CFR Fellows' Book Launch Series: From Peril to Partnership by Paul J. Angelo

Monday, March 11, 2024
Joaquin Sarmiento/Getty

Director, William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, National Defense University; Former Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Author, From Peril to Partnership: U.S. Security Assistance and the Bid to Stabilize Colombia and Mexico


Vice President, Deputy Director of Studies, and Nelson and David Rockefeller Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; @shannonkoneil

In From Peril to Partnership, using case studies of Colombia and Mexico, Paul Angelo evaluates the efficacy of U.S. security assistance and the necessary conditions and stakeholders in partner nations that facilitate success. The book answers why Plan Colombia achieved its objectives and why the Mérida Initiative underdelivered in Mexico. It goes beyond drug war theatrics and the “one-size-fits-all” approach to U.S.-led stabilization. 

**Please note that Paul Angelo's views do not represent those of the U.S. Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.**

The CFR Fellows’ Book Launch series highlights new books by CFR fellows. 

O’NEIL: Well, good evening, everyone. I’m Shannon O’Neil. I’m vice president of studies here at the Council on Foreign Relations. It is my pleasure to welcome you all and to preside over this meeting with Paul Angelo.  

Now, Paul has a big fancy title at the National Defense University which I could read to you but I would like to refer to him as a former fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations. 

ANGELO: And a current term member. 

O’NEIL: And a current term member. And when he was at the Council on Foreign Relations he wrote this amazing book, which is here and available for purchase and signature if you’re really nice to Paul afterward. It is From Peril to Partnership: U.S. Security Assistance and the Bid to Stabilize Colombia and Mexico.  

So we are going to kick it off here and have a conversation about the book and what’s in the book for the first half hour and then I’m going to open it up to all of your questions for Paul. So be ready for that, anything that you would like to ask him about the book or about Latin America in general, dare I say. Excellent. (Laughter.) 

OK. So to kick it off, you know, this book is really one of the most nuanced in-depth investigations into the two biggest security plans in the Western Hemisphere, Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative in Mexico. So decade-long plans that involved everything from, you know, arms and technical training and all kinds of support for militaries, for police, for courts, for other parts of the overall security apparatus.  

And, you know, Paul finds that it is really a tale of divergence, that one is successful and one is much less successful. So we’re going to delve into all of that. But I look around and I see lots of familiar Latin America faces but others, too, who perhaps aren’t quite as steeped in the details.  

So before we get into your argument and what happened and why one succeeded and why one failed I’d like to just start a little bit with the origin stories. So let’s talk about each in turn. Let’s start with Plan Colombia.  

Why was there a U.S. security assistance program? What is Plan Colombia and how did it come about?  

ANGELO: Great. Well, thank you so much, Shannon, and thank you to everyone for joining us tonight. It’s really wonderful to see so many faces—familiar faces—young and old, people from different stages of my career in the audience and it’s a real pleasure to be here on stage with you, Shannon, for everything that you contributed in terms of moral support and intellectual contributions to the production of this book. I’m just so grateful.  

And also I would be remiss not to mention my two research associates who are also in the audience who were fundamental and elemental to everything that this book became, David and Carolyn (sp). I don’t know where Carolyn (sp) is. In the back. (Applause.) Their personalities are reflected by where they’re—where they’re sitting this evening. (Laughter.)  

No, but in terms of origin stories I think we have to look to where Columbia was in the late 1980s and into early 1990s to help inform the strategic decision that was made by the U.S. government to engage full throttle in Colombia with a very generous security assistance package, the most generous that we’ve ever had in Latin American and the Caribbean in history, one that amounted to anywhere between 8 (billion dollars) and $11 billion over ten to fifteen years. 

And I think it starts where my book starts, in sort of a depiction of the narconovela and Narcos. We’re all familiar with Netflix Narcos. It was preceded by a number of Colombian telenovelas or dramas about Pablo Escobar and the drug trade in the 1980s.  

And so I think when we look at the decision that the United States made in 1999 to authorize and then later in 2000 to authorize into law Plan Colombia as a major security assistance initiative it already followed on the heels of what was increasing collaboration or cooperation between the U.S. government and the Colombian security sector in dismantling the Medellín and Cali cartels.  

