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Beyond “Soldiers as Police”: The Military’s Growing Role in 21st Century Latin American Democracies


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Moynihan Institute of Global Affairs

Program on Latin America and the Caribbean presents 

Beyond “Soldiers as Police”: The Military’s Growing Role in 21st Century Latin American Democracies

Forty years ago, most of Latin America began historic transitions away from military dictatorship. Even before the pandemic, though, these transitions were stalling out, as civilian presidents ceded space to the armed forces, especially on policing. More recently, the region’s armed forces are playing deeper, often more political roles than we’ve seen in a generation—from stopping migrants to controlling crowds to attending populist leaders’ rallies. The trend is especially pronounced in Mexico under the López Obrador government. While these trends probably don’t portend a new ‘dark age’ of military rule, they probably point to limited democracy, with officers keeping civilian leaders on tight leashes. Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America presents these concerns and the course changes needed to build more effective, democratically managed security sectors. 

Hosted by:

Gladys McCormick 
Jay and Debe Moskowitz Endowed Chair in Mexico-US Relations
Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion for the Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs


Adam Isacson

Director for Defense Oversight

WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas 


Adam Isacson has worked on defense, security, and peacebuilding in Latin America since 1994. He now directs WOLA’s Defense Oversight program, which monitors U.S. cooperation with Latin America’s security forces, as well as other security trends. Isacson accompanies WOLA’s Colombia program on peace and security issues. This country has been a central focus for Isacson’s Defense Oversight work, as Colombia has been the primary recipient of U.S. security assistance in the Western Hemisphere since the early 1990s. Monitoring U.S. aid, and advocating for peaceful resolution to Colombia’s long armed conflict, has led him to visit Colombia about 80 times. He has done work in 24 of the country’s 32 departments. Since 2011, Isacson has also focused on border security. He has visited the U.S.-Mexico border about 25 times, and has also completed field research along nearly the entire border between Mexico and Guatemala. Before coming to WOLA in 2010, Isacson worked on Latin America demilitarization at the Center for International Policy (CIP). There, he joined with Latin America Working Group and WOLA in creating a longstanding project that monitors U.S. military assistance to the region. With contributions from WOLA, that project continues at CIP, covering the whole world, as the Security Assistance Monitor. A prolific writer and coder, Isacson has produced over 250 publications, articles, book chapters, and policy memos over the course of his career. He has created several websites, from blogs to standalone web apps. He hosts WOLA’s podcast, Latin America Today. He speaks to about 30 audiences per year, from universities to grassroots gatherings to government agencies. He has testified eight times before the U.S. Congress. At the start of his career, in the mid-1990s, Isacson worked on the Central America Demilitarization Program at the Arias Foundation for Peace and Human Progress in Costa Rica. Isacson holds an M.A. in International Relations from Yale University and a B.A. from Hampshire College.

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