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The Law That Helps the U.S. Stop Heinous Crimes by Foreign Militaries

An increasingly well-known U.S. human rights law barring American military assistance to foreign security forces that commit crimes like murder, kidnapping, rape, and torture has played an important role in encouraging Central and South American countries to crack down on these crimes.

The Leahy Law, named after Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vermont) and approved by Congress in the late 1990s, isn’t designed just to penalize a country. It provides an incentive to foreign military and police to clean up dirty units and seek justice for victims of heinous crimes. If the recipient government takes “effective steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice,” the U.S. government can resume assistance to that unit. If no justice occurs, aid to that unit cannot resume.

Foreign governments are apt to comply with the Leahy Law because the United States is the world’s most sought-after military trainer and arms supplier. 

For the Leahy Law to be effective, however, awareness and active participation by local human rights organizations is required. That’s why the Latin America Working Group Education Fund and the Center for International Policy have published a concise, easy-to-use guide to help human rights activists around the globe (as U.S. military assistance is global). For Latin American activists, the guide is available in Spanish.

The guide explains how to report a Leahy Law violation, what kind of evidence is needed, how to verify whether a unit has received U.S. training or funding, and how the law’s implementation has recently been improved. Additional resources on U.S. military aid can be found at Security Assistance Monitor. This project is designed to enhance civil society’s role in exposing human rights violations.

The Leahy Law has had some noteworthy successes. In the past decade, citizens in several Central and South American countries have seen their governments bring perpetrators to justice in order to receive U.S. security assistance. Much more, of course, must be done to bring these security forces fully in compliance with human rights standards.

In 2012, in Honduras, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla was promoted to national director of police. But several human rights organizations produced evidence that Bonilla had ordered extrajudicial killings a decade ago in San Pedro Sula. Meanwhile, news articles in the United States revealed that units under Bonilla’s command were receiving U.S. assistance. In 2013, a year after taking command, Bonilla resigned under pressure, fearing that the U.S. would be forced to cut off all security assistance to the Honduran police.

In 2011, a Guatemalan court convicted four members of the Kabiles, an elite special forces unit in the Guatemalan army, of killing more than 200 civilians in the Dos Erres massacre in 1982. Each man was sentenced to 6,050 years in prison. Their convictions for their roles in the massacre nearly 30 years prior, in which army soldiers killed more than 200 men, women, and children, would not have happened if not for the courage of victims of violence and Guatemala’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz.

After the convictions of the Dos Erres four, based on a Guatemalan government’s commitment to reorganize its special forces units, the U.S. Department of Defense resumed military aid.

Finally, the Leahy Law played a part in helping to halt thousands of extrajudicial executions by the Colombian army. Largely between 2004 and 2008, Colombian soldiers killed more than 4,000 poor young men and dressed them in guerrilla uniforms to claim monetary bonuses and other perks for “combat kills.”

Human rights activists provided key information about this practice, which led the United States to bar specific Colombian Army individuals and units from receiving U.S. training and assistance. In addition, human rights groups provided information to the U.S. Congress about how these killings violated country-specific human rights conditions on all U.S. security assistance to Colombia. That information led Sen. Leahy to freeze some U.S. military aid from going to Colombia’s military. The U.S. government—along with the United Nations, Colombian human rights activists, media, and the valiant leadership of the victims’ mothers—brought diplomatic pressure to bear on Colombia to encourage prosecutions in civilian courts. 

The Leahy Law is only one instrument—and a limited one—that can be used to promote justice and curb security force violations. But many foreign military units still receive U.S. training and assistance despite their commission of human rights crimes. The proactive, organized work of human rights groups in countries whose security forces receive substantial U.S. aid, ideally working in concert with U.S.-based organizations, is essential to realize the law’s potential. 

The Latin America Working Group Education Fund is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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