We Know How to End Drug Violence in Central America

Stick to what worked in Colombia.

Violence and Grief Define Life In Honduran Capital
TEGUCIGALPA, HONDURAS - JULY 20: Police patrol the streets of a gang ridden neighborhood on July 20, 2012 in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Honduras now has the highest per capita murder rate in the world and its capital city, Tegucigalpa, is plagued by violence, poverty, homelessness and sexual assaults. With an estimated 80% of the cocaine entering the United States now being trans-shipped through Honduras, the violence on the streets is a spillover from the ramped rise in narco-trafficking. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Some years ago, when Plan Colombia — a $9 billion initiative approved by Congress in 2000 and spread across most of a decade designed to help the nation battle the long-running Marxist insurgency — began to show results in reducing violence and narcotics challenges, many observers felt that as the heat of violence and crime diminished somewhat on the Andean ridge, it would inexorably be turned up proportionally in Central America. Sadly, some 15 years later, that is exactly what has occurred.

Indeed, over the past five years, we have seen violence rates soar in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador as narcotics activity ramped up in the “northern triangle” of Central America. Now, the United States must help our Central American partners address these challenges, and apply some of the many of the valuable lessons learned in Colombia.

In Colombia, we learned to take a mix of outside assistance, local determination, and key tools — legal mechanisms, intelligence, information, training for law enforcement and security forces, strategic communication, and strong interagency cooperation, for example — to help address the challenges. We can best help Central America by looking at what has worked in Colombia.

First, the bad news: Leaving aside the debate on legalization of narcotics — whether legalizing drugs would automatically reduce violence and gang warfare is a legitimate question — the brute fact is that in today’s world the profits stemming from the narcotics trade create massive corruption in Central America, undermine the fragile democracies there, and induce the highest violence rates in the world. There was nearly a 40 percent increase in first-time heroin users over the past five years, and 95 percent of that heroin flows to the United States from the south.

Given that the flow of heroin creates gang turf battles, causes overdoses, and leads to serious corruption, it is worth looking at violent death statistics. So let’s do the numbers on violent deaths per 100,000 in the population on an annualized basis. In Europe, the safest part of the world, roughly a single violent death occurs each year per 100,000 in the population. In the United States, a much more violent society, our numbers are approximately five per year. Afghanistan, in the midst of a violent insurgency in the south and east of the country, has a higher rate of violence still — nearly 10. Yet for truly striking levels of violence, look at Central America — around 40 violent deaths per year for every 100,000 in the population across the region. Honduras was 90 annual deaths per 100,000.

This kind of violence distorts every aspect of the political and social fabric of a nation, and drives elections toward the mano dura or iron fist approach to dealing with it — leading inexorably to impunity, human rights violations, and the militarization of police forces. This is exactly what has happened in El Salvador in the past several years. It also provides fertile ground for the growth of gangs (whose culture, traditions, and vicious business methods largely have been exported from the United States, by the way).

From the perspective of the United States, this is concerning in a variety of ways. First and foremost, it encourages illegal migration through our porous southern borders, both sea and land. It also creates a chaotic environment that creates downward pressure on local economies and holds large parts of the population in poverty, facilitating a cycle of violence through the generations. Last year, for example, over half a million illegal migrants from Mexico and Central America were apprehended on our borders, including 50,000 unaccompanied children. We have seen postings on Islamic State (IS) sites arguing for an infiltration of the United States from the south.

We also see growing Chinese and Russian influence in the region, manifested most prominently by the Chinese financial support to the Nicaraguan Canal, increased Russian military deployments in the region, and the Chinese “pivot” to Latin America and the Caribbean even as we “pivot” to the Pacific. All of this was noted by Gen. John Kelly, the current commander of U.S. Southern Command, in testimony he gave on the Hill several weeks ago.

We need a “Plan Central America,” much as we had a “Plan Colombia,” and now is the time to explore what that should look like.

First, we need to help create security in very fundamental ways at ground level with trainers and advisors. This means continuing our partnership with Colombia of course, but also taking the same approach in Central America — and perhaps encouraging the Colombians to participate. We do not need large troop deployments (they were capped in Colombia at under a thousand), but rather specialized and well trained military personnel with Spanish linguistic capability, training in human rights, and a solid grounding in working through the interagency to get results.

And send more lawyers. Part of this is assistance in implementing legal mechanisms for dealing with trans-national crime: implementing extraditions (to the United States or Colombia, for example); use of cell phone and social network site monitoring within the framework of constitutional law in each of the countries; and national police forces who can rise above local bribery and corruption. It also involves practical help in gather intelligence on counter-criminal and counter-narcotic activity.

Second, our aid should be interagency-focused and a meld of defense, diplomacy and development. The new U.S. Strategy for Engagement in Central America is a step in the right direction, but it is frankly too little too late. While certainly welcome, the $1.1 billion grant needs a power boost in terms of emphasis and funding to really move the needle — think $2 billion annually.

Third, we need to truly and consistently resource operational counter-criminal activity. The Commandant of the Coast Guard, speaking at the rollout of the new Cooperative Strategy for 21st Century Sea Power last week, said that he has visibility on 80 percent-plus of the narcotic flows to the United States, but only has assets to interdict 20 percent or less of them.

Despite the success of Operation Martillo (which has stopped 400 metric tons of drugs over the past four years), if we continue to starve the Coast Guard and Navy in this region, we leave it open to huge profits for narcotic smugglers — further increasing the money available to destabilize the region.

None of this is a cry for a new “War on Drugs.” That is a clearly failed construct, and was never a war in any sense to begin with. What is desperately needed is an approach that attacks the challenges of narcotics and crime with innovative solutions in all three important zones: production in the Andean ridge (with development, jobs, and education); transit through Central America (with adequate interdiction assets and a “Plan Central America”); and diminishing the market here in the United States (through better treatment for addicts, education, and at least a mature discussion of legalization).

This is a classic example of a part of the world where a “smart power” approach is optimal — combining all the elements of national capability: economic, financial, security, development, diplomacy, and collaboration. We have done this effectively in Colombia and the Balkans, and can do it in Central America — at a far lower cost than dealing with the consequences of inaction.

If we do not heed the “fire down South,” it will hurt our economy, kill our citizens, drive further waves of illegal immigration, and condemn a vital part of the region to more misery, violence and poverty. This is pennies on the dollar in terms of impact. Let’s get to work.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

James Stavridis is a retired four-star U.S. Navy admiral and NATO supreme allied commander who serves today as the dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. His latest book is The Leader's Bookshelf. Twitter: @stavridisj