A New Beginning for the United States in Central America?

February 5, 2015

The announcement by the White House on January 29 that it would ask Congress for $1 billion for Central America in its FY2016 budget is welcome news for the region, and for the United States. The proposed request would triple the resources earmarked for Central America by the U.S. government in recent years, although the amount of money contemplated remains modest by comparison to the magnitude of problems that those countries face.

The administration’s declaration on Central America, in combination with its restoration of diplomatic relations with Cuba, creates the opportunity for the United States to forge a new relationship with Latin America and the Caribbean. With both initiatives, and the possibility of more surprises on Latin America policy yet to come, the upcoming Summit of the Americas in April in Panama City could be one of the most productive multilateral engagements the United States has had with the region in years.

Although the actual amount and composition of funds that will eventually be provided for Central America is far from clear, the assistance is badly needed. The surge of 60,000 minors detained trying to enter the United States during the summer of 2014 highlights how critical the situation has become, as do failed attempts by El Salvador, Honduras and Belize to forge “truces” between (and with) the street gangs perpetrating violence and criminality in their country. The September 2012 call by conservative Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina to consider legalizing drugs further indicates the degree to which the destructive dynamic of narcotics, gangs, criminality and violence is tearing apart the countries of Central America, and particularly El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

The tone of Vice President Biden’s January 29 editorial presenting the administration’s proposal is laudable. Yes, the United States must help Central Americans help themselves. Yet it would be wrong to presume that leaders, and others in Central America, have not been contemplating for years how to address the challenges that their nations face.

In a similar fashion, Vice President Biden’s mention of Colombia as an example of how the United States can successfully help countries help themselves is not the first time such comparisons have been made, and will surely not be the last. While there are important lessons to learn from Colombia’s successes in working with the United States to address its terrorist and criminal challenges, there is not a “Colombia model” which can be exported to solve the complex challenges of Central America. Indeed, although Mexican officials have long worked with Colombians to identify and apply lessons from the Colombian experience, few things annoy Mexican officials more than listening to the “gringos” lecture them about Colombia.

According to the White House, $400 million of the money requested will be for programs to promote trade, reduce poverty and improve customs and border integration. $300 million will be for security assistance and anti-crime activities (including the continuation of programs conducted under the umbrella of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Approximately $250 million will be for institution building and reform programs.

While the details provided by the administration appear reasonable, they appear, at first glance, to reflect a compilation of ideas by individual State Department and USAID organizations currently supporting Central America, regarding how to modify or plus-up their existing programs to spend $1 billion, rather than reflecting a coherent strategy about how to best attack the complex, interdependent problems impacting the region.

I can only imagine the emails, memos and frenzied meetings that must have occurred as high-level requests for information percolated down through individual program offices and field organizations in recent weeks. With the greatest respect for the abilities, professionalism and good intentions of my distinguished colleagues in Foggy Bottom, the United States may be losing a historic opportunity to think creatively about how it might spend a billion dollars in a way that would most effectively assist our partners in Central America.

As those familiar with Defense Department programs in Afghanistan and Iraq know, $1 billion gets spent much more quickly than one might think. For both the United States and our Central American partners, it is critical that we get this right.

With due consideration to the many worthwhile ongoing programs to help Central America, the administration should consider the “thought exercise” of starting from a blank page and contemplating how best to help the region to see where it leads. I have confidence that many talented people in the administration have good ideas about how to help Central America. Yet the public details of the president’s initiative provided to date suggest that the window for innovation and strategic planning is already closing. The current moment is a historic opportunity to consider what we want to do, before we advance too far down the road.

In an ideal world, the structure of the new Central America initiative should be guided by a strategic concept that understands and addresses the region’s challenges in systemic terms, rather than a response to the separate manifestations of those problems. The approach taken should also be internationally coordinated not only with our partners in the region, but with outside actors such as European and Asian nations which can potentially contribute resources and solutions.

In both formulating and implementing the new initiative, the international and whole-of-government approach that Vice President Biden correctly advocates requires that U.S. and partner nation defense, police, judicial, trade and other officials from multiple stakeholder countries are talking together at the same table, rather than “team USA” deciding its position and traveling down-range to communicate its interagency solution to its partners.

