BUENOS AIRES — The end of the Cold War ushered in a new phase in military relations between the United States and Latin America. As the region's dictatorships gave way to more democratic systems, and border disputes waned, the Pentagon, starting in the early 1990s, urged Latin American governments to restore civilian control over the armed forces, encourage military participation in peacekeeping missions, and keep military and police duties separate.

To one degree or another, the governments of Latin America embraced this agenda, which dovetailed with the so-called Washington Consensus, a set of pro-market economic policy prescriptions that were endorsed by the United States and gained region-wide acceptance. The result was an increasingly harmonious military relationship between Washington and Latin America.

But as time passed — with the rise of drug trafficking and organized crime in the region, and the incompetence and corruption of security forces in Mexico, Colombia and Central American countries — the United States changed course and started favoring active participation by the armed forces in combating drugs trafficking.

U.S. policy makers were leaning in that direction even before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. But afterwards, the call for using soldiers as crime fighters became even more pronounced, as the former head of the U.S. Southern Command, Gen. James T. Hill made clear when he identified two grave dangers: the global War on Terror, and the threat, in Latin America specifically, of "radical populism."

Years later, the current head of Southern Command, Admiral Kurt W. Tidd, reinforced this "crime fighting" vision, telling the 2016 South America Defense Conference in Montevideo, Uruguay, that the frontiers of domestic security and defense were now blurred. Then, this past February, he told the U.S. Congress that the lines between crime and war, and competition and conflict, had disappeared.

In Argentina, they have stuck to defense.

In most Latin American nations, the armed forces have, either out of conviction or convenience, transformed themselves into crime fighters. And yet, in certain countries and for various reasons, they have stuck to their principal mission: defense. Argentina stands out in this regard. Thanks to agreements made when democracy returned in the 1980s, and to efforts made by various social actors, the country has avoided militarizing its fight against drug trafficking.

At the same time, however, the country's recurrent socio-economic crises, coupled with negligence by its political leaders, has left it without a real defense strategy. Nor is Argentina prepared, militarily speaking, to respond to global and regional challenges and in line with national interests. This is nothing new of course. What has changed is a growing but often overlooked imbalance between the standing and financial well-being of the armed forces, on the one hand, and security forces (police), on the other.

This imbalance can result in the armed forces turning, for both internal and external reasons, into a crime-fighting force, irrespective of laws that are supposed to keep military and police functions separate.

Treasury Ministry spending figures offer some interesting insights in this regard. Until 2008, Argentina spent more on defense than on security. In 2007 for example, 47.7% of the country's total budget for defense, internal security, intelligence and the prisons system went to defense, compared to 40.5% for security. But by 2009, the tendency had reversed. Just 42.2% went to defense compared to 45.4% for security.

The imbalance was even greater in 2010 (37.8% versus 51.1%). And by 2015, the year Mauricio Macri was elected president, defense spending dropped to just 34.8% compared to 53.9% for security. Since then, Argentina has continued to spend more money on policing than on defense.

The debate on defense and the military's mission should be a lot less rhetorical and based more firmly on facts. A combination of corporate pressure, bureaucratic influence, legislative inertia and political indifference has created, it seems, a budget structure and purchasing system that is leading the armed forces into a labyrinth. Is joining the war on drugs and terrorism, and helping police fight crime the military's last resort for recovering its budget, standing and visibility?

If so, then we have a serious problem. It appears the time has come for a full and open debate on defense and the role of the armed forces, because we can't have laws that prohibit military involvement in crime fighting while pressuring them, through budget restraints, to do just the opposite.

*The author is a professor at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella in Buenos Aires

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