Arming Aid: Costa Rica, the US Military and the Ongoing “War” on Drugs

The US will begin sending warships to Costa Rica as early as August 20 despite the fact that the Costa Rican Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging its constitutionality. The court will hear the challenge to the Costa Rican legislative assembly’s decision to permit the US to move 46 warships (with the capacity to carry 7,000 troops and 200 helicopters) into Costa Rican territory.

The US will begin sending warships to Costa Rica as early as August 20 despite the fact that the Costa Rican Supreme Court agreed to hear a case challenging its constitutionality. The court will hear the challenge to the Costa Rican legislative assembly’s decision to permit the US to move 46 warships (with the capacity to carry 7,000 troops and 200 helicopters) into Costa Rican territory. While initially there were reports that the court’s agreement to do so would delay the arrival of US military personnel at least until they ruled, the US will begin to utilize the permission unabated.

After the Supreme Court agreed to hear the constitutionality challenge, there was some warranted confusion and differing interpretations of the Supreme Court’s jumbled declaration that, “This notice only affects pending judicial processes in which the application of the disputed is being challenged, and warns that the only thing that cannot be done under said process is to dictate sentence, or the act in which it has been applied to that in question in the sense that it has been.”

The US Embassy and the leader of Costa Rica’s Congress have conveniently interpreted “the act” to refer to the permission given (which has already occurred), rather than the arrival of ships. This means, then, that the arrival of the ships will not be delayed by the Supreme Court’s agreement to hear the case, and will not be stopped unless it rules the permission unconstitutional. Costa Rica’s United Social Christian Party has led the charge against the military presence, and says that each ship should be approved individually. It insists that the current permission does not comply with Article 12 of the Costa Rican constitution, which states that military forces can only be formed for national defense or through continental agreement and must always be under civilian control.

Despite this challenge, the first US amphibious assault ship is scheduled to dock in Costa Rica on August 20 as part of Operation Continuing Promise 2010. Although the permission was largely granted as way of receiving support for the so-called War on Drugs, this ship will be sent as a “humanitarian mission.” Resembling a small aircraft carrier, the ship will transport 10 helicopters, two utility landing craft, and a crew of approximately 1,600 personnel. According to one report, it will include 1,000 troops, 500 infantry marines, 150 doctors, 50 engineers and 100 volunteers. The “humanitarian mission” will have the ship’s team performing surgeries, seeing patients, delivering supplies and apparently even giving out stuffed animals. Unarmed marines will also be training Costa Rican police in emergency first response.

This US military presence has not only been challenged by multiple political parties, but has also generated a strong response at the grassroots level. Due to Costa Rica’s pacifist tradition, (the country officially abolished its own military in 1949) many have not taken well to the idea of a foreign military presence. Protests, concerts and a full on advertising campaign against US military presence have been launched by the grassroots. President Laura Chinchilla even thought the controversy hot enough to come forth claiming that the country “will not permit the militarization of the drug war.” She draws this fine line by claiming that, although the US will be allowed to send warships, they will be under police or coast guard control, rather than direct military control.

First, most of the ships that will dock and resupply in Costa Rica will not be on humanitarian missions. They will likely be part of the 4th Naval Fleet, which President Bush reactivated in 2008 after 58 years of dormancy. The fleet’s purpose is to project a US naval presence throughout the Caribbean and South American waters. They will also likely be part of the militarization of the Drug War, which clearly correlates with increased violence against civilian populations. Second, the “humanitarian mission” is literally a page straight out of the Pentagon’s counter-insurgency playbook, developed for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and clearly documented in a recent counter-insurgency manual

The “Drug War” has truly begun to resemble a war in the countries where it is most hard fought. In Mexico, bilateral US-Mexican efforts to fight narco-trafficking
have resulted in a virtual blood bath along its Northern border. Since 2006, 28,000 people have died due to drug related violence in Mexico. In Colombia, US “aid” has helped to fund a painfully long civil war and has resulted in serious human rights violations within the country. Moreover, whenever cultivation and trafficking are reduced in one area, neighboring countries such as Peru simultaneously experience a rise in the production of narcotics, specifically cocaine. This is referred to as the “balloon theory,” which illustrates that as one country’s market is squeezed, production is merely pushed elsewhere. Taking into account the constant flow of narcotics into the US and the surge of violence in producer countries, it would be better to launch a Treatment-of-Addicts-and-Cut-Off-of-Demand-War, but that is certainly not as catchy. In the meantime, however, Costa Rica is being drafted into an increasingly bloody war that seems to do little more than fuel internal violence and unrest.

The choice to send a humanitarian mission to Costa Rica first is either a stroke of political brilliance, or very lucky timing for supporters of the permission. Unfortunately, it represents another case in which the US blurs the role of the military, conflating the warrior function with that of humanitarian aid worker. Besides raising the obvious question of the military’s ability to act as a humanitarian force and evoking concern that other aid workers lives will be endangered if their work is seen as part of the US military effort, this type of operation also raises a question of intent.

From Afghanistan to Colombia the US military has taken this new approach to counterinsurgency, pairing war with aid. This approach to counter-insurgency explicitly titles and intentionally pursues an approach that various bureaucracies had pursued as disconnected units in the past, concentrating their efforts into an overarching mission. In 2009, the US Interagency Counter Insurgency Initiative released the “Counter Insurgency Guide”, detailing the realization that, “Counterinsurgency places great demands on the ability of bureaucracies to work together, with allies, and increasingly, with nongovernmental organizations.” Moreover, the report states that “Counterinsurgency (COIN) is the blend of comprehensive civilian and military efforts designed to simultaneously contain insurgency and address its root causes. Unlike conventional warfare, non-military means are often the most effective elements, with military forces playing an enabling role.”

Thus, the commonly accepted theory amongst US officials now notes that the application of hard military power is no longer suitable to fit their goals. Now, it is understood that aid must be incorporated to reach the military objective. The military enters an area and tries to rid it of resistance forces. This is quickly followed by military and aid agencies’ projects to “win hearts and minds.” Eventually, the military is supposed to be able to leave as the population no longer supports insurgents, or so the theory goes.