Human Terrain in Oaxaca

This essay was originally published Jun 5, 2009, at Savage Minds. Due to a server problem, Savage Minds’ archives are currently down, so I’m reposting this here.

Mexico - troops in Calle de Revilladigego [i.e...

Mexico – troops in Calle de Revilladigego [i.e. Revillagigedo] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

For the past several years, my research has led me further and further into the world of counterinsurgency, military anthropology, human terrain, and other aspects of a military regime of knowledge. What concerns me, most of all, is the way that knowledge generated by social scientists can be used (and, if the past is any indication, will be used) to the disadvantage of the people on, from, and with whom anthropologists and other social scientists generate that knowledge.

This issue is hardly limited to anthropologists, though we have traditionally held a kind of loose monopoly on the world’s most vulnerable peoples. Nowadays, social scientists of every stripe traipse through the same terrain anthropologists once considered their own – and we, of course, have no problem returning the favor.

So when a friend forwarded me a story about geographers in Oaxaca mapping the “cultural terrain”, my disciplinary ears perked up. At issue are many of the same issues at play in debates over anthropologists’ and others’ involvement with HTS in Iraq and Afghanistan, although in many ways I find the situation I’m about to describe more frightening still, as it presages wars or conflicts as yet unfought – even counterinsurgencies to insurgencies yet to surge.

México Indigena and Mexican Indigenes

From 2005-2007, a team of geographers led by Jerome Dobson and Peter Herlihy of the University of Kansas worked with local trainees to map land ownership and claims on collective lands in indigenous communities in Oaxaca and San Luis Potosi. Called “México Indigena” and partially funded by the US Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office (FMSO), the project was a pilot program for the American Geographic Society’s Bowman Expeditions, which intends to create maps of the “cultural terrain” of poor and indigenous communities throughout the world.

Dobson’s project seems on its surface like a straightforward exercise in cultural geography. Working with a local university, México Indigena trained members of local communities to collect GIS data throughout their communities, with particular emphasis on defining privately- and communally-held lands. This data is useful for communities wishing to document their holdings, as well as to researchers interested in studying the impact of Mexico’s PROCEDE program, which shifts public and communal lands into private hands. México Indigena is committed to producing “open source” data that can be used freely by the communities they study (a concept worth revisiting, as “open source” neatly cuts across both the Open Source software movement on one hand and the Open Source intelligence movement on the other).

What makes México Indigena troubling is the involvement of FMSO. Headquartered at the Leavenworth Army Base, FMSO is explicitly concerned with counterinsurgency and “asymmetric” warfare. According to its website, its mission is to provide analysis and data on “emerging and asymmetric threats, regional military and security developments, and other issues that define evolving operational environments around the world”. There is some question about FMSO’s relationship with the Army’s Human Terrain Studies (HTS) program—the relationship is close enough that several sources have claimed HTS is part of FMSO (e.g. Mychalejko 2009), where the program apparently originated before being transferred to another office of the Army.

Whatever the relationship, FMSO is directly involved in the development of human terrain as a military paradigm. Which is why Dobson approached FMSO’s IberoAmerican researcher, Lt. Col. Geoffrey B. Demarest, requesting a half-million dollars in funding for México Indigena —part of a hoped-for $125 million for Bowman Expeditions’ proposed worldwide human terrain mapping. In his proposal, Dobson justified his project by explicitly citing their usefulness for state ends, particularly military action:

The greatest shortfall in foreign intelligence facing the nation is precisely the kind of understanding that geographers gain through field experience, and there’s no reason that it has to be classified information… The best and cheapest way the government could get most of this intelligence would be to fund AGS to run a foreign fieldwork grant program covering every nation on earth (Dobson, in Mychalejko and Ryan 2009).

For Lt. Col. Demarest, this kind of research is highly desirable. Demarest is the author of several papers and a book, Geoproperty: Foreign Affairs, National Security, and Property Rights (1998), on the importance of private property as part of a democratic system and privatization as a tool for incorporating communities into the global market and for defending national security, with a special focus on Latin America. The gist of Demarest’s work is that:

[I]nformal property ownership in either rural or urban settings is the breeding ground for criminal or insurrectionary activity…. He specifically cites concerns about the criminality of large areas of the dispossessed, as they become separately governed autonomous zones….

Demarest asserts that the privatization of property is the key to stability, prosperity, progress, and security in Latin America, and that formal land titling leads to effective government control [and] existing property of real value must be made secure… through a phenomenon he describes as the “architecture of control” (Sedillo 2009).

As if that weren’t troubling enough—and somewhat at odds with the stated goals of Dobson and Herlihy, to explore the implications of privatization in indigenous communities—there is the question of FMSO’s official interest in the Oaxaca region of Mexico. What is the operational function of this kind of data, and why would the US Army pay so richly for it?

Pre-emptive counterinsurgency

FMSO’s interest in Oaxaca makes more sense in the context of the Merida Initiative, or as critics call it, “Plan Mexico”, after its similarities with the US government’s disastrous Plan Colombia. Merida is a program of long-term military support for Mexico to help stem the production and transfer of illegal drugs in and through Mexico.