But what happened is Colombia and with the support of the United States dismantled those cartels is we saw an atomization of organized crime in Colombia and so all of the work that had been performed in very highly centralized cartels was thereafter performed by—increasingly by guerrillas, paramilitaries, who had very different operating models and created a very complicated situation for Colombia throughout the 1990s, so much so that by the late ’90s people in Bogotá were wondering whether or not their capital will be taken in the same way that Havana was by Fidel Castro and those barbudos. 

And so it was that historical moment in which there was a paranoia in Colombia about the violence that was being waged by insurgents and paramilitaries and other drug gangs fueled with a growing perception here in the United States that we weren’t doing enough to deal with domestic drug abuse and consumption here at home, following on the heels of a moral crisis in the U.S. presidency during the Clinton administration where you saw thereafter a concerted and bipartisan interest in helping Colombia solve its drug violence issues.  

O’NEIL: So that’s the basis for 8 (billion dollars), 10 (billion dollars), whatever billion dollars in Colombia. Talk a little bit about the Mérida Initiative, because that comes a little bit later. 

ANGELO: Yeah. And so I think—the Mérida Initiative was negotiated between 2006-2007 between the Bush administration and just after Calderón came into office at the end of 2006 in Mexico and it happened at a moment in history in which Plan Colombia had already been six to seven years in operation and was already starting to bear very promising fruits.  

And so I think that there really was an instinct at the beginning of Plan Colombia—excuse me, at the Mérida Initiative to fashion it on the Plan Colombia model because we had achieved some considerable success.  

It wasn’t a complete success at that moment but the guerillas were on the run, citizen confidence in their security forces was soaring, and the military had consolidated—been an important agent in helping the state consolidate its presence in areas of the country that had been long bereft the presence of the state.  

And there was a similar ambition in—from the U.S. side to do the same in Mexico and in fact when the initial conversations were happening about the Mérida Initiative the U.S. government was fairly colloquially referring to it as Plan Mexico.  

And what happened in the 2006 election in Mexico created some incentives for Felipe Calderón when he came to office to also pursue a closer relationship to the United States. It was a hotly contested election. President Calderón had beat—defeated his opponent Lopez Obrador, current president of Mexico, by less than one percentage point and rejected Calderón’s mandate, and then went around the country campaigning as the legitimate president of Mexico for the next year of his life.  

And so Calderón, in an effort to shore up his own domestic support while also responding to what was an escalating crisis of drug violence in his own country, sought a deeper relationship with the United States.  

Oftentimes we see this that when the domestic mandate of a new president is contested that individual will often seek alliances abroad and it was a new opportunity for the PAN and for the Calderón administration and something that the United States had long sought for historical reasons to include the fact that the United States had at various points in history taken Mexican land—national territory—that we now have incorporated as our own national territory.  

The Mexican military in particular had been very suspicious of the United States. Their foundational doctrine, what they teach in their service schools, all identifies the United States as the premier defense threat that Mexico confronts.  

And so the United States had long—particularly after September 11 had long been seeking a closer relationship with Mexican security forces and found a critical juncture in Calderón’s election that also coincided with this escalation of violence and it gave the United States entree that it had previously been denied.  

O’NEIL: Great. And I can’t remember if this is in your book but in how closely these were related I remember talking with the Mexicans and the first list of equipment that came to the U.S. government was one that they had just borrowed from the Colombians. 

ANGELO: That’s absolutely correct, and something also happened. The individuals who were negotiating Plan Colombia—excuse me, the Mérida Initiative, were also brought to SOUTHCOM headquarters to have conversations with U.S. Southern Command even though Mexico is a U.S. Northern Command geographic entity—have conversations about the experience of Colombia with Plan Colombia that informed the decision making on both sides of the bilateral relationship on everything from what kinds of hardware they’d be getting to what kinds of human rights conditions they would face.  

O’NEIL: Yeah. So let’s get to really the crux of your argument which is that, you know, one was quite successful and one was not so successful even though, you know, in terms of size, in terms of duration, in terms of equipment, they were quite similar.  

So talk a little bit about it because what’s interesting about this book and this argument is that rather than looking at, you know, was it the U.S., was it the way the U.S., you know, put on conditionality or did different things, the things that you really focus in on are domestic factors.  

