As Central America heads towards lawlessness a new drug strategy is needed
The controversial US-backed ‘Plan Colombia’ played a key role in Colombia’s comeback during the 2000s, could it work in Central America?
It has been 12 years since Plan Colombia, an extensive U.S. aid program focused on military and police assistance, was enacted and as the project winds down some are calling for a similar security plan for Central America, which has become the latest ground-zero in the “War on Drugs”.
While Colombians themselves are responsible for their country’s impressive transformation from near-failed state to an attractive emerging market, the multi-billion dollar Plan Colombia has played an important role in strengthening Colombia’s security apparatus and judicial system. The plan fit well with Colombia’s strategy of forcefully regaining control of territory from guerillas and drug traffickers and then flooding the area with police and government services. As part Plan Colombia the U.S. government has spent around $8 billion to train Colombia’s security forces, upgrade military equipment and technology, support the judicial system and provide some development aid. Violence has declined and cocaine production has dropped—Colombia is no longer the world’s leading cocaine producer.
However, the plan has not been able to limit drug production and trafficking across the region. What is happening with drugs in Latin America is known as the “balloon effect”—when you squeeze one area the pressure builds up in another area until the pressure is too great and whole thing pops.
The increased attention and pressure on the drug trade in Colombia caused much of the trafficking to move to Mexico, while production has shifted to Peru and Bolivia. Mexico’s own crackdown which started in 2006 under the Calderon administration has displaced some of the violence to Central America.
According to the Woodrow Wilson Center, a Washington think tank, “not since the Central American wars of the 1980s has the region commanded so much attention in the international arena.”
The drug trade has made Central America the most violent place in the world. Honduras, with a population of 8.3 million, had the world’s highest murder rate in 2010, with 82.1 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, a jump from 57 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008. Neighboring El Salvador had 66 murders per 100,000 in 2010. By comparison Colombia had 33 per 100,000 and the US had 4.7 per 100,000.
In a recent article for Americas Quarterly Michael Shifter argues that the lessons from Plan Colombia can be applied to Central America, particularly the three Northern Triangle Countries—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
“Plan Colombia proved that it is possible to successfully carry out a sustained involvement in another country aimed at reducing intolerably high levels of violence and insecurity,” wrote Shifter.
A U.S. plan to bolster Central America’s security forces and strengthen judicial and governing institutions has the potential to make a difference and keep Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador from collapsing. More training and investment would strengthen and extend beleaguered police forces while improved judicial systems would make criminals answer for their crimes and improve confidence in government. This is no easy task but Plan Colombia proves it is possible.
But is it viable? Shifter notes that legislation for Plan Colombia was passed before 9/11 at a time when the U.S. had a fiscal surplus (remember that?). Things are much different now in Washington and I cannot envision the U.S. Congress coming together to get behind a new billion dollar aid package for Central America. Also, the balloon effect suggests that even if a program was targeted to the Northern Triangle Countries the violence would just spread further south to Costa Rica and Nicaragua.
Something needs to change. A number of Latin American governments, such as Uruguay, are taking matters into their own hands and contemplating the legalization or decriminalization of drugs. To be effective in Central America, however, decriminalization or legalization would have to be supported by stronger security and judicial institutions. The U.S. still has a role to play here.
Meanwhile pressure is building in the Americas; hopefully something will be done before the balloon bursts.