US Security Initiative Faces Political Obstacles in Northern Triangle

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A new report claims the lack of a comprehensive strategy has limited the effectiveness of US security initiative CARSI in Central America’s “Northern Triangle,” highlighting how divergent political interests can undermine bilateral security assistance programs.

A report (pdf) by the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington DC evaluated the impact of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) — a US assistance program aimed at strengthening security apparatuses and lowering crime rates in Central America — in the “Northern Triangle” region (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras).

CARSI is described as an integrated and collaborative regional security program on the US State Department website. However, the absence of a cohesive strategy has produced disjointed efforts that are at times contradictory to CARSI’s stated goals, according to the report.

“Some agencies favor a more traditional counter-narcotics law-and-order focus, while others prioritize the reduction of community-based violence, and these distinct approaches periodically end up working at cross-purposes,” the authors write.

The lack of rigorous evaluations in measuring program results has further undermined the security initiative’s impact. When evaluations were administered, they often focused on what the report calls “inputs” — such as the number of police trained or drug seizures — while neglecting to identify the outcomes of these initiatives. A recent multi-year impact evaluation by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) of USAID’s community-based crime prevention programs was highlighted as one notable exception.

The report also evaluated what the authors considered the successes and failures of CARSI-funded programs in each of the Northern Triangle countries.

Guatemala is considered the “centerpiece” of the US initiative, and has received the largest amount of funding since CARSI’s inception in fiscal year (FY) 2010. A focal point of the CARSI strategy in Guatemala has been improving the country’s counter-narcotics program. However, US-assisted maritime and aerial interdiction efforts have seen marginal success, while poppy eradication campaigns have provoked protests. On the other hand, CARSI has supported crime prevention programs and the creation of specialized courts for gender violence and potentially dangerous cases in Guatemala. The last of these have achieved a higher conviction rate than the national average.

CARSI-funded projects have also focused on combating drug trafficking in Honduras, as well as the related issue of money laundering. The report indicates that these efforts have been hampered by unsuccessful US attempts to reduce corruption in law enforcement agencies. One criticism was that programs tend to focus on training individuals, rather than reforming the institutions as a whole. 

Meanwhile, CARSI initiatives have diverged with the security policies of current President Juan Orlando Hernandez. US assistance has sought to strengthen the country’s civilian police and judicial institutions as a means to reduce crime and violence, while Hernandez has taken a more hard-line approach to crime by building up the country’s military police force.

In El Salvador, CARSI has focused efforts on building the capacity of law enforcement and other government institutions. However, the projects have failed to address fundamental causes of El Salvador’s epidemic violence, such as widespread corruption in the country’s judicial system. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The Wilson Center report underscores the importance of a coordinated political effort in implementing a successful bilateral security assistance program like CARSI. This includes collaboration not only between the United States and the host country, but also within the US political system.

As indicated in the report, the tension between counter-narcotics programs and citizen security initiatives within CARSI’s guiding strategy is likely due to differing viewpoints on security policy in the Legislative and Executive branches of the United States.The deployment of US government agencies with divergent methods for improving the Northern Triangle’s security situation — such as the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) — further strain coordination efforts. While agencies such as the DEA tend to use traditional law enforcement techniques, USAID favors community-based crime prevention strategies.

Perhaps the most notable example of US political gridlock limiting CARSI’s impact is in El Salvador. According to the report, CARSI is unable to address two principal causes of insecurity in the country — US migration policy and illegal firearms — as they are highly controversial domestic issues in the United States. 

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

The report indicates this is why there is no US funding earmarked for reintegrating adult deportees back into Salvadoran society. Considering that the country’s most powerful street gangs — the Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) — migrated to El Salvador in the 1990s following stiffer US deportation policies, the lack of US assistance in this regard is troubling. Meanwhile, more than half of all illegal firearms in El Salvador reportedly come from the United States, in large part due to lax US gun legislation.

As seen in Honduras, differing policy priorities between the United States and the host country are another obstacle in implementing a cohesive bilateral security strategy. This is true even for the community-based inititiatives implemented by USAID. While the LAPOP study showed these can be successful, they will only prove sustainable if the host countries demonstrate political will to favor these over hard-line security policies. So far, it is not clear this will be the case: Honduras’ president is in the process of adding 1,000 new members to the country’s military police force and seeks to enshrine the unit in the Honduran constitution.  

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Security Policy

The diverging political objectives of the US and the Central American governments was also highlighted by an unproductive meeting between US Vice-President Joe Biden and the Northern Triangle presidents in mid-November, which demonstrated how far apart the two sides are in reaching a solution to the region’s child migrant crisis.

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