So let’s start with the—what are—what’s the context and what conceptually was most important that you found in your research?  

ANGELO: Yeah. So, I mean, I think too often here in Washington, D.C., in the policy world we assume too much control on the U.S.—on U.S.’ behalf and there are so many things that are happening in the world that we aren’t puppeteering, and even in Latin America most Latin American countries also assume the United States is puppeteering everything as well, which is just not true.  

There are real limits to what the United States can do in terms of asserting its power, even in the most robust instances of U.S. foreign policy in which I would classify Plan Columbia and the Mérida Initiative.  

And so what I sought to do with this book was restore some of the agency to our partners on the receiving end of security assistance and in doing so we see a divergence in terms of results, that the conditions in Colombia were far more favorable because Colombia and the United States shared a strategic vision in a way that the United States and Mexico did not, and too often in the popular literature and even some—to some degree in academic literature about U.S. security assistance the—sort of the elusive but ever informative factor is political will and what I sought to do was actually tease out what undergirds political will—what were the various players or points of entry in Colombia that made U.S. security assistance so transformational for Colombia and likewise where their organizations or individuals who are undercutting our best laid plans in Mexico and there I identify three main groups starting with the private sector, following on with political parties and, thirdly, looking at the nature of the security sector’s bureaucracy itself.  

O’NEIL: OK. Great. So let’s play those out.  

Let’s start with the successful. How did those—you know, the private sector, the political parties, you know, the nature of the system, the institutional system—how did they help Colombia achieve more safety, security, rule of law? 

ANGELO: So there’s something very different or unique about elite relations in Colombia than you would see in elite relations in Mexico.  

In Colombia if you look historically political elites tend to also come from the ranks of financial elite circles. That does not—that is not the case historically in Mexico. There have been major exceptions in Mexico in the last twenty years. I think President Fox is kind of somebody who broke the mold in that regard because he came from a(n) entrepreneurial impresario background. But for the most part Mexican politicians over the last fifty to sixty years have come from the middle class.  

And so there’s an inherent suspicion between political elites and financial elites in Mexico, whereas in Colombia those circles are overlapping and a lot of times people who work in business will perform stints in government and then go back into business and then go back into government.  

And so there’s a trust there that I think enabled Colombia and starting with peace bonds that were being sold during the—to elites—financial elites in the business sector during the Pastrana administration but then more pointedly with the imposition of a democratic security tax during the Uribe administration where elites really didn’t question whether or not the resources that were being collected as tax revenue were going to be spent well on the things that elites cared about, namely, security in this case. 

The democratic security tax also included kind of a convening board or an oversight board where elites had an opportunity to voice directly to the president their opinions or their preferences when it came to how monies that were raised with the democratic security tax were being expended.  

That conversation did not happen at all in Mexico. In fact, General Naranjo, who was the former director of national police in Colombia, after he retired was brought on as an adviser to the Peña Nieto administration in Mexico and the first thing he said and the last thing he said to Peña Nieto is that you need to impose a security tax. You need to have the business—the business sector here in Mexico needs to have skin in the game, and the conversation started and ended there.  

And so I think that experience informs to a great degree the divergent outcomes that we see across the two cases. 

O’NEIL: And the political elites. 

So talk about the others, because you also talk about political parties being important. So how do they differ?  

ANGELO: Well—(laughs)—so historically speaking, Colombia had a fairly consolidated and institutionalized party system. That means that there are parties that are ideological and they represent a discrete part of the ideological spectrum and that they between them historically had amassed a majority of the votes either at the presidential level or in the legislature and what really that did is it preconditioned Colombian parties to working together.  

They represented, at least in congress, the same class of people. It wasn’t necessarily that they were drawing from different classes. They were people who were well heeled and had financial resources for the most part, and so parties in congress— 

O’NEIL: Your economic elites also. 

ANGELO: They were economic elites as well, and these parties it was a lot easier for them to find consensus on things that mattered to them as a corporate bloc, and as I described security in the ’90s was critical—insecurity was critical in Colombia and that created a sense of consensus around how a security strategy should be implemented and thereafter financed, and you didn’t see real question.  

