The Growing Role of Armed Forces in Public Security: Implications and Challenges in Latin America

Martino Fabris

The close relationship between the armed forces and politics has undoubtedly been a defining, though at times fluctuating, characteristic in Latin America. The spread of authoritarian political systems in the region, which relied on repression by the armed forces, can be traced back to the second half of the 19th century, particularly with the rise to power of the military leadership of the so-called “caudillos”, a type of authoritarian leader who wields both political and military power. During those years, charismatic figures such as Juan Manuel de Rosas in Argentina and Francisco Solano López Carrillo in Paraguay consolidated their political power through their close ties with the military institutions and the repression they carried out against political dissidents and rebels.

This relationship continued to solidify during the 20th century when the military institutions began to play a role not as subordinates but as predominant actors in the political scene. In the absence of interstate wars fought on the continent, Latin American militarism focused on managing internal social or political conflicts. Especially from the 1960s onwards, as they turned against internal enemies, the armed forces began to intervene in political matters, becoming true “political armies” capable of carrying out coups d’état.

The transition to democracy that began in the 1980s across the region led to a reduction in the influence of military leaders in internal political affairs and a limitation of their role. The most determining factors in this process were the fall of the Soviet Union and the strength of public opinion influenced by the widespread dissemination of democratic systems in the region. In particular, the end of the Cold War resulted in a substantial defeat of insurgent guerrilla movements, which had been the central target of state repression and the raison d’être of military regimes.

However, the end of the military regime era did not bring an end to the political debate on the role of the armed forces, and Latin America still grapples with the role of the armed forces in political life today. The internal threats previously represented by left-wing insurgent movements are now mainly linked to the numerous governance challenges, the predominant one being the increase in organized crime. The involvement of numerous armed actors in various criminal economies has given them significant economic and military power capable of challenging state authorities. Governments across the region are reacting by granting greater operational power to the armed forces and providing them with tailored measures.


Although Mexico did not experience a military regime during the Cold War, there were numerous similarities with the authoritarian regimes in the Southern Cone. Anticommunism and arbitrary repression by the armed forces were defining elements of the post-revolutionary governments in Mexico. From 1946, following the election of Miguel Alemán Valdes, the first post-revolution president with no direct involvement in the revolution, the country underwent a process of democratization, resulting in democratic control over the Mexican military institutions.

However, the early 2000s saw policies implemented that increased the power and potential of the military apparatus. Defense spending increased considerably, especially starting in 2006. With the government of Felipe Calderón and his declared war on drug trafficking, the budget for the Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) increased nationally. The deployment of armed forces in Mexican territory and public spending in the defense sector continued under Enrique Peña Nieto and, especially since 2019, under Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO).

During the electoral campaign, AMLO was highly critical of the militarization of public security carried out by previous administrations. During the presidential campaign before his 2019 victory, AMLO reiterated his intention to remove the army from the streets of the country and improve the coordination and professionalization of the police forces at the national level. With the Movimiento Regeneración Nacional (Morena) obtaining a large majority in parliament, the first seen since 1997, it was able to reform the constitution and create the National Guard in its first year in office, formed to reduce the intensity of the war on drugs and replace the federal police whilst integrating the army with a police force controlled by civilian rather than military commands.

But results have not lived up to expectations, or at least what the executive had in mind. Not only has the National Guard been involved in numerous cases of human rights violations, but above all, the promise to demilitarize the country remains unfulfilled, with the trend of militarization in Mexico clearly on the rise. This is demonstrated through figures such as an 11% increase in defense sector funds between 2019 and 2022, an already significant 54% increase in defense spending between 2018 and 2021, and a 76% increase in SEDENA soldiers deployed compared to the Calderón administration.

Available data indeed shows an absolute reduction in human rights violations in Mexico compared to the period of the war on drug trafficking led by Felipe Calderón. However, a concerning fact is the number of homicides in the country, which remains relatively stable. Even more alarming is the death toll related to drug trafficking during the four years of AMLO’s administration. Trends indicate that by the end of his presidential term, the total number of victims may surpass those of the previous administrations. Ultimately, this highlights the substantial ineffectiveness of policies based on the empowerment of the armed forces. It also underscores the dangers of entrusting the management of public security to the National Guard, a military body composed of 80% military personnel.


