juan orlando hernandez

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.

Former Obama adviser and CAP dude blames Central America for refugee spike

In an interview with Fox News Latino, Dan Restrepo, President Barack Obama’s principal adviser on the Americas region from 2008 to 2012, made some pretty ignorant comments.

Responding to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s accusation that the United States’ large-scale consumption of the drugs that flow through his country has fueled crime and violence in the region, and thus contributed to the increase in refugees heading northwards, Restrepo seemed to blamed the victim.

“It’s convenient when the president of Honduras blames the United States and our drug culture,” Restrepo said. “The Honduran economic and political elite have systematically and historically failed the people of Honduras.”

First, a little background on Hernandez. The current Honduran president was one of the generals who led the 2009 coup against the elected President José Manuel Zelaya, who was elected as a liberal but began to turn further left once in office.

According to the Center for Constitutional Rights, “the United States became the single loudest voice legitimating a [post-coup] election that was held in a context so problematic and laden with violence that respected election observers from the United Nations, Organization of American States, the European Union, and the Carter Center refused to monitor or support the elections.”

That election brought right-wing nationalist Porfirio “Pepe Lobo” Sosa to power. Lobo’s administration presided over cuts to social spending, declining economic growth rates and increasing poverty and unemployment. The country also maintained one of the world’s highest murder rates during that time.

In November 2013, another election was held, this time between Lobo’s man Hernandez and Xiomara Castro de Zelaya, the wife of the deposed president. The election was marred by allegations of vote-buying, intimidation and criminalization of Xiomara’s supporters.

The 2009 coup didn’t stop the flow of US security dollars, despite the US law that bars military and police assistance to governments established by coups, and the Obama administration was quick to congratulate Hernandez’s “victory” in 2013, despite the widespread concern over the legitimacy of the results.

Restrepo had left the Obama administration by the time Hernandez was elected, but he is currently a senior fellow at the Obama-friendly Center for American Progress, which basically defended the 2009 Honduran election and had nothing to say one way or the other about Hernandez’s questionable 2013 “victory” (neither did its blog, ThinkProgress).

In the interview with Fox, Restrepo continued: “The wealthy families, a small number of economic classes, have enjoyed success, and have significant political influence. But they haven’t gone about the hard work of working toward a state that functions.”

Restrepo pointed to “[t]he Colombian elite, the political and economic elite” as an example of good leaders who had “realized that for the long-term survival of their country, they needed to invest in the state, and create an environment where people wanted to invest.”

He did not mention the fact that after years of US assistance, Colombia still has the 10th-highest murder rate in the world, as well as persistently high poverty and inequality. Restrepo also failed to mention the numerous scandals that have swirled around the “Colombian elite,” from high-ranking officials ordering the extrajudicial killings of civilians by security forces to mining companies accused of funding paramilitary groups responsible for human rights violations.

There is an element of truth to Restrepo’s statement that the “Honduran economic and political elite have systematically and historically failed the people” of their country, but he ignores the United States’ role in supporting the very elites he criticizes. In fact, those elites have largely carried out US-dictated policies (or else they wouldn’t get billions of dollars per year in US funding).

This is not to say that Hernandez is entirely correct either, but at the end of the day, the blame game is unproductive and childish. It would be nice to see powerful folks like Hernandez and Restrepo eschew it for serious discussion.

I won’t hold my breath.