FPI Analysis: A Latin America Security Agenda for President Obama

April 13, 2012

Drug traffickers, organized crime elements, and weapons smugglers throughout Latin America pose a direct threat to the security of the United States.  That was the warning issued by Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on a four day visit to Brazil and Colombia last week.  General Dempsey’s comments come at a critical time.  Violence across Central America is on the rise as drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia are increasingly facing pressure from government forces. 
Until now, however, the Obama administration has taken little notice.  The President’s 2012 strategic defense guideline mentions Latin America only once, stating that the Pentagon will seek to “develop innovative, low-cost, and small-footprint approaches to achieve our security objectives, relying on exercises, rotational presence, and advisory capabilities” in Africa and Latin America.  With regards to Central America and Mexico, President Obama has done nothing more than continued the policies implemented by President Bush.  The administration has given little thought to the next phase of a security partnership with Colombia.
This weekend, President Obama will travel to the coastal city of Cartagena, Colombia, for the annual Summit of the Americas.  Against this backdrop, the President should find his voice and commit to a true security partnership with nations of the region.
Central America
In 1983, President Ronald Reagan warned that the problems and violence in Central American nations “directly affect the security and the well-being of our own people” in the United States.  Although the risks that President Reagan warned of have since changed, a new and more dangerous threat has emerged: ruthless criminal gangs and well financed drug cartels.
Central America’s recent history provides prime ground for narcotics.  Government institutions are weak and often times distrusted. Military and police budgets are underfunded in response to decades of war and violent dictatorships. Despite progress in the 1990s towards fair elections, economic development, and government reform, the region has failed to rapidly alleviate poverty and gross inequalities for millions of inhabitants.  With insufficient military and police funding, security too deteriorated.
Like the infamous Colombian cartels of the 1990s, international criminal groups began by quickly exploiting these weak central governments. Funded by billions of dollars in illicit profits, and armed with modern machine guns, rockets, and submarines, militants quickly overwhelmed local law enforcement and underfunded local militaries and police.
Today, these criminal groups operate with near impunity across large swaths of the region, most notably in the “Northern Triangle” region of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.  For the people of the region, the consequences are dire.  Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, chief of the U.S. Southern Command, says the “unprecedented” level of violence in the “Northern Triangle” is perhaps the highest in the world. Meanwhile, Honduras now claims the highest per capita homicide rate in the world at 82.1 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, according to the United Nations, and drug traffickers are believed to hold between 40 and 60 percent of Guatemalan territory.
Regional instability, caused by government corruption, weak state institutions or insecurity, has a direct impact on U.S. security.  All told, this results in increased emigration to the United States, greater regional instability, and more powerful international criminal networks.
Yet the administration’s approach to the region’s rising levels of violence remains inadequate.  President Obama’s FY2013 budget includes a 16 percent reduction in counter-narcotics assistance to Latin America.  As Jose Cardenas wrote in Foreign Policy’s Shadow Government blog, “That is hardly the way to win friends and influence people who are risking their lives against brutal and uncompromising enemies wealthier and better armed than they are.”  The administration must make combating drug violence in Central America a priority.  Like Colombia, this approach must be comprehensive, and address not only rising levels of violence, but long-term problems related to insufficient economic opportunity and judicial corruption.

Over the past decade, Colombia has taken great strides in combating powerful insurgent groups, most notable the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the National Liberation Army (ELN).  Violence across the country—including homicides and terrorist attacks—has been reduced by over 50 percent from 2002 levels.  As a result of increased security, Colombia’s economy is booming, major cities are safe, and millions have fled poverty.
While Colombia’s government, leaders, and people deserve credit for this remarkable transformation, U.S. assistance was critical.  From FY2000 to FY2012, the United States provided nearly $8.6 billion in economic and security aid through Plan Colombia, a long-term commitment to help Bogota reestablish government rule across the country. 

