by Kevin Knodell. Kevin Knodell is a freelance writer and photographer who contributes regularly at War is Boring. His work has also appeared in RAGEMAG, Michael Yon’s Frontline Forum, The Tacoma News Tribune, and others. You can follow him on twitter at @KJKnodell.
Last month, the U.S. State Department announced that it would be partnering with the Chilean government through its Global Peace Operations Initiative (GPOI) to fund peacekeeping operations. Chile is home to the Chilean Joint Peacekeeping Operations Center (CECOPAC) in Santiago, which trains Chilean troops and those from neighboring countries in Peacekeeping techniques.
Troops from Central and South American countries have in recent years been heavily active in peacekeeping operations, with Chile and Brazil among the most active participants. They’ve been active in regional operations like the ongoing peacekeeping mission in Haiti, as well as internationally from the Middle East to Africa. Particularly for Brazil, it’s an opportunity to assert itself on the global stage as a rising power.
But they’ve learned that peacekeeping is challenging work. Often, these missions have been mired in vague mandates, unforeseen challenges and controversy. They’ve also often been called to take on missions that fall outside of the traditional parameters of peacekeeping.
Gangs, Floods and Earthquakes in Haiti
In 2004, Haiti’s first democratically elected leader Jean-Bertrand Aristide was ousted by a coup. The country, already plagued by poverty and gang violence was plunged into further chaos. A small force of American, French, Canadian, and Chilean troops landed in the country to restore relative order. They would soon be replaced by a UN force, the United Nations Stabilisation Mission In Haiti, known by its French acronym MINUSTAH.
MINUSTAH would be primarily lead and manned by Brazilian troops, backed up by Argentina, Chile, Jordan, Morocco, Nepal, Peru, the Philippines, Spain, Sri Lanka and Uruguay. At its onset, it was beset by controversy. Aristride has heavily criticized the mission as being part of a conspiracy to suppress his supporters and stomp on the Haitian people’s aspirations. Aristride’s detractors claim that the democratically elected leader had developed despotic tendencies, and had won the 2003 election through fraudulent means. Aristride was previously overthrown in the 1990s, after which the U.S. and U.N. sent troops to help reinstate him as part of Operation Uphold Democracy.
MINUSTAH is the first U.N. peacekeeping operation authorized in the absence of any peace agreement to enforce. Rather, MINUSTAH was tasked more vaguely with combating heavily armed gangs and drug traffickers that had become prevalent in Haiti’s slums. Brazilian troops went into slums armed with more hardware than your average peacekeepers. They had full loads of assault rifles, shotguns, explosives and sidearms.
Some rights groups allege peacekeepers have allowed and even of participated in extra-judicial killings by the Haitian National Police. They’ve also been accused of targeting neighborhoods where support for Aristride is widespread, using gangs and drugs as a pretense for political suppression.
A particularly controversial raid took place in Cité Soleil on July 6, 2005 in which peacekeepers killed Dread Wilme. Depending on who you ask, Wilme was either a ruthless gangster or a committed community leader. Estimates of those killed vary wildly from as low as 5 to as high as 80 depending on the source.
By September 2005, MINUSTAH force commander Lt. Gen. Augusto Heleno Ribeiro Pereira had resigned. “We are under extreme pressure from the international community to use violence,” he told a congressional commission in his home country, citing Canada, France, and the United States. His replacement, Gen. Urano Teixeira da Matta Bacellar was found dead at his hotel on January 7 2006 of apparent suicide. Wikileaks would later reveal that officials from the Dominican Republic suspected that the suicide was actually an assassination masterminded by anti-Aristride activist Guy Phillipe, who believed the Bacellar wasn’t being aggressive enough. Chilean Gen. Eduardo Aldunate, himself accused of complicity in assassinations while serving the Pinochet regime, acted as the interim commander before another Brazilian general was put in charge.
Gangs have been be just one of many adversaries MINUSTAH has come across. Man’s oldest foe, nature, has also proven formidable. Disaster relief and humanitarian assistance have often been a critical mission for peacekeepers. Heavy flooding and hurricanes kept peacekeepers busy during 2008 in particular, as troops and police evacuated people and distributed aid. But perhaps the greatest test was the January 2010 earthquake that rocked the country and killed more than 100,000 people. Several peacekeepers were killed in the earthquake along with MINUSTAH’s political head, seasoned Tunisian diplomat Hédi Annabi, when his office collapsed. The resulting chaos and the humanitarian crisis stretched U.N. troops thin. American troops were temporarily deployed to aid them in relief efforts. After the earthquake, MINUSTAH renewed its mandate, once again inviting mixed reactions as the move was simultaneously welcomed and protested both in Haiti and around the world. MINUSTAH continues to operate and conduct regular patrols. Despite controversy and leadership struggles, gang violence in the capital has decreased significantly. But the aggressive security operations have not been matched by development. Economic growth has been stagnant, and political progress a challenge.
Hunting Rebels in the Congo
Last spring, Brazilian Lt. Gen. Carlos Alberto dos Santos Cruz was appointed the head of The United Nations Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (MONUSCO). He previously served as force commander of MINUSTAH from January 2007-April 2009. South and Central American peacekeepers have already been heavily involved in U.N. operations in the Congo. Bolivia, Brazil, Guatemala, Paraguay, Peru and Uruguay all contribute troops. They’ve been present for some of the most intense fighting peacekeepers in the country have seen, and at times, have been at the fore front of operations. Like MINUSTAH, some of these operations have been aggressive – and controversial.
In 2006, a group of 80 Guatemalan special forces troops launched an operation into eastern Garamba National Park near the border with Sudan in what was officially called a “reconnaissance patrol” afterword. In reality, the operation was a U.N. sanctioned raid to capture or kill Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) deputy commander Vincent Otti.
The raid went badly. LRA defenses were far more organized and alert than intelligence had suggested. A four hour firefight ensued, and the Guatemalans called in attack helicopters for air support. The LRA killed eight Guatemalan commandos, who in turn managed to kill 15 rebels. Otti lived to fight another day.
As details emerged, diplomats were split on the raid. Few bought the cover story about patrol. The large number of special forces troops made it obvious that it was an offensive operation. Some in the U.N. felt that an offensive operation was a dangerous escalation of a fragile situation, and a grossly inappropriate move for the ostensibly neutral world body. Others saw it as a bold and welcome move, arguing that while the LRA continue to operate, they will be nothing but a hinderance to the peace process and a menace to civilians.
“Yes, there will be lots of questions asked about what they (the Guatemalans) were doing. And yes, very few people knew about it,” a U.N. official told Reuters reporters. “But any mission like this needs to be secret for operational security.”
Under Santos Cruz’s leadership, once again under international pressure for results, MONUSOC has continued to be more aggressive. In September, U. N. troops backed the Congolese Army in a major operation against the Rwandan backed M23 rebel group. This aggressive streak has continued, as Cruz regularly travels to the frontline with both peacekeepers and Congolese troops.
As the face of peacekeeping changes, more and more money will be spent on training peacekeepers. They’ll have to learn new techniques, and new strategies. But if the experience of South American peacekeepers in the last decade has shown anything, it’s that peacekeeping is often like any other military operation: violent and unpredictable.