would neglect their current tasks, for example, that of guaranteeing the functioning of democracy, and that they will lose their military professionalism, since the struggle against narco-trafficking implies strategies and modes of combat that are not specifically military. Other critical voices express the fear that this new involvement would result in the modification of the law prohibiting the armed forces from taking part in domestic security matters, after having been expelled following the dictatorship.

The initiative has not brought with it an enthusiastic response from countries in the region and even less so from the members of MERCOSUR, which have not hidden their disagreement. The majority of these countries refuse to accept military involvement in the anti-drug war, a position ratified in the Inter-American Summit in Bariloche, in which the Argentine army took a very clear position in line with other armies in the region. The sudden change of direction can complicate the processes of integration that are being carried out in South America, since according to the governing authorities of the MERCOSUR countries, integration cannot be limited to economic, financial and commercial matters. Instead it should also involve political and legislative integration. With the Argentine initiative, the united stance of countries rejecting before Washington this military approach could disintegrate. Surely for the other countries it is going to be more difficult to resist US pressures, since the Argentine decision leaves them without an important ally.

Although the declarations following the president's proposal were cautious, the acceptance of the proposal on the part of members of the Armed forces seems to indicate that the route has already been mapped out. If this is the case, Argentina could become a destabilizing element within the region and a beachhead of US interests in Latin America, at the cost of the continent's autonomy in relation to US economic and strategic interests.

In regards to the supposed efficiency of the military's involvement in such efforts, it should be remembered that within the armed forces corruption exists on numerous levels, as evidenced by arms trafficking, which raises further doubts as to the appropriateness of the military's participation in this battle. Moreover, the repressive structure has, in fact, never been dismantled and personnel closely linked to human rights violations in the ra of the dictatorship remain actively involved. For many, this revive fears born during the dirty war and raises doubts as to the true intentions behind this policy, which could begin with the control of drug trafficking and terrorism and end up as an effort to control Latin American societies.