Source: El Peruano

In Peru, internal issues such as the increase in organized crime and the constant flow of irregular migrants at the border with Ecuador have brought back the debate on the role of the armed forces should assume in the face of new security threats.

Firstly, it is necessary to highlight that regarding the role and power of the armed forces in the country, Peru has taken a different path compared to most countries in the region. Following the democratic transition of the late 1980s, the army faced an internal war against the insurgent group Shining Path (SL). The internal conflict led to the armed forces acquiring significant power, sometimes surpassing the operational limits defined in the constitution. Power continued to shift to the Armed Forces, especially in 1990, with Alberto Fujimori coming to power with large sectors becoming supporters of the presidential policy. But with Fujimori’s fall in 2000 and the defeat of SL, a process of reorganization and control of the armed forces began.

However, in recent years the issue of militarization of the armed forces in Peruvian territory has once again become part of the national debate. As partially evidenced by the dizzying increase in military spending since the early 2000s, the army in Peru plays an increasingly but not entirely constitutional role as a supporter of the National Police of Peru (PNP). This is mainly due to the lack of preparation and resources available to the PNP, coupled with numerous corruption cases that have led to a loss of credibility for the institution in the fight against organized crime.

In particular, the issue of constitutionality and the need for the use of the armed forces in public security matters regained prominence in early 2021. A few months after taking office, the government of Pedro Castillo authorized the intervention of the armed forces in the control and maintenance of internal order in the country. Castillo declared a state of emergency and deployed the armed forces on the streets of Lima and the adjacent Constitutional Province of Callao. Many international organizations, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have expressed concern about this decision as a disproportionate measure that could lead to human rights violations. Moreover, the militarization of public security in these areas is not yielding positive results, as homicides in the capital increased in 2022, with some areas experiencing a tripling or even quadrupling of cases.

This measure also responds to a strategy that the country’s institutions have implemented since the beginning of the pandemic, based on the central role of the army, especially in controlling immigration at the border with Ecuador. Just like the militarization of the streets in Lima and Callao, the militarization of the border with Ecuador is also creating fertile ground for human rights violations. Examples of the inadequacy and danger of the army in managing such a delicate issue as the flow of migration at the Ecuadorian border are abundant, including the most emblematic incident when Peruvian army soldiers reportedly fired shots at groups of migrants in the border region in January 2021.


The Mexico and Peru cases are just two examples of what is happening at a regional level regarding the control and management of public security. The renewed centrality of the armed forces in Latin American countries should not be confused with the military or heavily authoritarian governments of the Cold War era. Nowadays, generals do not hold political positions or form military juntas, but rather play a role in strengthening governments and their policies. The problem lies precisely in the inadequacy, or rather the incompatibility (and sometimes unconstitutionality), of the armed forces in carrying out the new tasks assigned to them.

In conclusion, the fact that military institutions do not appear to truly assume a political institutional role in governments across the region demonstrates the difference between now and the era of military regimes. However, the danger lies in the weakening of civilian components (PNP in Peru and Federal Police in Mexico) in controlling the armed forces and their actions. Furthermore, This we should not underestimate this risk as it has the potential to create conditions for ongoing abuse of power and human rights violations.

  • What institutional mechanisms and safeguards can be put in place to effectively ensure civilian oversight and control over the armed forces while maintaining their operational effectiveness and security capabilities?
  • Considering the recurring instances of political instability and corruption scandals in some Latin American countries, can we truly trust that their democratic institutions are robust enough to resist the temptation of military coups or undue political interference?
  • Is the problem of organized crime a factor that somewhat justifies the militarization and restriction of civil liberties in Latin America? Are these latter side effects necessary?

Suggested readings:

Flores-Macías G. A., Zarkin J. (2021). The militarization of law enforcement: Evidence from Latin America, Perspectives on Politics, 19(2), 519–538.

Hurtado Noriega, C., & Doria Velarde, A. (2020). Nuevos roles de las fuerzas armadas en seguridad. Experiencias de México, Colombia y Perú. Revista Científica General
José María Córdova, 18(30), 379-398.

Kruijt, D. (2020). Military involvement in Latin American Politics. Scientia Militaria – South African Journal of Military Studies47(1), 1-20.

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The Growing Role of Armed…

by Martino Fabris time to read: 7 min