Uncle Joe’s Squandered Opportunity in Central America

The US government has pledged support for the Partnership for Prosperity.
The US government has pledged support for the Partnership for Prosperity. (El Salvador Presidency)

EspañolUS Vice President Joe Biden is fast becoming Latin America’s new best friend: touring multiple countries and spearheading a number of trade agreements, he’s helped move the conversation beyond drug policy and dubious military assistance. Nevertheless, vestiges of the old relationship remain.

Earlier in March, Biden unveiled a US$1 billion package to help Central American governments make “reforms and investments” to “address security, governance, and economy challenges.” In return for the financial assistance, he called for regional rulers to deliver strengthened security, transparent and fair governance, and to provide “government money … to address economic need.”

These may all be laudable goals. But the top-down approach, focused on strengthening governance and military capability, has been proven to only achieve limited results by itself.

Indeed, Biden’s comparison of the new Central American aid package with the Clinton administration’s “Plan Colombia” — which sought to eradicate coca cultivation and drug cartels with limited results — suggests that Uncle Joe might actually be Uncle Sam up to his old tricks.

This impression was further confirmed when, in Biden’s announcement, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador — having recently formed the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle (APP) — were asked to “assume ownership” of their social and political problems as a condition of receiving US aid.

Again, this target would be more achievable if Central America’s difficulties were all of its own making — and not largely the misfortune of lying in the path of lucrative narco-trafficking routes into the United States. “Plan Central America” fails to address this underlying structural failure, and is far more likely to fail as a result.

Plan Colombia Redux

When Plan Colombia was implemented by President Andrés Pastrana with US support, narco-trafficking had taken over Colombia. Violence was on the rise, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) were gaining footholds left vacant by the fall of Pablo Escobar, and the country needed big solutions.

What Colombia got was a drug containment program. Violence related to trafficking fell, briefly, but the market couldn’t be contained: instead, it increased by 200 percent between 1994 and 2008. “People’s tastes don’t change,” said Julio Cesar Mejía, director of Colombia’s Center for Free Will.

The imposition of peace at gunpoint didn’t solve the problem, but only pushed it underground. As Mejía explains, the burning of coca plantations simply prompted producers to improve their techniques to grow more coca in less hectares, thus avoiding detection by the government.

The illicit business, and sporadic outbreaks of violence, remained in place, contributing to the longevity of FARC and meaning that today, 15 years on, disarmament talks are still going on — with a backdrop of bombings and shootings. An opportunity to revitalize Colombian society and its economy was passed over in favor of yet another doomed attempt to root out drugs. Eradication, not transformation, was the order of the day.

Central American Consumption on the Rise

In the last two years, the Honduran government has similarly spearheaded a frontal attack against narco-trafficking groups. The authorities have extradited kingpins to the United States, seized their goods, and sought to break up the mafias that control entire regions through an illicit underworld economy.

Yet these efforts are yet to be reflected in figures by the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB), which show that the consumption and traffic of drugs in the Central American region has only increased.

Las rutas de tráfico de droga centran su mayor tránsito en América del Sur y Centro América. (Fuente: EsLibertad Colombia)
Drug trafficking routes center in South and Central America. (EsLibertad Colombia)

The UN agency suggests that 80 percent of the cocaine that enters the United States passes through Central America, and that 15 percent of homicides committed in countries in the region are related to narco-trafficking.

INCB data also suggests that 0.6 percent of adults in the region have consumed cocaine at least once in the last 12 months, surpassing the global average of 0.4 percent. The APP are no longer simply transit countries, but home to a growing domestic market: all the more reason for bold new approaches to be attempted.

Tackling Root Causes

Here’s where Biden’s plan falls down. Requiring Central American nations to plow more money into building up their security forces in a bid to shoot their way out of gang violence is like trying to hold back the tide. The narco-trafficking business would require nothing less than a US occupying army to make a serious dent in its profits.

There is, however, another way. Strengthening the judicial apparatus, and improving education to discourage drug use are one aspect. But by shifting its focus away from state-led policies and onto private sector enterprise, the APP could take a new path towards prosperity.

By opening up to free regional trade, stimulating exports, welcoming external investment to improve infrastructure and domestic security, a thriving formal economy could rival the criminal underworld and remove the incentives to engage in trafficking.

But Central America can’t achieve this all on its own, even if Biden’s $1 billion were multiplied 50 times over. Instead, the structural causes of Central American violence must be addressed. Clear steps need to be taken in the United States towards the decriminalization and legalization of drugs, to deny criminals their markets and better control the proliferation of harmful narcotics.

This won’t happen overnight. But sometimes you need a friend to own up to his mistakes, and begin to set them right. Maybe, in the few months he has left in office, Uncle Joe could be that friend.

Translated by Michael Pelzer. Edited by Laurie Blair.

Subscribe free to our daily newsletter
Sign up here to get the latest news, updates and special reports delivered directly to your inbox.
You can unsubscribe at any time