When Uribe came in and even though Uribe came in as an outsider he ran on an independent party ticket. He was previously a member of the liberal party but then ran as an independent. There was real—there was real consensus across the political spectrum that there was only one way to deal with insurgent and drug violence and that was by strengthening the security sector.  

In Mexico you had parties that had historically been institutionalized but in a fairly ideologically diverse party spectrum and they were on top of that. They were—had historically different understandings of what security policies should look like or what the role of the security sector should be in society and that informed the politicization of security as an electoral issue starting with Calderón’s election in 2006, and it was a mutually sort of reinforcing feedback loop in which every time there was a security blunder the opposition parties would hold the president or the mayor or the governor who was responsible for that blunder to task and it would—there would be sort of a partisan element to that criticism.  

And so what that produced was a political scenario in which parties could not get on the same page when it came to a national security strategy, and that’s complicated by the third factor which has to do with federalism. So I’m sure— 

O’NEIL: Let’s talk about federalism. (Laughter.) 

ANGELO: And so what you’re really dealing with as another complicating factor in Mexico is that this informs how parties relate to each other in Mexico but also how the United States relates to Mexico in a bilateral basis is that security outcomes are not dictated merely by national level institutions.  

Mexico is a country that has 1,800-plus police forces at three different levels of government that have—don’t have the same standards of recruitment, retention, pay. They don’t wear the same uniforms, they don’t respond to the same hierarchy, and they’re politicized at every level of government.  

So often they’re working at cross cutting purposes, and they’re readily politicized and they serve as agents of state capture. I mean, cartels often look to subnational security forces as a way to suborn or to intimidate government decision making as it pertains to security. 

Whereas in Colombia you have a highly centralized security sector and it’s been that way since the 1950s after a period of partisan violence, not surprisingly, and even the national police are part of the same ministry of defense and report to a civilian minister of defense. 

And so where decision making takes place it takes place at the highest level and so from a U.S. perspective negotiating reforms, negotiating transformation, negotiating professionalization, happens at the top level and it trickled down rather well throughout a highly centralized and respected organization.  

That never happened in Mexico. Even at the federal level we were dealing with the federal police, we were dealing with the judicial police, and there’s a deconcentration of the security sector at the federal level in the sense that there’s not even a single minister of defense. There are two. There’s a secretary of the army and the air force and there’s a secretary of the navy, and there’s historical distrust amongst all of these organizations that makes it really difficult for the United States, even with the most ambitious plans and support and resources, to get them to work together.  

O’NEIL: Mmm hmm. I saw Ambassador Wayne shaking his head. Like, I’m sure he has some stories. But we’ll—he’s not on the stage tonight. We’ll come to him later. (Laughs.) 

So given just how robust your findings are, how you see—I mean, how we see these real differences and, you know, billions of dollars and ten years of effort both in United States and from the countries and one works out and one doesn’t, so what the United States do if these conditions aren’t there?  

What if it’s a federal system? What if there’s politics around security? You know, what if the elites—the political elites and the economic elites—don’t overlap? Do you just not go in? What do we do? It’s a challenge. 

ANGELO: I think—yeah, I mean, it gets to the crux of the book and I think that the United States just has to go in managing its own expectations and based on what its partners bring to the table. Like, stabilization is the genesis for this book and why it was a pretext for the U.S.’ intervention through security assistance in both of these cases.  

But stabilization isn’t the only reason why the United States engages in major security assistance abroad. There are some instances in which the United States administers security assistance for the purpose of building coalitions.  

In other cases, you know, there’s discrete counterterrorism objectives. In other cases we’re trying to essentially buy loyalty from partners to preclude their affiliation with near peer competitors.  

There are a plethora of reasons why the United States might engage in security assistance and so I think we can’t generalize about the lessons because this was a very specific set of circumstances that led to stabilization being the overriding mission in Plan Columbia and the Mérida Initiative.  

Likewise, the United States and Latin America and the Caribbean more routinely and more rotundly than any other region of the world engages in democracy promotion—outside of Western Europe, I’d say—and it’s because all the countries in this hemisphere are bound to the American Democratic Charter. We all signed up for it and we are legally bound to while implementing security assistance. Also, implementing the left guard—left-right safeguards in terms of democratic governance.  

