Reinventing Demons

The Obama administration plans a new round of ‘public safety’ programs in Latin America.

Jeremy Bigwood May 13, 2009

“Democratic policing” is back on Washington's PowerPoint agenda.

At an April 7 press con­fer­ence, Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s spe­cial advi­sor for the Sum­mit of Amer­i­c­as Jef­frey Davi­d­ow announced the administration’s new plan to pro­vide U.S.-funded pub­lic safe­ty” pro­grams to oth­er gov­ern­ments through­out the West­ern Hemi­sphere. U.S. pub­lic safe­ty pro­grams are nec­es­sary now, Davi­d­ow said, because Latin Amer­i­ca [and] the Caribbean are wit­ness­ing an increase in crim­i­nal­i­ty and are hav­ing dif­fi­cul­ty con­fronting this because of judi­cial and police sys­tems that need assis­tance, need more train­ing, need more equipment.”

In reality, the United States used the Office of Public Safety to control the behavior of foreign police for its own political ends.

The Unit­ed States has pur­sued sim­i­lar poli­cies in the past – with dis­as­trous results. The first such projects were orga­nized in the wake of the Span­ish-Amer­i­can War, when the Unit­ed States was keen on polic­ing its new­ly won satrapies in the Caribbean and Pacific.

Ini­tial­ly, these secu­ri­ty” ini­tia­tives were enforced through direct U.S. mil­i­tary occu­pa­tion. It wasn’t until 1954 that a sep­a­rate civil­ian” agency spe­cial­iz­ing in police aid was estab­lished: the Civ­il Police Admin­is­tra­tion (CPA), which began oper­at­ing in Guatemala after the 1954 CIA-backed coup that removed the demo­c­ra­t­i­cal­ly-elect­ed gov­ern­ment of Jacobo Arbenz.

In 1961, Pres­i­dent Kennedy formed the U.S. Agency for Inter­na­tion­al Devel­op­ment (USAID) and rolled the CPA into the new agency, renam­ing it the Office of Pub­lic Safe­ty (OPS). Offi­cial lit­er­a­ture describes OPS’s goal as the cre­ation of a care­ful­ly bal­anced pro­gram of tech­ni­cal advice, train­ing and equipment.”

In real­i­ty, the Unit­ed States used OPS to con­trol the behav­ior of for­eign police for its own polit­i­cal ends. The goal of U.S. pub­lic safe­ty pro­grams was to uni­fy a country’s police and mil­i­tary under a cen­tral com­mand – over­seen by OPS advi­sors. Assas­si­na­tion, dis­ap­pear­ance and tor­ture were the tools of the OPS trade.

With­in a few years, offi­cers were oper­at­ing out of U.S. embassies, police head­quar­ters and safe hous­es in 15 Latin Amer­i­can coun­tries. Even­tu­al­ly, OPS extend­ed beyond the hemi­sphere, into Asia and Africa. But wher­ev­er the OPS went, bru­tal­i­ty followed.

Accord­ing to a Defense Intel­li­gence Agency report obtained by the Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Archives, dur­ing OPS’ oper­a­tions in Guatemala in the ear­ly 1970s, the U.S.-sponsored secu­ri­ty forces qui­et­ly elim­i­nat­ed” what the Defense Depart­ment called ter­ror­ists and ban­dits.” Under OPS over­sight, an esti­mat­ed 200 peo­ple were killed in the San Mar­cos Depart­ment alone, and at least 30 more in the cap­i­tal city.

Things began to change when reports in the alter­na­tive press revealed the oppres­sive and bru­tal activ­i­ties of the OPS-backed police forces. In the sum­mer of 1974, with Wash­ing­ton still reel­ing from alle­ga­tions about the CIA’s malfea­sance uncov­ered by the Church and Pike Com­mit­tees, Sen. James Abourezk (D‑S.D.) intro­duced an amend­ment to the For­eign Assis­tance Act that pro­hib­it­ed police train­ing or relat­ed pro­grams in a for­eign coun­try.” The amend­ment passed and, for a few years, U.S. pub­lic safe­ty” pro­grams ended.

How­ev­er, by the 1980s, the Kissinger Com­mis­sion Report revived the idea, rec­om­mend­ing that the Unit­ed States sup­port for­eign police forces, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Latin Amer­i­ca. By 1986, the Jus­tice Depart­ment had formed the Inter­na­tion­al Crim­i­nal Inves­ti­ga­tions Train­ing Assis­tance Pro­gram (ICI­TAP), using state depart­ment funds to train police in coun­tries like Guatemala.

Con­gress autho­rized USAID to get back into for­eign polic­ing in 2002, with a com­mu­ni­ty-based” police assis­tance mis­sion in Jamaica and in El Sal­vador in 2003. OPS had oper­at­ed in both coun­tries, but this time the USAID pro­gram could not pro­vide sup­port for lethal weapons and tech­nol­o­gy or assist intel­li­gence and sur­veil­lance oper­a­tions. Unlike OPS, the new pro­gram would pro­vide only mon­ey and know-how, not hardware.

These lim­i­ta­tions were erod­ed in 2008 with the pas­sage of the Méri­da Ini­tia­tive. The agree­ment near­ly com­plet­ed the dis­man­tling of the 1974 pro­hi­bi­tion of U.S.-funded polic­ing pro­grams. Under the guise of the war on drugs, the ini­tia­tive gives $400 mil­lion to the Mex­i­can gov­ern­ment and $65 mil­lion to Cen­tral Amer­i­can coun­tries, some of which was to be spent on police train­ing. Pre­dictably, reports of human rights vio­la­tions have surged. In July 2008, a U.S. secu­ri­ty firm instruc­tor was even caught on tape train­ing Mex­i­can police in tor­ture techniques.

Oba­ma may not under­stand the dan­ger­ous waters his admin­is­tra­tion is drift­ing into by expand­ing pub­lic safe­ty” polic­ing pro­grams. If the his­to­ry of the OPS and sim­i­lar projects are any indi­ca­tion of what will come, U.S. polic­ing ini­tia­tives in Latin Amer­i­ca and else­where could result in vio­lence and polit­i­cal repression.

Finan­cial sup­port for this sto­ry was pro­vid­ed by the Fund for Inves­tiga­tive Journalism.

Jere­my Big­wood is an inves­tiga­tive jour­nal­ist and pho­to­jour­nal­ist with a back­ground in sci­ence. He has writ­ten for the Amer­i­can Jour­nal­ism Review, the Vil­lage Voice and many oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. As a pho­to­jour­nal­ist cov­er­ing the Cen­tral Amer­i­ca civ­il wars from 1984 – 1994, his images were pub­lished worldwide.
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