Javier Milei's Security and Defense Policies

In the security and defense spheres, the extreme right-wing government of Argentine President Javier Milei has taken repressive and right-infringing measures during its first two months, which have generated social rejection. Meanwhile, he is trying to get the armed forces to assume functions that do not correspond to them.

By Sabina Frederic

English translation by Yenni Castro (Valestra Editorial)

President Javier Milei delegated Patricia Bullrich, the presidential candidate who obtained third place in the general elections of October 2023, as Minister of Security. At the same time, he appointed Luis Petri, his running mate, as Minister of Defense. The political prominence of the minister Bullrich, who served during the presidency of Mauricio Macri (2015-2019), places security at the top of the public agenda. And now, adding under her mandate the National Agency of Controlled Materials [Agencia Nacional de Materiales Controlados], which regulates the acquisition and use of weapons and explosives; and the Federal Penitentiary Service, which holds 10% of the prison population.

The first measures taken by Bullrich in her new position have been highly controversial: repressive actions targeting the protests against the government's inflationary measures, with frozen savings and salaries, and retrogressive in terms of rights. The minister resumed her discourse of order, identified the disorder as the public road blockades or “pickets,” and applied her well-known phrase “what goes around comes around.” She thus justified annulling the approach towards the protests used in the last twenty years, a period in which special police corps without the use of lethal weapons, along with political officials, restrained the conflict.

The approval of her “anti-picketing protocol” was denounced by Human Rights organizations before the local justice system, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, and the special rapporteurs of the United Nations for attempting to prohibit the fundamental right to freedom of peaceful expression. Such protocol included the outrageous measure of trying to charge the cost of the police operations to the convoking organizations. During the first three large demonstrations, the protocol showed its relative unfeasibility. There were partial and total blockades of public roads that the protocol prohibited, yet there were no repressive actions. Instead, the repression of the peaceful protests against Milei's refoundational bill “Bases and Starting Points for the Freedom of Argentineans” while it was being debated in the National Congress, was brutal. The three rounds of repression left 285 victims with injuries of varying severity, including 35 social communicators.

When that bill fell, the modification introduced by Bullrich to the legitimate defense described in the Penal Code in favor of the police failed. To retaliate, she repealed the resolution of the previous government that in 2019 rescinded about a dozen pseudo-legal measures dictated in her earlier administration, among which was the authorization for the federal forces to shoot without an imminent threat to life, against the mandate of the aforementioned Code.

The Plan Bandera

On the other hand, she launched the Plan Bandera in Rosario “for the prevention of crime and combating the commercialization of narcotics.” That city has the highest homicide rate in the country and has been dragging since 2017 an upward trend that runs contrary to the downward trend occurring in Argentina since 2014. The Plan led to the announcement of a concentration of federal forces in the “no-go neighborhoods” and the implementation of “prison intelligence due to the high participation of high-profile inmates in the commission of crimes.” Nothing that has not been done before.

Bullrich has also pointed to the showmanship used in an operation against an alleged “terrorist cell” consisting of three men who turned out to be a table tennis coach, a hairdresser, and an alleged Spanish mercenary. They were released two weeks after the arrest due to lack of evidence. The Minister's statements at the time were as follows: “Intelligence information was obtained from a combination of elements from both the United States and Israel and from a member of the Gendarmerie who has been trained in anti-terrorism by his Colombian counterparts.” By then, the Pan American Maccabi Games were taking place and the operation, although groundless, allowed the ratification of the alignment with Israel and the United States.

The “new threats”

In contrast, the Defense policy generated more expectations of radical change within the Armed Forces than what actually happened. The first decision that altered those expectations was to remove Vice President Victoria Villaruel, daughter and granddaughter of military officers, a militant of the vindication of the military action during the State terrorism (1976-1983) from her control of the sector that during the campaign she claimed as her own. The appointment of Bullrich's vice-presidential candidate as Minister of Defense indicated who would have an impact, although there are other influential actors in the presidential cabinet.

Since 1987, it has been a post-authoritarian state policy that the areas of security and defense were consolidated in a differentiated manner so that the military would not act again in internal security, nor would the police be subordinated to the armed forces. Therefore, it is suspected that the subordination of Minister Petri to Minister Bullrich may at some point affect such division and that the doctrine of “new threats” may flood the Defense policy.

The military is known to be reluctant to intervene in the fight against drug trafficking. So far, there has been one joint press conference of both ministers (January 19) where it was mentioned the collaboration of the Air Force in the eviction of the family of José Adolfo “Fito” Macías, leader of the criminal gang “Los Choneros,” who escaped from an Ecuadorian prison ten days before; family without any criminal cause. Strictly speaking, this type of collaboration has been occurring and is authorized by the legislation in force to provide logistical support to the police.

Meanwhile, decisions that did not go in the expected direction have caused some confusion, given the fact that this is a pro-military government. This was the case with the appointment of the Army Chief of Staff, General Carlos Alberto Presti, which meant the retirement of 22 of the 55 generals, the most considerable downsizing of the military leadership in the history of democracy. The action generated uneasiness among the military and was interpreted in three different ways: a budget cut, an interest in an officer with no ties to the previous government, or a miscalculation due to the lack of expertise of the new authorities.

Coming from the military ranks, the latter is accurate considering that many of the retirees were placed in the Joint Chiefs of Staff. It also happened due to the contrast between a discourse of valorization of the military and the frozen process of salary equalization with the federal security forces, initiated in 2022. In agreement with the expectations of analysts in favor of the democratization of defense policies, such as the subordination of the military to political power, the appointment of military retirees to positions at the level of Secretary of State did ratify the “anti-democratic” and pro-military expectation of Milei's government.

Additionally, the defense policy accompanied the foreign policy of President Milei's government when, at the beginning of February, the option to purchase 24 F-16 Fighting Falcon fighter aircrafts from Denmark was announced, which required the endorsement of the United States and which meant canceling the negotiations initiated by the previous government with China for the purchase of the Chinese-Pakistani JF-17 Thunder, Block 3 aircrafts. This gesture was highlighted by the political opposition as a ratification of the alignment with the United States that the government has never concealed.

Lastly, considering that the foreign policy and defense policy involve Argentine sovereignty, the Decree of Necessity and Urgency No. 70/2023 announced by Milei on December 20 compromised it by repealing, among 41 laws, the one that limited the purchase of land by natural persons and foreign legal entities; a measure that has been stopped so far by the courts. Something similar happened with the privatizations of the defense sector, with institutions such as Fabricaciones Militares, Shipyard Tandanor, and FADEA (military aircraft factory), which were also included in the unsuccessful bill of refoundational law.

Without refoundational consensus, the libertarian revolution in security and defense fails to advance for now either by providing more effective security or improving the nation-state's defense.

About the Author

Sabina Frederic is a PhD in Social Anthropology; professor and researcher of CONICET at Quilmes National University [UNQ]; president of the Instituto En Foco de Políticas sobre Delito, Seguridad y Violencia.; Minister of Security of the Argentine Nation between 2019 and 2021. She is the author of Las Trampas del Pasado. Las Fuerzas Armadas y su Integración al Estado Democrático en Argentina. Buenos Aires: Fondo de Cultura Económica [FCE], 2013; and La Gendarmería desde Adentro. De Centinelas de la Patria al trabajo en Barrios. Buenos Aires: Siglo XXI, 2020.

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