Reciprocally, the partners involved in the initiative must engage with their U.S. counterparts frankly, at senior levels, if we are to work together effectively. Too often, officials of partner nations complement and profusely thank their U.S. benefactors for training and other support that did not correspond to their needs, not wanting to “offend the gringos,” in the belief that sincere feedback not only would not correct the problem, but would ensure that the “ingrates” got nothing the next year.

General Principles for U.S. Engagement

For the United States, three principles should guide the relationship with our partners as we develop and implement expanded engagement with Central America in the coming years: respect, reliability, and agility.

Respect. The United States must come not to impose its own solutions, but to sincerely listen and identify, collaboratively with its partners, which U.S. resources are most needed to bring to the table, building on existing programs where appropriate, but departing from them where necessary.

Reliability. Within the executive branch, and within Congress, the United States should deliver in a complete and timely fashion what it commits to. Our Central American partners cannot integrate us into their security and development programs, except at the margins, if the United States regularly cuts programs and theater cooperation assistance as the first option to balance the federal budget.

Agility. Although the United States must prevent abuse within assistance programs, the time and procedural burdens must not be so onerous that our partners seriously question whether it is worth it to accept U.S. help.

Recommended Elements of the New Approach

Where should we begin?

Take Drugs out of the Region. Although the scourge of transnational crime is about much more than “drugs,” the most significant single way that the United States can help to restore public order in Central America is to remove the enormous flow of illicit narcotics from the region. Doing so is not easy, and much more needs to be done to reduce demand in the United States, yet we should not deceive ourselves: drugs are one major contributor to the problem.

Go After the Money. In going after transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) operating in the region, their income flows and illegitimately obtained wealth is arguably a key center of gravity. Putting TCO money at risk has a multiplier effect: It decreases resources available to corrupt officials to buy high-powered arms, to hire local gang members and to build sophisticated international organizations. Attacking such income streams through financial and legal means also arguably spawns less collateral violence than the power struggles unleashed by eliminating the leadership of criminal organizations. Thus, strengthening financial institutions and associated vehicles for oversight and international cooperation within Central America should be a priority.

Fight Corruption. Corruption in public security forces, judicial systems and other public institutions is another center of gravity. Not only does corruption undercut the operational effectiveness of law enforcement, the judiciary, prisons, taxation, customs and financial oversight through which criminality can be controlled, but perceptions of corruption breaks the bond of trust that members of those institutions need to work together, and with, counterpart institutions. The question of corruption is also at the heart of citizen confidence in government and their participation in public security, from reporting crimes and testifying in judicial proceedings to participating in civic society and the formal economy, and thus reducing the space available for criminals to operate.

At the earliest phase of cooperation, the United States should help partner nations implement strict systems of control, possibly to include regular, organization-wide polygraph testing, monitoring systems and electronic databases for accounting and administration.

Such measures must also be accompanied by initiatives to make public service without corruption more viable, including increased options for police, military, judicial, prison personnel and other public servants to live with their families in protected zones, safer from the criminals that they combat, as well as to increase salaries to a living wage.

Anti-corruption efforts must go beyond cleansing of operational level entities, to take on such behavior at the highest levels of government, and eventually, in the private sector as well.

U.S. assistance in the fight against corruption may include expanded cooperation on extradition, proving intelligence and technology systems and helping to screen and train the enormous quantity of personnel who must be brought in to replace those whose integrity is called into question by the oversight measures.

Leverage the National Guard, the Coast Guard, and Service Schools and Academies. The security assistance portion of expanded U.S. engagement with the region should make good use of three often overlooked U.S. military assets: the National Guard state partnership program, the U.S. Coast Guard, and the professional military education programs of each of the services.

Because the National Guard can operate in a law enforcement and public order role under the statutory authority of Title 32 of U.S. Code, Guard personnel are well positioned to interact with partner nation institutions performing law enforcement roles. Similarly, the statutory authority and mission set of the U.S. Coast Guard make it a good resource to support and coordinate with Central American partners on coastal and port security issues.

There are, of course, numerous ways in which conventional U.S. military forces can contribute, from intelligence and surveillance support to operations by our partner nations, to in-country training by U.S. Southern Command and U.S. Special Operations Command.

