from Latin America Studies Program

From Peril to Partnership

U.S. Security Assistance and the Bid to Stabilize Colombia and Mexico

Paul J. Angelo provides the first headlining case studies of Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative.

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Foreign policy analyses written by CFR fellows and published by the trade presses, academic presses, or the Council on Foreign Relations Press.

Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative are the two most significant U.S. security assistance efforts in Latin America in the twenty-first century. At a time when U.S. objectives in the Middle East and Central Asia were flagging, Colombia was a rare U.S. foreign policy victory—a showcase for stabilization and security sector reform. Conversely, Mexico struggled to turn the tide on the country’s scourge of crime and violence, even with an influx of resources aimed at professionalizing the country’s security, defense, and judicial institutions.

As Washington reconsiders its approach to stabilizing crisis countries after a challenging withdrawal from Afghanistan, From Peril to Partnership’s comparative analysis of Colombia and Mexico offers lessons for scholars and policymakers alike, providing insights into the efficacy of U.S. security assistance and the necessary conditions and stakeholders in partner nations that facilitate success. Crucially, private sector support, interparty consensus on security policies, and the centralization of the security bureaucracy underpinned Colombia’s success. The absence of these features in Mexico contributed to the country’s descent into chaos, culminating in the country’s highest-ever homicide rate by the end of the 2010s.

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Drawing on extensive fieldwork, From Peril to Partnership evaluates to what extent security assistance programs helped improve the operational effectiveness and democratic accountability of Washington’s partners—Colombian and Mexican security forces. It answers why Plan Colombia achieved its objectives and why the Mérida Initiative underdelivered in Mexico. Most importantly, it goes beyond drug war theatrics and the “one-size-fits-all” approach to U.S.-led stabilization—at once, restoring agency to institutions on the receiving end of U.S. security assistance and helping chart a course toward more nuanced and effective U.S. policy.

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Reviews and Endorsements

Following the collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces, Angelo’s constructive, pragmatic recommendations for tailoring U.S. assistance, captured in lessons from Colombia and Mexico, will inspire much-needed reflection. Ukraine hangs in the balance. The stakes couldn’t be higher. As Angelo correctly notes, the answers couldn’t be clearer.

Admiral James Stavridis, U.S. Navy, Ret.

Angelo’s extensive fieldwork also makes a masterful connection between effective security assistance and democratization. From Peril to Partnership should be required reading for scholars of democracy as well as for policymakers engaged in stabilization efforts.

Rebecca Bill Chavez, President and CEO, Inter-American Dialogue

In shaking up the established beliefs of many long-time practitioners and academics, From Peril to Partnership deftly delivers a great contribution.

Vanda Felbab-Brown, The Brookings Institution

By examining two similar cases from the same region, Paul J. Angelo has provided a seminal work that should be studied by policymakers, lawmakers, and practitioners alike as they grapple with how to “do”  security assistance better. These are not theoretical lessons from the past but as the collapse of Afghanistan’s security forces is contrasted with the firm hold of Ukraine’s, go to the core of current policy challenges.

Keith Mines, U.S. Institute for Peace

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