US Aid to El Salvador: The Anti-Plan Colombia?

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Six months after signing a partnership agreement aimed at improving rule of law in El Salvador, the US says the plan is on the right track. Even more promisingly, it looks like the pact may avoid some of the mistakes of other model security agreements, like Plan Colombia.

On his visit to El Salvador in March 2011, President Barack Obama unveiled several aid initiatives to improve security in the country, one of the most violent in the hemisphere thanks to drug trafficking and crime. Obama and President Mauricio Funes announced the Partnership for Growth, an aid model introduced by the Obama administration and sold as an “unprecedented bilateral collaboration” led by the recipient country rather than the donor. A team made up of US and Salvadoran officials carried out an analysis of the factors constraining the country’s economic development, identifying crime and insecurity, as well as low productivity, as the biggest blocks to growth. In November the countries signed a Joint Action Plan to address these constraints, set to run until 2015.

The principles of Salvador’s Partnership for Growth are in many ways the antithesis of the massive US aid program for Colombia, launched in 2000. Through Plan Colombia, the US poured some $8 billion in mostly military aid into the country, which was used to build up the armed forces and carry out large-scale coca eradication. The aim was to attack the drug trade and defeat illegal armed groups, and in this respect it had significant successes.

The Partnership for Growth, by contrast, does not involve the commitment of any new funds, but rather increased cooperation between various US agencies, making existing work by them and by the Salvadoran government more effective. Its aims are narrower — the partnership focuses on the effects of organized crime, namely violence and chaos which hold back human development in the country, rather than on using force to try to put an end to the drug trade itself. The emphasis is on the transfer of expertise, rather than the injection of billions of dollars. The plan’s approach to the crime and insecurity aspect is two-pronged: strengthening Salvadoran institutions, and preventing crime and violence.

A major reason behind this pared-down approach is that the US has neither the resources nor the will to give billions to El Salvador’s armed forces. The War on Terror has replaced the War on Drugs as the foreign policy focus, and the financial crisis has put budgets under strain. The US has historically committed far less funds to Central America than to Colombia or Mexico — the Obama administration requested $107.5 million for the whole of Central America via CARSI in FY2013, while Colombia is set to receive over $442 million in various types of aid from the US in that year.

However, it could also be that the US government has absorbed some of the lessons of Plan Colombia. In a report released last year, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) called the massive aid project a “cautionary tale” for future US efforts in the region. According to WOLA, the failings of Plan Colombia point to the need for future US aid efforts to strengthen civilian government, cut impunity, and create opportunities for excluded sectors of society. It said that the US should not promote militarization in recipient countries, and that programs should be tailored to the specific situation of the country, and accompanied by regular evaluations.

Scorecards to measure the progress of the Partnership for Growth will be drawn up every six months. The first evaluation, released in July, found that the program goals were on track in all but two of the 14 crime and insecurity metrics.

One of the key goals of the partnership is to strengthen Salvador’s justice and security institutions. The action plan says that the country’s institutional weaknesses prevent an effective response to crime, and calls for a “holistic, comprehensive strategy” across different bodies, with reform for prosecutors, police officers, judges, and security personnel. The six-month scorecard says that these efforts are on target. Some 242 justice sector personnel have been trained by US agencies so far, and a new Inter-Institutional Investigation Manual, meant to improve and standardize investigative procedures, has been distributed to police and prosecutors.

The partnership also sets the target of increasing the confiscation of criminal assets, and using them to fund law enforcement. The aim is to to get an effective asset forfeiture law passed, and strengthen financial investigation units. This is on target, according to the report. Draft laws on confiscation and using assets to fight crime have been drawn up, and will go before the National Assembly later this year. This kind of work to dismantle the financial networks of criminal organizations is important for breaking up these structures in the long term and making El Salvador a less attractive site for traffickers to base their operations.

Another target in the institution-strengthening part of the plan is to protect small businesses from the impact of crime — this is particularly relevant in El Salvador, where extortion is the main source of income for the “mara” gangs. Extortion is often targeted against small, local businesses, and is a particularly violent crime as it necessarily involves spreading fear in the population, in order to guarantee that payments are made. The metric is also classed as on-target: the US has stationed a Resident Legal Advisor to help with the implementation of task forces combating crime against businesses. The scorecard also points to the Salvadoran police force’s new anti-gang unit. This force of some 302 officers has been specially trained in investigative techniques and in the activities of gangs, and began operations in April.

The kind of institution-building and reform set out in the first section of the scorecard is perhaps the most important contribution that can be made to cutting crime and violence in El Salvador, where corruption and inefficiency in the police and judiciary have allowed organized crime to develop to its current level.

The second prong of the partnership is crime prevention. This, with a focus on strategies to stop young people joining gangs and bringing in community policing techniques, comes in contrast to the repressive measures employed in El Salvador in the past. The “Mano Dura” policy, brought in in 2003, took a hard line against gangs, criminalizing membership and locking up thousands of young people, but the result was to force the groups to regroup and reorganize. The schemes set out in the partnership include programs to get young people into employment or education, to prevent them from joining gangs in the first place.

The report sets out several measures taken so far by the US agencies, including making alliances with companies to help young people get jobs, and training some 600 at-risk youths. It also notes the Salvadoran government’s plan for “Special Parks for Social Reinsertion and a Culture of Peace.” These parks are intended to help high-risk individuals find work opportunities, and the government has said it will roll them out to benefit 70,000 people across the country. However, as InSight Crime has commented, so far the government hasn’t explained where the projected $20 million to pay for the reinsertion scheme would come from, or which companies would be willing to hire former gang members. The evaluation says that data on the number of people who find employment through the scheme will be reported at the next six-month scorecard.

The plan places special emphasis on instituting community policing across the country. One model program has been instituted in five municipalities, and is working smoothly enough to warrant its expansion, the evaluation says. According to the scorecard, a community policing program in Lourdes has brought about a 40 percent drop in violent crime. However, the job of police reform in El Salvador is enormous, and it remains to be seen if these kind of model programs (also in place in Guatemala and Honduras) merely set up isolated pockets of good practice or can be spread across the country.

It is far too early to evaluate the success of the partnership for growth. Many of the projects it sets out are good ideas, targeted to the specific problems of El Salvador. Even more encouragingly, it appears that the plan is avoiding some of the failures of Plan Colombia, which took a heavily militarized approach to security, building up the armed forces at the expense of justice institutions. If the US-El Salvador partnership stays on track, as the six-month score card says it has so far, both countries may soon be able to point to some very visible successes in terms of strengthening El Salvador’s badly weakened institutions.

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