Metrics of U.S. Militarization in Latin America

Source: Fellowship of Reconciliation

I have been crunching some numbers lately, in an attempt to pull together different forms of U.S. military aid, spending and sales in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The following graphs come from putting together four streams of data, by country and region, from 2000 through 2011 (through 2010 for arms sales):

  • Foreign Operations military and police aid (“Foreign Ops”): This is the foreign aid package that is debated in Congress.
  • Defense Department Section 1004 aid: Military aid directly from the Pentagon, this encompasses the vast majority of Defense Department aid in Latin America, in dollar terms, but is less transparent, even to Congressional appropriators.
  • Pentagon contracts performed in Latin American countries: These contracts are primarily for U.S. military operations in Latin America, not aid.
  • Commercial arms sales: These are facilitated directly by the United States, or simply licensed to commercial vendors by the State Department.

Looking at these aggregated measurements for specific countries, some conclusions or hypotheses suggest themselves. In the region as a whole, although both military aid and arms sales have declined somewhat since 2009, when the Obama administration began constructing budgets, Pentagon contracts have increased substantially, nearly counteracting the decline. Arms sales represent about as much, in dollar terms, as Foreign Ops aid, Section 1004 aid, and DOD contracts in the entire region combined.

Click on the graphs to see them expanded.

As U.S. military aid in Colombia has declined – first after Democrats won the House in 2006, then more gradually in the last two years – arms sales have tended to increase. This suggests that Colombia is assuming more financial responsibility, but that militarization with U.S. weapons is unabated.

The amount of U.S. arms sales to Mexico in 2008-2010 is extraordinary, representing about 40% of sales to the region in those years. This is especially remarkable, given the historically high levels of arms sales to South American nations such as Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and Chile. Much of these sales was for aircraft and parts, military electronics, satellites, and firearms.


In Honduras, on the other hand, Pentagon contracts overwhelm the amount spent on both military aid and arms purchases, reflecting the lopsided military relationship between Honduras and the United States, and the level of activity on U.S. bases in Honduras.

In the Caribbean, if arms sales are not included, combined U.S. military aid and contracts have steadily and somewhat dramatically increased through 2011. Some of this is due to increased spending in the Bahamas on the Atlantic Underwater test facility, as well as high DOD spending at the Guantanamo Naval Station in Cuba, earthquake response operations in Haiti, and Puerto Rico. Though minimal compared to other regions, arms sales to the Caribbean have more than quadrupled since 2003.

An increasing amount of military aid, administered by both the Pentagon and the State Department, does not specify the country of its destination – over $300 million a year in the last two years -, although much of it is pegged to a sub-region. To the extent that activists and analysts rely on this data to track US policy and aid to specific countries, this becomes increasingly problematic.

These calculations are an attempt to better understand what’s occurring, and perhaps pose some new questions, but several caveats are in order. The U.S. government exercises different levels of control over military aid and commercial arms sales, for example, so the metric includes U.S.-sanctioned private means of militarization. Deliveries of arms and execution of contracts may lag behind the dates when they’re approved or signed. Although most DOD contracts seem to be more for U.S. operations than for assistance, there is likely some overlap between some DOD

On the other hand, there are expensive U.S. military operations – such as naval deployments from U.S. ports to Latin America – that are not recorded as being performed overseas where the operations are carried out, so the amounts for Pentagon contracts may considerably underestimate the total that DOD is spending on its operations in the region.

Sources: Data on military aid and arms sales was drawn from the Just the Facts web site, which in turn gathers its data primarily from State Department and other federal agency reports. Data on Pentagon contracts carried out in Latin America was compiled by FOR from U.S. government-posted data.