Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Plan Mexico in Central America

The Bush administration handed over its 2008 Merída Initiative spending plan to Congress on Monday, September 8—twenty-five days late. Congress had until Monday, September 22, to determine if the spending plan was satisfactory and to propose revisions or modifications.

The Merída Initiative spending plan includes funds for Mexico, Central America, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic. The 2008 spending plan is worth $465 million total. Mexico will receive $400 million, Central America will receive $60 million, and Haiti and the Dominican Republic will each receive $2.5 million.

This article is part two in a Narco News series that analyzes the Merída Initiative (also known as Plan Mexico) spending plan. Part one analyzed the Merída Initiative in Mexico.

Narco News has made the entire Merída Initiative spending plan available.


In an eerily omniscient paper written for the US Army’s Strategic Studies Institute in May 2001—just one year after the first round of funding for Plan Colombia—US Coast Guard Commander Stephen E. Flynn argued that the Plan Colombia model of utilizing a military strategy to combat the social problem of drug addiction was doomed to fail. Flynn called for “dismantling the prohibitionary regime,” which he labeled a failure that “does more harm than good.” In the paper’s preface, Ambler H. Moss, Jr., of the University of Miami advocated addressing the US demand that drives the Colombian drug market through increased funds for domestic education and drug treatment programs. He also advocated less emphasis on enforcing existing anti-drug laws so that drug addicts would be treated as “public health patients” rather than criminals.

Flynn likened the Plan Colombia approach to using antibiotics on a non-bacterial disease—in other words, just plain useless. He predicted that taking out Colombia’s biggest drug kingpins would lead to innovation on the part of drug traffickers. He was right: Plan Colombia dismantled the biggest kingpins’ operations, but the drug trafficking organizations evolved into numerous smaller boutique cartels. Producers have abandoned cultivating large open coca fields in favor of many tiny ones hidden under trees or in tall weeds in order to avoid aerial detection and spraying. The evolution of the drug trade in Colombia is producing results: Coca production rose 27% between 2006 and 2007. In particular, coca production in the department most targeted by Plan Colombia, Putumayo, has sharply risen every year since 2004 after a massive decrease between 2000 and 2003.

This evidence demonstrates that where there’s a will (US demand for cocaine), there’s a way. The US Department of Justice (DoJ) reports: “Coca growers, primarily in Colombia, have sustained and seemingly increased overall cultivation in South America by expanding growing operations to areas where large-scale coca cultivation had not been reported previously.” This increase happened despite the fact that “[t]he U.S. State Department reports that 2006 was the sixth consecutive year of record aerial spraying in Colombia, surpassing the previous year's record by 24 percent.”

Flynn also correctly predicted that militarily combating the Colombian drug trade wouldn’t decrease the flow of drugs into the United States, where demand levels have remained more or less constant. Rather, production and trafficking would spread out. In particular, the Plan Colombia strategy would provide a competitive advantage to Mexican drug traffickers, and as a result Mexican drug cartels would flourish. In the seven years since Flynn’s prediction, this is exactly what happened: the US DoJ reports that Colombian drug trafficking organizations increasingly rely on Mexican cartels to smuggle heroin to the United States. While the amount of South American cocaine that enters the US has remained constant, the routes it takes are changing to adapt to US interdiction efforts. In 2002 approximately 72% of the cocaine that entered the US traveled the Mexico-Central American corridor. This number rose to 90% in 2006. Mexican drug cartels now dominate the US market.

Plan Mexico: Slightly improving a fundamentally ineffective strategy

In designing Plan Mexico, US and Mexican officials listened to Flynn’s critiques of the Plan Colombia approach to reducing drug flows, but failed to comprehend his overarching argument: that a military approach is the wrong answer to the very real problem of a violent drug trade fueled by US demand. Instead, they used his critiques to fine-tune their military approach.

The stated rationale behind the inclusion of Central America and the Caribbean in Plan Mexico, which was hatched by George W. Bush and Felipe Calderón in order to combat Mexican drug cartels, is to avoid a repeat of one of Plan Colombia’s numerous failures: that the drug trade would yet again evolve and shift—this time to Central America and the Caribbean—rather than diminish. Rather than acknowledging that antibiotics don’t work against a virus, Plan Mexico’s architects hope that by throwing more antibiotics at even more countries, they might actually beat the virus this time.

