In the weeks since his election, Donald Trump has behaved like a giddy child on Christmas morning, arranging his toy soldiers on the carpet.
All things considered, it’s not too surprising that Trump seems determined to surround himself with generals, his campaign rhetoric questioning the competence of American officers notwithstanding. Military men, after all, are used to serving at the pleasure of the president. They are nothing if not loyal, steadfast; bellicose on the battlefield and compliant in the boardroom.
For a notoriously insecure president-elect who has trouble mustering support even from the upper echelons of his own party, a military man’s allegiance probably strokes all the right muscles.
Come January, Trump will likely find himself ensconced in an inner circle with more ex-military appointees than any presidential cohort in history. There’s James Mattis, the former Marine Corps general and Trump’s pick for defense secretary, famous for saying that shooting Afghanis is “a hell of a lot of fun.” Then there’s retired Army general (and fired Defense Intelligence Agency director) Michael Flynn, a trigger-happy bigot who’s cozy with open racists like Milo Yiannopoulos, and who will soon shape foreign policy as Trump’s national security adviser. Prospective CIA director Mike Pompeo went to West Point. Hell, even Steve Bannon spent seven years as a naval officer.
And now for the latest appointment — retired Marine Corps general and future Homeland Security secretary John Kelly, who until earlier this year headed the notorious United States Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), which oversees US military operations in Central and South America and the Caribbean.
This will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with US involvement in Latin America, but I’ll say it anyway: SOUTHCOM does some really bad things.
From 2011 until last February, the man who will soon sit in the “war on terror’s” front office oversaw a command whose recent misdeeds range from buying overseas sex with military money and circulating slur-filled emails about the commander in chief to sheltering a Chilean war criminal, plotting the Honduran coup, and putting guns in the hands of Colombian death squads.
A Terrorist in Uniform
Last May, Kelly penned an op-ed for the Miami Herald touting the success of Plan Colombia, a program administered primarily by SOUTHCOM that emboldened right-wing paramilitaries and, beginning in 2002, facilitated former president Álvaro Uribe’s genocidal campaign in the Colombian countryside.
It’s difficult to express the scale of the suffering Plan Colombia unleashed. But historian Greg Grandin, writing in the Nation, took a stab at summarizing its apocalyptic effects back in September, when the since-rejected Colombian peace accords seemed a done deal. Throughout the 2000s, by pumping billions of military aid dollars into the Colombian armed forces and its right-wing allies, the US “basically turned the state, including its intelligence apparatus, over to the paramilitaries.”
After Uribe was elected in 2002, the Colombian military — making effective use of American Black Hawk helicopters and other armaments provided by Washington — cleared the path for these paramilitaries to blaze a trail of terror through the rural areas that had once been strongholds of support for Colombia’s guerrilla armies. This scorched-earth campaign pretty well decimated guerrilla organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), but it also had the effect of clearing vast tracts of land, opening them up to seizure by the landed oligarchs and agri-businesses who comprised Uribe’s base.
Today, Colombia is home to seven million internally displaced people — more than any country except Syria — most of them peasant farmers displaced by this paramilitary push into the countryside. With peasants running scared and the land cleared of inhabitants, large landowners have done exceedingly well — between ten and fifteen million hectares of land have changed hands over the course of the conflict, and in 2011 the United Nations reported that just 1.15 percent of the population owns 52 percent of the country’s rural properties.
In the territories they captured, paramilitaries executed and disappeared trade unionists and community organizers with impunity. In the resource-rich Middle Magdalena region, as in regions all over the country, paramilitaries continue to do the landowners’ bidding, silencing dissent with a potent cocktail of spectacular public violence, shadowy assassinations, and wink-and-nudge government complicity.
Back in 2008, in what came to be known as the “false positives” scandal, the Colombian military got caught red-handed gunning down peasants and other civilians, then dressing them up in military garb to inflate their enemy casualty numbers — part of a bid to keep the greenbacks flowing by exaggerating the success of the anti-insurgency campaign to their North American backers.
Eight hundred Colombian military officers have been held responsible for the slow “false positives” massacre, which claimed at least 5,763 lives between 2002 and 2008. But despite clear evidence that this murderous practice was condoned at the highest levels of the military command chain, none of those facing charges are of a higher rank than colonel — good news for people like Juan Manuel Santos (current president, formerly the defense minister during the most prolific period of extrajudicial killings) and Uribe himself (currently an opposition senator and, most recently, a successful anti-peace crusader).
“Colombia deserves our admiration — and our fullest support,” wrote General John Kelly in the Miami Herald just a few years after the world learned about Colombia’s lethal “false positives” scam. “We are fortunate to have a special relationship with a handful of countries around the world,” he continued. “Colombia clearly plays that role in Latin America.”
As commander of SOUTHCOM, Kelly was the man responsible for extending the United States’s “fullest support” to the terrorists in Colombia, a job he clearly took to like a pig in shit. But much of the dirty work had already been done by the time he took charge in 2011.
In addition to providing logistical support, weapons, intelligence services, and god knows what else to Uribe’s military, SOUTHCOM also trained a number of Colombian military officers through its Western Hemispheric Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) — a notorious training school for Latin American military officials, previously known as School of the Americas, which boasts John Kelly as a board member.
