Seven points from Congress’ hearing on U.S. aid to Central America and the Caribbean

Latin America and the Caribbean

The drug trade and associated violence continues to move down from Mexico into Central America where the security situation has become dire as weak state institutions struggle to deal with an increase in violence and organized crime. As counternarcotics operations intensify in Central America, the United States expects drug traffickers to move towards the Caribbean in search of unpatrolled waters, which would have reverberating political and security consequences.

On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representative’s subcommittee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing, “Regional Security Cooperation: An Examination of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI),” to evaluate the United States’ security packages to both regions. Highlighted below are seven key points brought up about the U.S. security initiatives during the hearing.

A video of the hearing and all witness testimonies can be found here.

1. Top officials think the drug trade is going to shift to the Caribbean

In his testimony (PDF), Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield warned, "If Central America is today's crisis then the Caribbean is tomorrow's challenge." Although drug flows through the Caribbean are tiny compared to Central America, they are growing. According to Brownfield, nine percent of all cocaine headed to the United States passes through the Caribbean, representing an almost 100% increase from 2011, when that number was at five percent. Most of the drugs are going through the Dominican Republic. To combat this, the United States is training judges, prosecutors and police, and is setting up a regional training hub in Trinidad and Tobago, according to Brownfield.

The U.S. government sees the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative (CBSI) as a preventive measure to try and strengthen institutions before there is an increase in organized crime. Brownfield explained the “balloon effect” history of U.S. counternarcotics operations: Plan Colombia pushed much of the drug trade and associated violence into Mexico, the Mérida Initiative squeezed organized crime into Central America and now the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) will likely push criminals towards the Caribbean. The hope is that with the help of CBSI, organized crime will not be able to overtake the Caribbean as traffickers look for alternative routes.

2. The jury is “still out” on CBSI’s effectiveness

In a hearing in March, Assistant Secretary of Western Hemisphere Affairs for the Department of State Roberta Jacobson said the jury was “still out” on whether CBSI is effective. This appears to still be the case and Brownfield noted on at the hearing on June 19 that it would be two years before they know if CBSI is successful. One of the reasons for this that he cited is that the drug trade is not concentrated in the Caribbean at the moment. Another reason, acknowledged by Brownfield and Deputy Assistant Secretary, Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, Liliana Ayalde, is that the initiative has gotten off to a “slow start.” According to Brownfield, of the $200 million appropriated for CBSI between 2010 and 2012, only about 19 percent has been delivered. Brownfield said this is because CBSI works with 13 different governments, so coordination and transparency assurance has slowed the pace of the program.

3. Colombia is a key partner for U.S. efforts in Central America and Caribbean

Colombia is touted as the model in the war of drugs in nearly every congressional hearing on security in the region. The U.S. sees Colombia’s role training other countries as a return on investment. Brownfield noted, “It’s a dividend that we get for investing over $9 billion in support for Plan Colombia.”

According to Brownfield, the Colombian National Police are training more law enforcement officers in Central America than all of U.S. law enforcement put together. Some of the funding for this is from the U.S. – through a combination of CARSI, Plan Colombia, and Mérida funds. As he said, “it is cheaper for us to have Colombia do training than us do it ourselves.” Right now Colombia is training police from four out of seven countries in Central America and in the Dominican Republic, but is looking to become even more involved.

4. Central American governments have to help themselves

A main point brought up by both the members of Congress and those testifying, was that of each country’s commitment. If a government is not committed to following through on police reform and targeting corruption, then that investment should be questioned. Here, Honduras was brought up as an example of a government that has pledged to make reforms but has been slow and often negligent about doing so.

5. A change in approach

Mark Lopes, Deputy Assistant Administrator, Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean for USAID, Brownfield, and Ayalde all highlighted key programs focusing on crime prevention, education, development, and training that are being implemented throughout the region. However, as Michael Shifter, President of Inter-American Dialogue, noted in his testimony (PDF), money for counternarcotics operations account for most of the funding in these programs -- two-thirds of funds for CARSI between 2008-2011 and three-quarters through CBSI for 2010-2012, -- some of which he said would be better invested in institution building.

Shifter also highlighted a main issue: that cocaine seizures, the main metric used in U.S. security aid, are not directly correlated with homicide rates. He used the example of the Caribbean, where cocaine trafficking routes have been greatly reduced since their peak in the 1980s, but where the murder rate has more than doubled over the past decade. Given that the security situation has worsened in many places since when CARSI start in 2008, Shifter also suggested other programs be implemented to supplement CARSI, citing Honduras where murder rates have increased 50 percent between 2008 and 2012. All parties also noted to some degree, that state presence is rural areas is key.

Eric Olson of the Wilson Center recommended in his testimony (PDF) that instead of more training, focus should start with pressuring institutions to be more transparent and accountable to ensure funds are being effectively spent. He offered the example of Honduras, where 400 police officers were on the payroll that did not exist and vehicles being paid for could not be found.

6. The U.S. Congress is (justifiably) concerned about Honduras
While El Salvador and Guatemala have had evidence of improvement, Olson testified that Honduras is the most troubled country in the region. Some points from his testimony:

  • Impunity rates of 90% and higher are commonplace.
  • At present, the Honduran Attorney General is effectively suspended.
  • The police’s criminal investigative unit (DGIC) of roughly 1,200 officers is in some kind of limbo category because the government cannot figure out how to legally fire them.
  • The United States tried to implement a $10 million prison-reform program that was stopped because the government did not implement the basic reforms necessary.

The chairman of the committee, Matt Salmon, asked about the Department of State’s funding for Honduran security forces given concerns over security forces committing human rights abuses and what impact the holding up funds had on programs. Currently Congress is holding $10.3 million in funding to Honduras over human rights concerns and a failed police reform.

In his testimony, Brownfield warned that with the hold-up of funds, there will be less presence in isolated regions of the country, making the territory more attractive to drug traffickers. Regarding human rights abuses, he said that they are applying strict vetting measures and working with institutions to remove those that fail the process. He made no mention of the United States’ recent announcement it had stopped funding the failed Honduran police reform in March, or about police and military extrajudicial killings.

Another reason for a hold on funding is that Honduras’ police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla has been accused of extrajudicial killings. During his testimony, Brownfield emphasized that the United States does not directly fund anyone accused of human rights abuses, nor who directly works with them. However, they will fund those working “two steps below,” despite an Associated Press report finding that the Honduran Constitution mandates all units report to Bonilla.

On the same day that this hearing took place, 21 senators sent a letter to Secretary of State Kerry asking for a detailed report to Congress on human rights abuses committed by security forces in Honduras. The letter stated that the senators had “serious questions regarding the State Department’s certification” that Honduras met the human rights conditions necessary to guarantee U.S. aid for Fiscal Year 2012. It came following reports about ineffective police reform and corruption.

7. Transparency

Specific information about these programs is hard to come by, as there is no country-by-country breakdown of funds in official reports. Chairman Matt Salmon requested the following information:

  • How much funding is being given to each country and how are those allocations being made.
  • If any countries are not receiving any type of CARSI aid at this time and why not.
  • To what extent CARSI aid is tied to demonstrations of political will.
  • How much money the region spends on security for every dollar the United States contributes.
  • How the Department of Defense has supplemented CARSI assistance and what its successes have been so far.

The trifecta of weak state institutions, an uptick in drug trafficking and violence, and reports of institutional corruption, paired with an increase in U.S. security assistance to Central America, means that the answers to these questions will become increasingly important as Congress and civil society try to evaluate both aid packages.