Why Latin America Matters for the US

The US’s attention is spread pretty thin at the moment – wrangling with Russia; negotiating with Iran; drawing down in Afghanistan; “pivoting” to Asia; looking for solutions to violence and unrest in Iraq, Egypt, Syria and elsewhere. Somewhat understandably, there hasn’t been much attention paid to Latin America recently.

Despite some success in ameliorating poverty and improving economic growth, Latin America remains the most unequal and insecure region in the world according to a recent UN report. The American foreign policy establishment may be more concerned with the threat of economic or military competition from China, Russia’s adversarial foreign policy moves, the dangers of Islamic extremism and Iran’s nuclear program, but existence of those important challenges is no reason to ignore the problems in its own “backyard.”

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Organized crime is a massive problem in Latin America and the Carribean and public safety and security consistently rank among citizens’ top concerns. Honduras has the highest homicide rate of any country in the world, with its neighbors El Salvador, Belize and Guatemala not far behind. Brazil and Mexico, the two largest countries in the region both have homicide rates nearly five times that of the US.

Despite billions of dollars in security assistance from Washington over decades, the problem has only gotten worse – on both sides of the border. Mexican cartels now have a presence in most US states and major cities and as Douglas Farah, an expert on transnational criminal organizations, put it in a recent report for the Strategic Studies Institute, “transnational criminal/terrorist franchises in Latin America operating under broad state protection now pose a tier-one security threat for the United States.”

To a large degree, this failure stems from the lack of dialogue between the US and its southern neighbors. This week, the disconnect will be on full display as the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) holds its annual summit in Havana. Neither the United States nor Canada are members of the organization and neither will attend the meeting, which will focus on issues of hunger, poverty and inequality, and will seek to declare the region a zone of peace.

In the past, the US pushed whatever policies it wished on countries in the region, sometimes fomenting coups that brought dictators like Salvadore Allende and Augusto Pinochet to power in order to protect US interests. In more recent years, US policy toward the region has largely been on autopilot, providing millions of dollars in security assistance without seriously addressing the roots of the region’s problems.

Certainly, high rates of crime and corruption have hampered development, but more importantly, this has created a harmful cycle. Poor economic opportunities push people into criminal activity, creating more crime and instability, which further inhibits investment and growth. Criminal organizations accumulate power and resources that increase their ability to infiltrate and corrupt police forces, judiciaries and governments. And the cycle repeats.

Instead of continuing the myopic approach of treating the fight against drug traffickers and other criminal organizations as a security issue, the US should listen to the many Latin American leaders who have been calling for a rethink of drug war policies. Taking out top cartel leaders does not provide jobs to anybody but police and security forces. By contrast, providing viable economic alternatives to the “foot-soldiers” of these of criminal enterprises would target their very foundations.

Obviously, drugs are not the only issue. Fraud, extortion, murder for hire, human trafficking and all other manner of criminal activities also play a role in financing violent criminal organizations. Once again, economic engagement is key. Latin American countries don’t need more money to wage a losing war. What they really need is help revamping broken educational systems, weeding out corruption and dysfunction in governments and institutions and improving the economic prospects for all citizens.

Of course, pursuing violent criminals must be an integral part of any approach, but a serious re-balancing of priorities is necessary. Even if it were possible to completely wipe out organized crime, issues of poverty, unemployment and inequality would still remain. Instead of ignoring Latin America and letting problems fester, the US should strive to work with its southern neighbors to solve these multilateral issues and create a unified, cooperative hemisphere.

The Department of Commerce’s recently-unveiled “Look South” initiative seems like a step in the right direction. Deepening economic ties with Latin America would increase the likelihood of effective engagement on other issues like transnational crime and terrorism. As things currently stand, geopolitical rivals like China, Russia and Iran are extending a hand to countries in the region as anti-US sentiment is exacerbated by events like the downing of Bolivian president Evo Morales’ plane and revelations of spying on foreign leaders.

As Washington attempts to conclude major trade agreements with the European Union and Asian and Pacific nations (including Mexico, Chile and Peru) it should also seek to strengthen ties with its closest neighbors. Building strong and lasting relationships is never easy. The US should take the lead in mending relations with its hemispheric partners. In the end, the effort will pay off for both North and South.

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