According to an authoritative 2014 report on the “false positives” affair, officers who trained at WHINSEC were significantly more likely than other officers to be implicated in extrajudicial killings of civilians and other atrocities. And according to an independent watchdog group, the Colombian army contains more WHINSEC graduates than any other army in Latin America.
According to Kelly, “Colombia has shown us the way.” So it’s no surprise that SOUTHCOM has made a habit of exporting the carnage-creating capacity it demonstrated in Colombia to other countries throughout the region.
In Honduras, for example, SOUTHCOM participated directly in the 2009 coup that ousted Liberal president Manuel Zelaya, providing what one whistleblower describes as “real time coup quarterbacking” from the Washington DC headquarters of its William Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies (CHDS) at the National Defense University.
In many ways, President Zelaya was little more than a middle-of-the-road establishment politician, pulled slightly leftward by the apparently magnetic “left turn” in Latin American politics. Why was CHDS so invested in his ouster? Because Zelaya wanted to convert the Soto Cano Air Base — home to Joint Task Force Bravo, one of SOUTHCOM’s three special operations units — into an airport for civilian use.
Since Zelaya’s undignified ejection from Honduras in 2009, a series of US-supported petty strongmen have governed the country, and the Central American nation has fast become one of the most dangerous countries in the world for political organizers as elite power and wealth have consolidated, much like in Colombia.
Despite clear evidence of police involvement in extrajudicial assassinations, SOUTHCOM continues to facilitate the expansion and militarization of the Honduran national police force — part of a larger strategy of maintaining US control over the so-called “Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle” of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
No Friend of Immigrants
Why hasn’t Kelly’s appointment been met with more outrage? Maybe it’s because US imperialism in Latin America is so taken for granted that even SOUTHCOM’s most despicable forays into the region are easily shrugged off in Washington. Deposing democratically elected leaders and facilitating the mass murder of peasant activists is par for the course when it comes to US foreign policy in Latin America. You’ve got to do a lot worse than SOUTHCOM to offend Beltway sensibilities.
Take Republican strategist and firm never-Trumper Ana Navarro. She’s been quick to praise Kelly’s appointment, taking a break from blasting the president-elect’s planned immigration policies to tweet, “I admire Gen. Kelly. Inclusive leader. Knows brown, black, and white all bleed the same.” (I’ll bet he does, having seen the blood of so many Colombians and Hondurans staining his own hands.)
This isn’t the only time Navarro has praised General Kelly. In addition to the favorable comments about the former SOUTHCOM commander cluttering her twitter timeline, she also invoked his name — and the fact that his son, a Marine colonel, was killed in combat in Afghanistan — in her Election Day column explaining her choice not to vote for Trump. Apparently the two of them go way back.
It’s common knowledge that Navarro is a Contra — as a first-year law student in Miami, she raised money for right-wing terrorists in her birth country of Nicaragua. A few years later, she helped draft the 1997 Nicaraguan Adjustment and Central American Relief Act (NACARA), which enabled thousands of migrants from Central America to remain in the United States, but established a deadly double standard — Nicaraguans and Cubans, who were fleeing leftist governments the United States was actively trying to destabilize, had an easier time avoiding deportation than Salvadorans and Guatemalans, whose governments had the unflinching backing of the United States, no matter how many atrocities they committed.
More recently, Navarro has positioned herself as a hardline defender of those undocumented immigrants protected by Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which Trump has vowed to rescind.
This is certainly a laudable cause — undocumented youth need all the support they can get as they prepare to face Trump’s anti-immigrant assault.
But you can’t have it both ways. You can’t hold off Trump’s army of border hawks with one hand while using the other to endorse a Homeland Security secretary whose gunplay in Latin America helped produce the very conditions at the root the current migrant crisis. And you certainly can’t claim to have undocumented people’s best interests at heart while celebrating a man like Kelly, whose hysterical warnings about terrorists streaming over the United States’s southern border only provide a pseudo-intellectual smokescreen for Trump’s nakedly racist calls to build the wall.
SOUTHCOM’s Northern Triangle strategy — by all accounts a spectacular failure — was intended to reduce migration into the United States by strengthening law enforcement in Central American countries. Instead, it pushed Honduras even deeper into a seemingly intractable cycle of repression, impunity, and displacement, and did next to nothing to halt ongoing land grabs in Guatemala, a major driver of displacement and emigration. And as a result of Uribe’s US-supported melee in Colombia, close to a million Colombian refugees now live in the United States, according to a 2015 report from the Rockefeller Foundation-Aspen Institute Diaspora Program.
Plugging up the United States’s southern border will do nothing to meaningfully address the problems at the root of the current migrant crisis. It will do nothing to make the tens of thousands of children who brave exposure, kidnapping, and arrest each year on the long journey from Central America to the United States any safer. All it will do is further legitimate the xenophobic anxieties Obama tried to appease with his own aggressive deportation policy, and that have now bubbled to the rancid surface of American popular discourse thanks to Trump and his cohort of bigots and hawks.
We can’t defend immigrants at home without also considering those endangered and displaced by US foreign policy abroad. If nothing else, seeing John Kelly in the role of Homeland Security secretary should remind us just how connected the struggles against imperialism and xenophobia have always been.