Three reasons “Plan Colombia” won’t work in Central America

General John Kelly, Commander of U.S. Southern Combatant Command, told an audience at the National Defense University on October 8 that Central American governments should seek to replicate “the miracle of Colombia” when it comes to security. Colombia is “a great example,” said Kelly, “of what can be done so long as a government and a people, along with some help from the United States” cooperate on security issues.

Kelly made similar comments in a recent interview with Military Times and in an interview with the Daily Mail, the four-star general warned of the potential for “mass migration into the U.S.” if the African Ebola epidemic were to somehow spread to Central America. “It’s literally, ‘Katie bar the door,'” the general said, describing the hypothetical situation along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Gen. Kelly is not the only policy heavyweight to have fear-mongered about Central American refugees, and he is not the only one to have proposed Colombia’s experience as a model for Central America to follow. On both accounts, he has been joined by Dan Restrepo, currently a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and previously President Barack Obama’s top advisor on the Americas during his first term. The same can be said of former SOUTHCOM Commander Admiral James Stavridis.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his Guatemalan counterpart Otto Perez Molina have both called for the implementation of a”Plan Colombia” for Central America, hinting that increased assistance from the United States might enable them to ameliorate the politically-problematic flow of migrants through Mexico and into the United States.

There are a number of problems with the Colombia model, but below are the most important reasons why its application could have especially negative consequences for Central America – particularly in the violent “Northern Triangle” region comprising El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras:

1.) Central American countries have weaker institutions than Colombia. While Colombia’s civil conflict continues in tandem with ongoing peace negotiations, Central American countries signed peace accords ending their civil wars years ago. Nevertheless, post-conflict political institutions and security forces in Central America haven’t had fifty years to adapt to the soaring levels of violence seen in the region in recent years. In fact, although it is still the tenth-highest in the world, Colombia’s murder rate has been in steady decline for a decade.

2.) This weakness manifests itself in susceptibility to corruption and intimidation. The criminal underworld is alive and well in Colombia, though not in the same shape and form as it was during the initial years of Plan Colombia. Instead, the militarized crackdown on guerrillas and narco-traffickers drove many of these groups further underground, diffusing them into smaller and more widely disbursed networks and pushing them into new markets and geographic areas.

In fact, there is compelling evidence that Colombian criminal organizations are using Central American “transportista” groups as middlemen in the trafficking of drugs from South to North. Transnational criminal organizations, often based in Mexico and Colombia provide the huge amounts of capital necessary to supply large amounts of illicit goods and to pay off the police and political officials as well as any “sub-contractors.”

3.) Central America has a plan Colombia and it isn’t working. The essence of the “Plan Colombia” strategy is a heavy-handed, zero-tolerance approach to crime. The U.S. has provided more than half a billion dollars in military and police aid to Central America since 2009. That may not sound like much compared to the $7 billion investment made in Plan Colombia, but in both cases, the thrust of assistance efforts has been toward tactical and operational capacity rather than addressing the institutional weaknesses and corruption that lie at the root of the violence.

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