Established under President Clinton in 1999, and prioritized under President Bush, the approach prioritized Colombia’s military transformed in size, strength, and operational capacity.  Equally important, however, is that fact that U.S. financial assistance allowed Bogota to maintain social welfare spending while security operations increased. 
The FARC no longer threaten the existence of the government as they did in 2001.  Indeed, recent figures show the group’s size has decreased from a high of 20,000 a decade ago to just 8,000 today.  However, the insurgency continues to target civilians, economic infrastructure, and government institutions.  Amid this continued threat, Bogota has adopted a new counterinsurgency approach designed to further reduce FARC numbers by half in two years.  According to General Martin Dempsey, Colombian officials have “a remarkably coherent vision of where they are today and where they need to be.” 
To further aid Bogota’s efforts, General Dempsey announced that U.S. commanders will soon travel to Colombia to share lessons learned from counterinsurgency missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is a good first step, but more can be done.  Because of Colombia’s dense terrain, aerial reconnaissance is critical to government counterinsurgency efforts.  To bolster real-time information gathering, Bogota has requested UAVs from the Pentagon, yet considering the difficulty NATO allies have had acquiring such technology, it is highly unlikely such a transfer will occur.
However, that is not to say that Washington cannot help Bogota in other means.  First, the Pentagon should assist Colombian forces with better intelligence software.  Second, the Pentagon should work with Colombian Special Forces to better train the already advanced fighting groups.  Finally, as Michael O’Hanlon writes, Washington should grant Bogota “temporary aid increases to support development efforts for violence-prone parts of the country.”  This would assist the government’s comprehensive counterinsurgency approach of winning back support of local populations.

Powerful transnational criminal organizations are wreaking havoc across Mexico by undermining democratic governance, eroding local institutions, and endangering public safety.  According to an official government report from January 2012, the five-year death toll of the battle has reached over 47,500.
To date, U.S. efforts to assist the government of Mexico have been organized through the Merida Initiative, a cooperative agreement signed by President George W. Bush and Felipe Calderon in 2007.  The program has enabled greater cross-border cooperation between government officials in Washington and Mexico City, killed or captured dozens of high-level criminal targets, and bolstered various Mexican government intuitions.  However, the program has been plagued by shortfalls, including—and most notably—the slow disbursement of U.S. funds.  Government testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere last year revealed that of the $1.5 billion appropriated towards the Merida Initiative since 2008, only $900 million has been dispersed.
The United States has supported Mexico’s desire to enhance its security capabilities and capacities to counter the rising power of drug cartels and transnational criminal organizations.  However, Mexico’s “decapitation strategy” of eliminating senior level cartel leaders, while successful, has failed to reduce the country’s overall level of violence.    According to General Charles Jacoby, commander of U.S. Northern Command, “The decapitation strategy — they’ve been successful at that. Twenty-two out of the top 37 trafficking figures that the Mexican government has gone after have been taken off the board… But it has not had an appreciable effect — an appreciable, positive effect.”  Time and again, Cartels have shown the ability to quickly regroup under new leadership.  Moreover, the groups continue to wield power throughout halls of power, as they are still able to bribe or corrupt individual government, military, and police officials.
Domestic drug consumption in the United States continues to fuel insecurity throughout Mexico and Central America.  Vice President Joe Biden was correct to reject the notion that drug legalization is a solution to regional violence last month.  However, the administration has done little to reduce U.S. demand, and President Obama has failed to depict the harmful impact America’s ongoing demand is having on the region and the United States.
The United States has a direct interest in assisting the government of Mexico in its battle against drug cartels and transnational crime organizations.  The two countries share a border—the most heavily cross in the world—that spans nearly 2,000 miles and bilateral trade in goods and services totals nearly $350 billion annually.  Washington must do more to address domestic narcotics demand, and Mexico must do more to address institutional corruption.  Together, the two nations must reassess their strategy and do more to combat this dangerous threat. 

If the nations across Latin America are to prevail against ruthless criminal gangs and well financed drug cartels, they will need assistance from the United States.  Yet to date, the administration has largely ignored this important region.  The United States faces a number of important challenges at home and abroad, but the threats of the Western Hemisphere cannot be ignored.  When it comes to Latin America, it is high time for President Obama to lead.

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