Central American Gangs: “Foot soldiers of drug trafficking networks”

The Central American component of Plan Mexico focuses in large part on anti-gang initiatives because gangs (or maras) are a significant source of violence and insecurity in many Central American countries. According to Ana Arana in her article “How the Street Gangs Took Central America” for Foreign Affairs, “The maras’ members also act as foot soldiers for pre-existing drug-trafficking networks and for international car-theft rings and run sophisticated alien-smuggling operations.” Because the tens of thousands of Central American gang members are mere foot soldiers for drug trafficking networks that predate the existence of gangs in the region, it is difficult to determine the impact Plan Mexico’s anti-gang initiatives will have on drug trafficking through the region.

Plan Mexico does very little to address the source of Central America’s gang problem: the US government’s immigration and foreign policies. The MS-13 was founded in the US by refugees of El Salvador’s dirty war, which the United States government funded. The US then deported the gang members to Central American—particularly El Salvadoran—prisons where gangs like the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as MS-13) spread like wildfire amongst the prisoners. Arana elaborates:

In 1996, Congress extended the get-tough approach to immigration law. Noncitizens sentenced to a year or more in prison would now be repatriated to their countries of origin, and even foreign-born American felons could be stripped of their citizenship and expelled once they served their prison terms. The list of deportable crimes was increased, coming to include minor offenses such as drunk driving and petty theft. As a result, between 2000 and 2004, an estimated 20,000 young Central American criminals, whose families had settled in the slums of Los Angeles in the 1980s after fleeing civil wars at home, were deported to countries they barely knew. Many of the deportees were native English speakers who had arrived in the United States as toddlers but had never bothered to secure legal residency or citizenship….

The deportees arrived in Central America with few prospects other than their gang connections…. Local governments—which were desperately trying to rebuild after a decade of civil strife—had no idea who their new citizens really were: the new US immigration rules banned US officials from disclosing the criminal backgrounds of the deportees.

Plan Mexico will fund a “fingerprint analysis initiative to identify criminals who move from country to country within the region and to the US, and to allow sharing of this information between law enforcement agencies of the region and with the US.” It will also “develop a system to provide recipient nations with relevant criminal background information on repatriated nationals.” This will finally put an end to the US government’s policy of dumping gang-affiliated deportees in Central America without so much as a warning to local officials. However, Plan Mexico does nothing to stop the US from engaging in the sort of behavior that created Central American gangs—the foot soldiers of drug trafficking networks. The US will continue to deport gang members to their ICE-determined “countries of origin” even if they are US citizens or don’t speak Spanish, unloading a US problem onto other countries without so much as a thought as to the consequences.

Plan Mexico combines educational and law enforcement funding to combat gang violence in Central America. However, of specified anti-gang funds, a mere $5 million, or 14%, is dedicated to educational initiatives in Central America. $31 million, or 86%, is dedicated to law enforcement. Twenty million dollars are earmarked for a mix of law enforcement and education or job creation programs, but the Plan Mexico spending plan does not specify what percentage will go to education and job training programs and what percentage go to law enforcement efforts. Assuming these funds will be divided evenly between law enforcement and education/job creation programs (an unlikely scenario given the tiny proportion of education-specific funds for Central America and Plan Mexico’s overwhelming law enforcement and military focus), education and job creation funding would still only comprise 27% of overall Central American anti-gang funding.

Plan Mexico’s failure to prioritize gang prevention over law enforcement will exacerbate Central America’s gang problem. A 2006 study published by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) found that every dollar spent on gang prevention (for example, education and job training and placement programs) saves $6-$7 in law enforcement. Arana argues that law enforcement strategies, on the other hand, have only aggravated gang violence because “prisons act as gangland finishing schools, and military operations have only dispersed the gangs’ leadership, making bosses harder than ever to track and capture.”

Rather than prioritizing education, job training, and economic development in at-risk communities as part of gang prevention programs, many Central American governments have initiated what they call mano dura or “iron fist” policies to combat gangs. The specifics of mano dura policies vary from country to country, but they often entail joint police-military operations and special laws for suspected maras.

