San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Top U.S. diplomat defends Central America Regional Security Initiative

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Five years after the inauguration of the U.S. State Department’s Central America Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI, veteran U.S. diplomat William R. Brownfield has offered a detailed assessment countering critics who say CARSI hasn’t done enough to stop drugs and violence from spreading across the isthmus.

Brownfield, assistant secretary of state at the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, said CARSI has cost U.S. taxpayers $496 million since its inception in 2008 – and that “while I don’t suggest that the program has been brought to a successful conclusion, I do suggest it is now having an impact, much of it positive.”

Likening CARSI to a baseball game, he said, “we’re in the fifth inning, the score is tied 3-3, and the good guys have come back from being 3-0 in the first inning. But we’ve got half of the game still to play.”

Brownfield spoke March 22 at Washington’s Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, at an event co-sponsored by the nonprofit organization Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

The career diplomat and Texas native – whose 34 years in the Foreign Service includes stints as U.S. ambassador to Colombia, Venezuela and Chile as well as postings in El Salvador, Argentina, Panama and Switzerland – said that despite sky-high homicide rates that have turned Central America into one of the world’s most dangerous places, its security situation should be viewed against the backdrop of recent history.

“I was in El Salvador during one of its darkest days,” he recalled. “I arrived in San Salvador in March 1981, and for the first six months we were required to carry a day bag in which we had a change of clothes, a toothbrush and a razor, because we didn’t know if we were going to be evacuated off the embassy’s roof during the course of the day. We didn’t even know if the government would survive the next 24 hours. That’s how dark it had become.”

Today, he said, all seven nations of Central America are at peace, all are thriving democracies and all are cooperating with the United States to stem the flow of drugs north through Mexico into the U.S. market.

Yet according to Brownfield, 65 percent of all cocaine that leaves South America en route to markets north passes through Central America, where the two largest organized gangs – MS-13 and Calle 18 – count more than 70,000 people as members.

“Just as Plan Colombia helped push the focus of criminal activity north into Mexico, so has the impact of the Mérida Initiative pushed that same activity into Central America itself,” he said. “In many ways, Central America is the victim of its own geography, as well as vulnerable institutions and societies that are attractive to organizations attempting to engage in criminal activity.”

CARSI’s five goals are to create safe streets for Central America’s 45 million inhabitants; disrupt the movement of criminals and contraband to, within and between its seven nations; support the development of strong, capable and accountable governments; re-establish effective state presence, services and security in at-risk communities, and finally, to foster enhanced levels of coordination and cooperation among all seven countries as well as other foreign partners and donors to combat regional security threats.

Brownfield said that even though “we have consciously attempted to incorporate all seven nations of Central America” into the program, most funds allocated to CARSI have gone to the “northern tier” countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

And in all three, he said, success stories abound.

‘On a roll’

“Seven years ago, Guatemala was the preferred landing site for small aircraft bringing illicit cocaine north from South America, touching ground in Central America and then transiting overland through Mexico into the United States,” he said. “The Guatemalans, using CARSI funds and support, developed an aviation capability using helicopters. When they catch wind of an illegal aircraft, they fly to the site and apprehend the suspects.”

For a year or so, Brownfield said, the Guatemalan Air Force was on a roll, grabbing “tons of product” in frequent drug raids. “But in the last two or three years, they have had almost no takedowns,” he said. “It’s because they’ve accomplished exactly what they wanted to do: they’ve convinced the traffickers not to fly their product to Guatemala.”

And in El Salvador and Honduras – two countries long plagued by gang violence – “both have put together very effective youth programs that are actually delivering results, telling kids at an impressionable stage what are the dangers of joining gangs, and what their alternatives are. It’s a cool program. I like it.”

Debunking myths?

Brownfield addressed what he called some common criticisms of CARSI:

* CARSI is “nothing more than the militarization of our unsuccessful and failed war on drugs.”

“We are not fighting a war on drugs, nor have we been fighting a war on drugs since Bill Clinton, in his first year as president, in 1993, declared correctly that this is not a war,” Brownfield said. “This is about education and rehabilitation. This is about public health. This is about economic and alternative development.”

In fact, he said, less than one-third of the half-billion dollars made available to Central America through CARSI has gone to fight drugs. The lion’s share is spent on such things as model precincts programs in vulnerable communities, anti-gang programs and community policing, as well as police, prosecutors and corrections reform throughout Central America.

“It is designed to build institutions, and it is those institutions that will eventually deliver what their societies and communities are demanding,” he said. “To call this a war on drugs completely misses the point.”

* CARSI cannot succeed because of deep-rooted corruption throughout Central America.

Brownfield readily admits that corruption and impunity are a big problem, and that CARSI was developed, to some extent, to make Central America’s institutions less corrupt and more accountable to the people and nations with which they are affiliated.

“Of course, in the short term we must deal with corrupt institutions. If we are going to reform or professionalize an institution, we must talk to it, deal with it, and in fact provide it with assistance and training,” he said. “At the end of the day, with many of these institutions it will require an entire generation to cleanse.”

Brownfield agreed that it’s “unfair to ask a society to wait an entire generation” before it can see relief from violence and organized crime. That’s why CARSI’s short-term solution over a 10-year period “in the best possible scenario to purify, cleanse and purge a corrupted institution is the vetted unit: small groups that are carefully selected and examined in terms of their background, and if necessary, subjected to testing means to determine whether they are fundamentally honest, and to use those groups to do basic, specialized law enforcement.”

* Systematic human rights abuses by government institutions dooms CARSI to failure.

“If we do not address human rights abuses, CARSI will indeed fail,” Brownfield said. “No initiative that I know of has succeeded unless it has followed a basic respect for human rights. That’s why we train these countries specifically in human rights procedures and proper operational engagement, with full accountability for the acts they commit.”

Colombia as an example

Brownfield, who was U.S. ambassador in Bogotá from 2007 to 2010, pointed out that back in 2000, Colombia produced more cocaine than the rest of the world combined. Now its cocaine output has dropped by two-thirds and Colombia currently ranks third among cocaine-producing nations. Meanwhile, U.S. consumption of cocaine has fallen by 40 percent in the past seven years, while use of methamphetamines has dropped by 50 percent.

“We need to improve our capabilities by 10 or 15 percent,” he said. “That will drive up the cost for traffickers of doing business in and through Central America. When that happens, simple market economics comes into play, and they will go elsewhere.”

Yet he added: “While there must be a law-enforcement component to any strategy, the focus should be on the genuine criminals – the large-scale, multibillion-dollar criminal organizations that are making huge sums of money, rather than poor farmers or consumers who are victims as much as criminals.”

Brownfield said CARSI’s initiatives and strategies must be flexible and adaptable – and not leave any gaping holes for criminals to exploit.

“We should not be embarrassed or ashamed to say that what we’re doing today is not what we thought we’d be doing four years ago. We’re learning from mistakes, and quite frankly, the bad guys are adapting and adjusting their strategies. And if we don’t adjust ours too, we’re probably going to lose.”

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