Overlapping as it did with the 2006 uprising and seizure of the city of Oaxaca by the Oaxacan People’s Popular Assembly (APPO) and its seven-month occupation as the Oaxaca Commune, the collection of human terrain data on behalf of the US Army has particularly sinister overtones. Demarest’s two interests—democratization through privatization and suppression of insurgency through culturally-informed military action—seem to come together all too nicely in Oaxaca, which is why I’ve started to think of this as a program of pre-emptive counterinsurgency, combining two of the darkest aspects of the Bush-era military: pre-emptive warfare and human terrain-based counterinsurgency.

México Indigena raises hard questions about the relationship between the military and the social sciences, and about the uses of cultural knowledge. Communities in Oaxaca have complained that the project’s members never made clear that their research was funded by the US military, which has raised concerns over what local activists have termed “geopiracy”—given Demarest’s thoughts on communal property, the idea that the collection of GIS data in this region, collated with communal property holdings, could be used to sustain a large-scale appropriation of land by the Mexican state and apportionment to private interests—likely corporate interests—does not seem so far-fetched.

Neither does the fear that this data would be used as part of counterinsurgency efforts to undermine local radical leadership and prevent the kind of wide-scale organizing Mexico has fought in neighboring Chiapas. Under the guise of the War on Drugs, local political opponents of the Mexican state could well find themselves branded “insurgents” and targeted by a military force—one the Mexican government has not been at all averse to using in place of regular police—informed by up-to-date GIS data. The rising drug production and trafficking in Oaxaca, as well as the recent drug-related violence across the US-Mexico border, make this all the more troubling – especially when coupled with the notion that communal and informal land tenure fosters “criminal and insurrectionary” behavior.

Dobson’s argument that the data collected is available to everyone, including the local communities, rings somewhat hollow, especially the use of the phrase “open source” to describe the project. As an advocate of scientific transparency and open access to cultural data, I find myself highly conflicted by the use of the phrase “open source” to describe research funded by the FMSO, which houses the Army’s Open Source Intelligence (OSINT) training program. According to FMSO’s training document (,

In addition to offering alternative sources to validate or challenge classified sources, OSINT can provide essential foundation knowledge for operational and decision-making requirements. This can include historical background, political developments, socioeconomic and demographic context, cultural insight, geographic, and technical and critical infrastructure data. OSINT can be used to monitor foreign events and perspectives. OSINT is also particularly useful for independent application in the training environment, to include “red cell” studies and threat analysis. OSINT proffers the widest dissemination capability of any intelligence discipline while generating the least political risk, benefiting inter-agency and international cooperative efforts.

Taking sides

Of course, many will say that if this information is available, there’s nothing that will stop the military from using it, and I agree with that. What concerns me here is not the military using this information so much as the military commissioning and funding the collection of this information—and future plans to collect much, much more. Already Bowman Expeditions have begun a similar mapping program in the Antilles, with a third project planned (and possibly already underway) in Colombia (Dobson 2009). We have to ask not only what this data will be used for—a consideration that does not seem to have been impressed nearly adequately enough on the people of Oaxaca—but how those goals shape the data, both in what is recorded and what is not.

More importantly, we have to ask about the moral and practical effects of social scientists actively working to provide information intended to better equip the US military for warfare in the regions they study. While I have been somewhat skeptical of arguments about “blowback” endangering anthropologists in the field, programs like México Indigena make it quite hard to dismiss the likelihood that future American researchers will be taken for agents of the US military. More importantly, in equipping governments not only for war against our research subjects but to conduct assimilative projects aimed to “democratize” indigenous peoples by targeting communal landownership and other collective behaviors, we violate a primary ethical tenet, to do what is in our power to assure that our research does not harm the people we have studied.

As an internal disciplinary matter, there is already an uproar among geographers and an investigation into the matter of compliance with a code of ethics that’s not to different from anthropologists’. Like us, geographers worry about informed consent – and reports of information about US Army funding being withheld from Oaxacan communities suggest that the “informed” part my have been paid less than it’s due in this case. But whatever move(s) geographers take or don’t take, this use of social science, whatever its disciplinary origins, raises a lot of uncomfortable questions for all of us.

Among them – first among them, I would think – is how complicit social scientists want to be if and when this kind of data is applied in a military setting, whether by our own military in the context of a counterinsurgency or the great American umbrella of the War on Drugs (apparently due for rebranding by the Obama administration), or by other governments in partnership with ours? This is not a question of personal moral choice – how can it be? It’s also not a question of “defrocking” social scientists “gone bad” – this is a question of overall disciplinary direction and, ultimately, of our commitment not just to our own research but to the people who make it possible. Where – and how – do we draw the line where that commitment becomes irrelevant?

Work Cited

Dobson, Jerome. 2009. AGS Bowman Expeditions. American Geographical Society Website. URL: (last accessed 4/19/09).

Mychalejko,Cyril and Ramor Ryan. 2009. U.S. Military Funded Mapping Project in Oaxaca: Geographers used to gather intelligence? Z Magazine 22(4). URL: (last accessed 4/19/09).

Sedillo, Simon. 2009. The Demarest Factor: The Ethics of U.S. Department of Defense Funding got Academic Research in Mexico. El Enemigo Común (website). URL: (last accessed 4/19/09).

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