El Salvador and Honduras have both enacted laws that require less proof for arresting or detaining suspected gang members—in some instances a tattoo is the only probable cause necessary. Gang members also face longer prison sentences than common criminals for the same crimes. Under mano dura policies, it is generally illegal to associate with gang members, even if no other crime is committed.

Mano dura policies have failed to reduce violence in the countries where they are in effect. On the contrary, violence has skyrocketed. El Salvador and Honduras have both seen shocking increases in their homicide rates over the course of the mano dura policies. El Salvador’s murder rate increased 25% between 2004 and 2007. Honduras’ murder rate jumped 44% between 2005 and 2006. El Salvador has seen the return of vigilante death squads who murder young people suspected of being maras. In Honduras, MS-13 gang members massacred a bus full of innocent civilians and kidnapped and murdered the President’s son in retaliation for the government’s anti-gang operations.

Plan Mexico’s architects ignore logic, facts, and history and have chosen to emphasize law enforcement to solve Central America’s gang problem. Plan Mexico’s Economic Support Fund (ESF) section for Central America is specifically designed to “enhance law enforcement efforts to reduce crime”—efforts that have thus fair only increased crime. One of the stated goals of the ESF is to “increase successful arrests of gang members,” ostensibly to put them back in the prisons where they’re very effective gang recruiters. Law enforcement strategies have thus far only increased gang violence in the region, and logic dictates that more of the same will further increase violence.

Plan Mexico’s spending plan includes funds for police equipment, including “protective equipment” (previous versions of Plan Mexico specified riot gear such as helmets and bullet-proof vests), communications equipment, and vehicles. It will also send FBI trainers to train Central American anti-gang units and support officer exchanges with US law enforcement.

Despite gang members’ successes in organizing and recruiting their fellow inmates in prisons, Plan Mexico proposes to “expand a prison management initiative.” Prison officials from every Central American country will travel to the US to work with corrections officials there to “identify development needs, effective operating procedures, and appropriate technologies to improve the security of prison facilities.” Given the US DoJ’s admission of its own failure to contain violent prison gangs that traffic Mexican cartels’ drugs within the US prison system, it will be interesting to see what wisdom US corrections officials have to offer their Central American counterparts.

Plan Mexico also includes funds for Central American police to attend the US government’s International Law Enforcement Academy (ILEA), which is quickly gaining a reputation as the “School of the Americas for police.” One of the brains behind the ILEA is the Police Executive Research Forum’s John Timoney, who made national headlines when he spearheaded the law enforcement responses to protests against the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia and the Free Trade Area of the Americas meeting in Miami. In Philadelphia, despite 420 arrests and countless claims of torture, 96% of those charged were exonerated. The remaining 4% were convicted of minor misdemeanor or summary crimes. Timoney took out an insurance policy prior to the protest that covered the Philadelphia police against lawsuits claiming human and civil rights abuses, making such lawsuits logistically impossible for victims of police abuse. In Miami, under Timoney’s direction police shut down an entire section of the city, corralled protesters into that area, and then took advantage of the lack of bystanders to beat protesters to a pulp in the streets. His management of these protests made him a hero in the US law enforcement community. Since then he’s traveled to Iraq to train Baghdad police, and his think tank helped the US government write the founding document for the ILEA in El Salvador.

The US government’s intentions for the ILEA were laid bare by the aborted attempt to build the school in Costa Rica. When the Costa Rican government ceded to civil society demands and required that military topics be removed from the ILEA’s curriculum, that members of the military not participate in the police academy, and that US officials involved in the academy not be given immunity from Costa Rican laws, the US pulled out of its agreement with the Costa Rican government and looked for a less transparent, more military-friendly place to build the school. It chose to secretly establish the ILEA in El Salvador. Hoping to prevent a civil society backlash like the one in Costa Rica, US and Salvadoran officials waited until classes had begun to sign an agreement officially establishing the school. This agreement is still not public and the US Congress was never briefed on the ILEA in El Salvador prior to its establishment, even though the overwhelming majority of its funds and instructors come from the US.

