A prominent academic and US military official is the most recent voice to call for a “Plan Colombia” in Central America, a tenuous proposition that relies on oversimplified analogies and a questionable understanding of current conditions in the region.
Writing for Foreign Policy magazine, James Stavridis -- a retired four-star US Navy admiral and the current Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University -- argues that the United States should implement a “Plan Central America” based on lessons learned from “Plan Colombia.”
Stavridis -- citing rising violence rates and drug trafficking activity in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, a region known as the Northern Triangle -- says the United States must partner with these nations and apply “some of the many valuable lessons learned in Colombia.” This includes “a mix of outside assistance, local determination, and key tools” to help address the Northern Triangle’s challenges.
He goes on to outline three ways in which a Plan Central America should resemble Plan Colombia.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy
The first is to “create security in very fundamental ways at ground level with trainers and advisors.” This, Stavridis says, should take the same approach as in Colombia, and ought to consist of “specialized and well-trained military personnel” as opposed to large troop deployments.
Stavridis goes on say the United States should send more lawyers to these countries to help implement legal mechanisms for confronting transnational crime (such as extradition to the United States).
Second, US aid should be “interagency-focused and a meld of defense, diplomacy and development.” However, while Stavridis approves of the $1.1 billion grant under the recent US Strategy for Engagement in Central America, he believes more funding is needed -- along the lines of $2 billion annually.
Stavridis's third recommendation is to consistently fund maritime interdiction operations. Citing comments that the Coast Guard is only capable of interdicting less than 20 percent of all drug flows, Stavridis argues: “If we continue to starve the [US] Coast Guard and Navy in this region, we leave it open for huge profits for narcotic smugglers -- further increasing the money available to destabilize the region.”
Overall, Stavridis says he is not calling for a new “War on Drugs” -- which he labels a failed construct -- but rather a “smart power” approach: a combination of diplomacy, and economic, financial, security, and development aid. This is something he says the United States has done effectively before in Colombia, and can do now in Central America.
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During his career, Admiral Stavridis served from 2006 to 2009 as the head of US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) -- the US Combatant Command responsible for Central and South America. As such, Stavridis has some experience in Latin America. Nonetheless, this makes his simplified and underdeveloped recommendations for US policy in Central America all the more disquieting.
Most notably, Stavridis neglects to mention several key differences between Colombia's situation in the late 1990s and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America today -- differences which raise serious concerns over the wisdom of using Plan Colombia as a model for the region.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Plan Colombia
In Colombia, the counter-insurgency campaign waged against the FARC and ELN lent itself to a massive, US-supported military buildup under Plan Colombia. Colombian defense spending tripled from $4 to $12 billion, and between 2000 and 2008 the armed forces increased from 145,000 to 236,000 members.
Given the FARC and ELN largely operated in the sparsely populated rural periphery of the country, the task of distinguishing between combatant and non-combatant was made easier; presenting a relatively distinguishable enemy to be targeted by military forces.
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The source and territorial nature of violence and insecurity in the Northern Triangle, however, is a contrast to Colombia; the most obvious difference being the lack of an active insurgency and network of paramilitary groups. And compared to Colombia, the grassroots drug trafficking structures in Central America function primarily as transporters, with the region mainly used for the transit of drugs and laundering money.
The primary security threat in the Northern Triangle is urban-based localized crime (i.e., kidnapping, extortion, assault) fueled by street gangs like MS-13 and Barrio-18. It is therefore unclear what “specialized and well trained military personnel” -- who Stavridis recommends should be part of a “Plan Central America” -- would do exactly (In this suggestion, Stavridis also appears to contradict himself, as he implies the militarization of police forces should be avoided). To be sure, while certain military capacities (like intelligence collection) are necessary to dismantle transnational drug trafficking organizations operating in the region, military advisors can only do so much to tackle local criminal groups -- the main drivers of citizen insecurity and violence in the region.
Instead, the challenge of locally based gangs in Central America calls for stronger police work and building up the ability of the police to investigate crime, as well as a functioning penal and judicial system. On the last point, while Stavridis’ recommendation of sending more lawyers may help build up expertise, this alone will not serve to rehaul the broken, corrupt judicial systems in which these lawyers operate.
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Nor is it clear how bolstering maritime interdiction in the Caribbean will translate into tangible security gains for the average person in Central America. A major reason drugs began transiting through Central America in the first place was because Caribbean smuggling routes into south Florida were hit hard by US interdiction efforts in the 1980s and 1990s, pushing drugs routes elsewhere in a prime example of the “balloon effect.” Indeed, there is no reason to think increased naval patrols would ultimately reduce the incentives (i.e., massive profits) to traffic drugs. Paradoxically, doing so may only serve to encourage traffickers to smuggle drugs overland, increasing insecurity and further destabilizing those communities located along drug routes.
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Another condition that allowed Plan Colombia to work was the Colombian government’s ability to finance increased military expenditures and absorb large amounts of US aid. Recognizing the need for drastic action in the face of surmounting security threats, Colombia wholeheartedly committed to Plan Colombia, ultimately investing nearly eight times as much as the United States. Colombia’s relatively strong economy and GDP not only allowed the country to triple its defense budget, but also to absorb US aid and training by independently sustaining and funding programs once the United States scaled back. Also crucial to Plan Colombia’s success was the willingness of Colombia’s wealthy elite to pay an additional tax to help fund certain programs.
The presidents of the Northern Triangle countries have indeed demonstrated a degree of political will and “local determination” in order to secure a Central American version of Plan Colombia. Yet the fact remains these countries have extremely weak institutions, making it extremely doubtful they could absorb the $2 billion in annual US aid Stavridis recommends. It is more likely this amount of money would saturate local agencies -- which lack capacity to handle and direct large funds -- as well as create vast opportunities for graft and corruption. Furthermore, given anemic tax collection rates, the Northern Triangle countries would be hard pressed to maintain and sustain programs (let alone match initial US investment as in Colombia) once the United States reduced funding (For example, Guatemala has an estimated tax burden rate of 10.9 percent of GDP, one of the lowest in Latin America).
Yet despite Colombia’s unique set of conditions, policymakers in both the United States and Latin America have consistently used Plan Colombia as a model for success in the region. Its use as an analogy, however, is often based primarily on superficial similarities.
Indeed, invoking the language and imagery of Plan Colombia when discussing aid for Latin American countries is a dangerous and vast oversimplification of the complexities across the region. For the three Northern Triangle countries, calling for a “Plan Central America” may actually be doing those countries a disservice by setting false expectations and emphasizing inappropriate methods and outcomes.
Ultimately, while it is right to appeal for increased US attention to a region plagued by violence and crime, Central America is not Colombia. Policymakers must therefore be cautious about using Plan Colombia as a roadmap for action in the region, and should avoid indiscriminately taking its lessons as gospel.