Bloomberg Línea — In the face of the security challenges faced by Central America’s so-called ‘northern triangle’, comprising El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the US Department of Defense (DOD) has provided equipment, including vehicles and night vision goggles, and other support to the three countries to assist them.
Between fiscal years 2017 and 2021, the Departments of Defense and State provided more than $66 million in assistance to the northern triangle, according to a report released Wednesday. However, an investigation by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) alleges that some equipment has been used improperly.
For example, from August 2018 through October 2021, according to Guatemalan government officials, Jeeps provided by the DOD were allegedly used for purposes other than their intended purpose, and in one instance they were allegedly used to intimidate US embassy staff.
However, neither the DOD nor the State Department recorded many of the allegations because they do not have policies defining how to do so and, as a result, the agencies were unable to determine whether patterns of alleged misuse potentially existed.
In addition, the DOD does not have policies for investigating the alleged misuse of equipment provided, and may not be addressing allegations of misuse effectively, the report says.
Other GAO findings
The DOD, through its Golden Sentry program, has determined that defense equipment or services transferred by the US government to foreign recipients are being used in accordance with the terms and conditions of the transfer agreement or other applicable agreement.
However, the GAO determined that the DOD has not maintained accurate data on which sensitive equipment was subject to more rigorous end-use monitoring., and without accurate data on the equipment and the type of required monitoring, the DOD cannot account for the equipment provided, the study notes.
For certain defense articles and services, federal law requires that, to a feasible extent, there be an end-use monitoring program that provides reasonable assurances that recipients will use such equipment and services for the purposes provided.
However, DOD officials told GAO that the Golden Sentry program is not designed to verify how recipients use the equipment. Instead, according to DOD officials, the program is designed to verify that the recipient has maintained the equipment in its custody and has implemented the required physical security protections.
DOD officials say they rely primarily on third-party reports to uncover instances of misuse, but officials had not considered investigating the allegations in third-party reports that GAO found. And because the DOD did not design its program to uncover possible instances of misuse, it may not be able to provide reasonable assurances that recipients used the equipment only for authorized purposes.
A high-profile case in Guatemala
In 2019, during the Jimmy Morales administration, a spokesperson for the US embassy in Guatemala confirmed that the DOD had ceased the transfer of equipment and training to the task forces due to the misuse of J8 jeeps.
The decision came after the government of Guatemala ordered on August 31, 2018 that the artillery vehicles donated by the US make a tour of the streets of the capital, which among other sectors included the headquarters of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), in zone 14, and the US embassy.
That same day, Morales announced, surrounded by military officials, that he would not renew the mandate of the CICIG.
For their part, Congress members Norma Torres and Eliot Engel began using the hashtag #ReturnTheJeeps to pressure the US government to accept the return of the J8 jeeps.
Purpose of the GAO report
Section 1336 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2022 includes a provision for GAO to evaluate DOD’s end-use monitoring procedures regarding the misuse of equipment in the northern triangle countries.
This report examines the extent to which the actions the DOD and the State Department took to address alleged misuse were aligned with relevant procedures and guidance, as well as how and to what level the DOD monitored the use of equipment, and the extent to which this monitoring ensures that recipients are using equipment for its intended purposes.
GAO analyzed DOD and State Department documents regarding their response to alleged incidents of misuse and data on monitoring conducted by DOD in the northern triangle, and also interviewed agency officials.
“GAO is making five recommendations, including that DOD and the State Department improve their policies for recording allegations and that DOD improves policies to maintain accurate equipment data,” the report states.
“The Department of State agreed with its recommendation. DOD disagreed with two recommendations, stating that existing guidance is sufficient. GAO maintains that additional guidance is necessary to ensure DOD records allegations and has accurate data.”
The five recommendations made by the GAO are:
- The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency develops policies outlining how to record and track alleged incidents of misuse of U.S.-provided equipment.
- The Secretary of Defense should ensure that the Director of the Defense Security Cooperation Agency, in consultation with State’s Bureau of Political-Military Affairs, develops policies for investigating allegations of misuse for DOD-provided equipment not covered by the Golden Sentry program.
- The Secretary of Defense should update the Golden Sentry program’s guidance to specify who is responsible for verifying that the data in the Security Cooperation Information Portal accurately identifies the equipment subject to enhanced end-use monitoring.
- The Secretary of Defense, in consultation with the Secretary of State, should evaluate DOD’s Golden Sentry program to identify whether the program provides reasonable assurance, to the extent practicable, that DOD-provided equipment is only used for its intended purpose and develop a plan to address any deficiencies identified in the evaluation.
- The Secretary of State should ensure that the guidance the Bureau of Political-Military Affairs is developing for its internal end-use violations tracking document outlines how to record and track alleged incidents of misuse of U.S.-provided equipment.