The ILEA’s human rights record is impossible to monitor. The only human rights organization with access to the ILEA’s curriculum and lists of graduates is on the ILEA’s payroll conducting human rights trainings, and that organization is not sharing that confidential information with the rest of the human rights community. However, critics of the ILEA point to the human rights record of the police department with the most students in the ILEA: El Salvador’s National Civil Police (PNC in its Spanish initials): 40% of human rights complaints submitted to El Salvador’s human rights ombudsman’s office concern PNC agents. PNC agents are responsible for political assassinations, such as the 1993 assassination of FMLN leader Francisco Velis, and death squads such as Black Shadow, which tortures and murders suspected maras.

Plan Puebla-Panama and the Security and Prosperity Partnership in Plan Mexico

While a law enforcement and military strategy is doomed to fail against drug trafficking, it is designed to further US foreign policy goals in the Western Hemisphere while lining the pockets of the US war industry. Funding for ILEA training where US agents secretly teach Central American cops how to police is only one aspect of the Merída Initiative’s plan to spread US hegemony throughout the region.

As explained in further detail in Part 1 of this series, Plan Mexico is an integral component of the militarization of North and Central America via the Security and Prosperity Partnership (the militarization of NAFTA) and the Mesoamerica Project (the militarization of Plan Puebla-Panama).

The Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP) is an agreement between the Mexican, Canadian, and US heads-of-state and business leaders to expand and militarize the North American Free Trade Agreement. The “security” aspect of the SPP aims to coordinate law enforcement and military activities and trainings in North America. This means sharing resources and information and harmonizing laws and regulations regarding law enforcement, the military, and national security. While the SPP only officially applies to the US, Mexico, and Canada, it represents the US’ strategic goals for the entire hemisphere, as seen in the Mesoamerica Project.

The Mesoamerica Project will also militarize what was originally an economic project that spanned Mexico and Central America. Its predecessor, the Plan Puebla-Panama (PPP) was a package of development projects proposed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and the World Bank. The PPP faced enormous civil society opposition because its projects would displace peasants and indigenous people, and its infrastructure development projects were designed to facilitate the movement of energy and natural resources north to the United States. In an effort to jumpstart the PPP and modernize it for a post-September 11 world, North and Central American leaders met in Chiapas, Mexico, at Felipe Calderón’s request to re-inaugurate the PPP as the Mesoamerica Project. The Mesoamerica Project eliminates about 95% of the PPP’s infrastructure projects and includes a pledge to fight organized crime.

Plan Mexico furthers the SPP and Mesoamerica Project aims of coordinated national security strategies and increased US hegemonic control of the region through further militarization of the region’s borders, intelligence sharing, harmonization of prison management norms, police trainings and exchanges, and the deployment of FBI and AFT agents throughout the region.

As part of the SPP’s “Smart, Secure Borders” initiative, the Mexican, Canadian, and US executive branches agreed to:

  • Collaborate to establish risk-based screening standards for goods and people that rely on technology, information sharing and biometrics;
  • Develop and implement compatible electronic processes for supply chain security that use advanced electronic cargo information to analyze risk and ensure quick and efficient processing at the border; and
  • Exchange additional law enforcement liaison officers to assist in criminal and security investigations.

While the SPP is a North American project, it is clear that the SPP doctrine pervades Plan Mexico’s Central America component. Central America’s Plan Mexico border security funding ripped a page straight from the SPP book. Plan Mexico will “train and equip personnel for up to 35 inspection points at highway border crossings in all seven [Central American] countries” and “provide two mobile inspection points per country.” Mobile inspection units can be used to set up checkpoints that electronically screen cargo on highways or at docks. Plan Mexico will also provide “funding to support the OAS’s [Organization of American States’] Inter-American committee Against Terrorism to improve border controls and security through technical assistance and training.” Funds will also provide “train-the-trainer [training] so that law enforcement personnel can perform effective, intelligence-driven and random inspections on traffic transiting the region,” a practice that is already commonplace in the United States and Mexico.