Finally, the U.S. military services should also consider expanding seats for military leaders from the region at their first-line institutions for professional military education including the Army and Navy War College, and the Service Academies. There are few more effective ways to demonstrate U.S. respect for, and commitment to, the region’s security forces than to invite their “best and brightest” to study alongside (not just from) their U.S. military counterparts.

Take Back the Prisons. Establishing effective control of Central America’s prisons, so that they cannot be used as bases of operation and centers for forced recruitment by criminal organizations, should take place in advance of, or concurrent with, programs that enhance partner nation capacity to investigate, detain, prosecute and incarcerate criminals. Failing to control prisons significantly undermines investments in law enforcement and the judiciary. Indeed, if more people are incarcerated, only to be obligated to join the gangs in prison, and to give leaders a secure environment from which to conduct extortions and plan operations, enhancing law enforcement without prison reform may make the situation worse.

Possible solutions range from the wider implementation of cell phone blocking technologies, to the construction of more and better incarceration facilities, combined with the expedited movement of detainees out of overcrowded holding cells. New and existing facilities must also have more effective physical and human controls, including the monitoring and protection of those who run them, and provisions for the protection of their families against gang blackmail.

Creative Investment in Country. Generating greater economic opportunity for the region, and redressing poverty and inequality in the countries of the region, is necessary for breaking the cycle of crime and violence, poverty and immigration in the region — yet investment and trade promotion must take local circumstances into consideration so as not to produce counterproductive side effects. U.S. promotion of expanded exports from the region, for example, will likely increase options for smuggling drugs and other contraband into the United States, and thus will require a corresponding increase in resources to inspect and control commercial cargos coming into the U.S. Similarly, U.S. companies which invest in Central American factories will inadvertently fuel criminal activity as much as local communities, since both their operations and their employees will represent new revenue streams for criminal organizations to extort. Creative “pilot programs” to redress specific problems might include secure living and shopping facilities, so that employees do not have to cede a portion of their wages as protection money to the gangs that dominate their neighborhoods.

Leverage Remittances. Remittances already account for over 16% of the GDP of El Salvador, and more than 10% in both Honduras and Guatemala. In total, more than $12 billion in remittances flowed to these countries in 2013, far greater than the support for the region just announced by the White House. Remittances are thus a factor to be taken into account, and leveraged where appropriate, in any U.S. program with the region. The U.S. and partner governments can, for example, work to bring down remittance transaction fees, and to create vehicles by which contributors in the United States can pool resources to fund private schools, hospitals or business in their home countries with the added security of government oversight.

Expanded Youth Programs. While U.S. assistance will doubtlessly help at the margins in providing more economic opportunities for those living in Central America, it will be difficult to provide widespread employment opportunities for youth already caught up in street gangs, or to eliminate the informal sector in which criminal organizations can thrive. Yet the region is awash in at-risk minors, whose fathers, and often mothers, have left to work in the United States, Canada or Europe, leaving them in the supervision of working or aging relatives. One of the best, and most cost effective, ways to slow the spread of the “virus” of gang membership and to strengthen civil society is to create spaces on a national scale in which these youth can interact away from the gangs, under the protection of competent authorities who can inculcate good values and examples (whether religious, military or otherwise).

Work through the Inter-American System. Where possible, the U.S. should involve institutions of the Inter-American System, such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the Inter-American Defense Board, in its Central America programs, particularly when those efforts involve outside donors such as the European Union, Japan, South Korea and China. While doing so may incur some efficiency costs, it will help to reinvigorate and bolster the Inter-American System in the face of alternatives such as CELAC and UNASUR, which seek to exclude the U.S. from the hemisphere.

As suggested by Vice President Biden in his op-ed piece, the United States cannot impose a “made-in-Washington” concept of salvation on Central America. It can only work with the countries of the region and empower them to overcome common problems together. Such a partnership depends on Central American governments re-establishing a bond of confidence and trust with their own people, as well as the Central American people and governments rebuilding a bond of confidence with the United States. The difficult, arguably uphill, fights over funding of the initiative and the details of implementation have just begun. But 2015 is off to a promising start.


Dr. Ellis is research professor of Latin American Studies at the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute. The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.