The SPP’s goal to deploy law enforcement liason officers to assist in other countries’ ciminal and security investigations is also apparent in the Merída Initiaitve’s plans for Central America. Under Plan Mexico, the US Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms (ATF) will deploy at least one agent to Central America to “manage the arms trafficking program, conduct assessments of countries’ needs and coordinate training and provision of technical assistance.” It will also provide arms-tracking software and relevant training to recipient countries.

Operation Enduring Friendship: An armed friend is a friend indeed

Beyond the SPP and the Mesoamerica Project, the Central America region’s $4 million Foreign Military Financing (FMF) money in Plan Mexico is in large part dedicated to carrying out Operation Enduring Friendship, which, in conjunction with the hotly contested reactivation of the US Southern Command’s Fourth Fleet, will expand US military hegemony in the Western Hemisphere.

The Navy denies that reactivating the Fourth Fleet will result in more ships in the region and claims that the Fourth Fleet will be an “organizational fleet” instead of a physical one. However, Plan Mexico is stocking Central American countries with ships via another Southern Command (SouthCom) initiative: Operation Enduring Friendship. While money earmarked for the Fourth Fleet may not pay for new ships in the hemisphere, Operation Enduring Friendship’s funds certainly will.

Operation Enduring Friendship is, according to WOLA, a

proposal to coordinate maritime operations throughout the nations of the Western Hemisphere, and indeed to become a ‘Maritime Force of the Americas,’ led by the United States…. Enduring Friendship as conceived would usher in not only U.S. military involvement in a wider variety of non-military threats, but it would also encourage Latin American nations to use police and military authorities interchangeably.

Luis Lauredo, former U.S. Ambassador to the Organization of American States, said in an address to the Inter-American Defense College, “...we must guard against defining every challenge as a security issue, lest the concept become meaningless. As a region, we must be careful about labeling problems that are primarily economic or social as security issues or else we may find ourselves using the wrong tools to fix real problems.” Invoking military might against oil spills, fish poaching and the smuggling of illegal immigrants, for instance, would be to use the wrong tools for the problems at hand.

Further, to export to Latin America a model of using the military for police functions is a contradiction to our own principle of posse comitatus and may serve to further weaken cultural and legal prohibitions that exist between police uses and military uses in participating countries. This is even riskier considering that many countries in the region have legacies of authoritarian regimes that originated when the armed forces intervened in domestic matters; Operation Enduring Friendship would undermine the efforts those countries have taken to prevent their militaries from carrying out law enforcement roles. As such, the solutions to non-military problems should not be led by the military, but should be addressed by the appropriate civilian agencies. Operation Enduring Friendship would dangerously blur those important distinctions.

Operation Enduring Friendship predates Plan Mexico. Under the program, the US government has already given at least ten boats to at least three Central American and Caribbean countries. Plan Mexico will simply provide more funds and armament to the “Maritime Force of the Americas.

Plan Mexico’s Enduring Friendship funds will refurbish up to three 82-foot patrol boats and up to four 25-ft go-fast interceptor boats and provide up to three 33-ft interceptor boats and a “command, control, and communications” package to the Costa Rican Coast Guard under the banner of Operation Enduring Friendship. In Panama, funds will pay for follow-on training for boat maintenance and updates and training for a communications system provided as part of the Enduring Friendship program.

Plan Mexico will draw El Salvador into Operation Enduring Friendship, providing an “initial command and control package as the first step to implement Enduring Friendship.” “Command and control package” can mean any number of things, even within a military context. Plan Mexico does not specify what will comprise the Enduring Friendship command and control package.

The US Sets Central America’s Domestic Priorities

Unlike the Mexico section of the Merída Initiative, the Central America section makes no attempt to hide the US government’s true aims. Despite a recent history of authoritarianism and military regimes in Central America, Plan Mexico does not include any human rights safeguards for the region—not even the toothless safeguards that condition 15% of Mexico’s funds.

However, Plan Mexico does include an alarming condition for Central America that it considers to be a performance measure: “we look for increased host country law enforcement personnel and budget commitments.” Through Plan Mexico, the United States government doesn’t just emphasize militarization and repressive law enforcement policies by bulking up Central America’s military and police forces with US taxpayer money. It also demands that Central American governments slash their social welfare budgets to free up funds for the military and law enforcement budgets.

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