And so the conversations that we have about security assistance in this region of the world may not apply to countries in the Middle East where democratic governance is nonexistent or in places in sub-Saharan Africa where the health of democracy is in greater question.  

And so I think that, you know, one of the major lessons of this book is that we have to tailor our assistance to the circumstances that we find ourselves in on a bilateral basis, and there are some things that the United States can do. For instance, one of the reasons why parties weren’t necessarily inclined to support the Mérida Initiative was because the Mérida Initiative between Calderón and Bush was negotiated in complete secrecy.  

And so when parties in the Mexican congress found out about it they were already pre-dispositioned to oppose it because of the political polarization that I mentioned but also because they didn’t have a say in the contours of the Mérida Initiative during its negotiating phase.  

Whereas in the case of Plan Colombia the United States negotiated Plan Colombia quite openly. President Pastrana included all of the elements of Plan Colombia in his national development plan and all the members of congress went on the record and voted in a way that held them to the same expectation as the president and by extension the United States.  

And so there are little elements like that where you can create mechanisms that institutionalize elements of the—or aspects of a security assistance program. But, again, it’s going to require a real appreciation and understanding of what you’re walking into.  

O’NEIL: Mmm hmm. So I’m going to ask one more question. Then I’m going to open it up to all of you. So please be ready with questions.  

And this is—you know, as I read this, you know, it’s very clear and very convincing. But I also—you know, I look at sort of how, especially the drug trafficking threat or the violence threats or security threat, has morphed, especially in the last ten years so sort of since maybe the end of these programs or a little bit more. 

And particularly what strikes me is sort of the transnational aspect of this and, of course, it was always there but now you see, you know, Mexican organized crime, you know, all over the region and often all over the world. You see, you know, the Brazilians, the PCC, and others also have the aspirations to be spread across lots of countries and lots of continents.  

And as you think about these, what were, you know, in the end, fundamentally bilateral security arrangements is that the way to go for the United States, given that the threat is not bilateral anymore—it’s really transnational if not global in some cases?  

ANGELO: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think there were instincts in both the Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative to make them broader than just bilateral arrangements. But the geopolitical dynamics of the region were such that, for instance, the Andean Regional Initiative happened at a time when many of the governments in the Andean region were becoming anti-American and were part of the pink tide.  

And so there was a rejection of anything that whiffed of U.S. imperialism, and security assistance certainly fell within that remit. And so even though Plan Colombia there were attempts to try to prevent a displacement of Colombia—Colombian-driven drug violence to other countries in the region, you know, we were—as the U.S. government we were limited in terms of what was able to be done.  

Same thing with the Mérida Initiative. CARSI, the Central America Regional Security Initiative, was originally a subset of the Mérida Initiative which sought to address the displacement of Mexican cartel violence to Central America.  

But at some point the Mérida Initiative took on a life of its own and CARSI started doing something else and they became sort of discrete silos. You know, I think that dealing with transnational threats requires deep coordination amongst nations, particularly intelligence sharing, and I’m not sure right now we’re in that moment even with Mexico in order to be able to, like, offer up some kind of broader regional security initiative, especially after the pandemic when many countries in Latin America are, you know, rebounding from a public health crisis, also rebounding from an economic crisis, and they’re just trying to keep the train on the tracks.  

There’s not a whole lot of internationalization or even regionalization. It’s not on the agenda for most heads of state in the region. So I think developing something more regional or transnational in terms of a security assistance approach is probably not feasible although desirable.  

O’NEIL: Great. Well, let me open it up to all of you. I’d like to open it up for members. If you have a question please raise your hand, introduce yourself briefly, and ask your question. 

Rebecca, let me start with you right up here. We have a microphone for you coming.  

Q: OK. Hi. Rebecca Bill Chavez, Inter-American Dialogue.  

Paul, congratulations. You touched on this but one of the things I find most compelling about the book is the link between effective transparent security assistance and democratic consolidation and, Shannon, you mentioned the rule of law.  

So my question is about Ecuador. We’ve been recently hearing calls—we’ve heard it from former ambassadors—Todd Chapman, for example—that we need a Plan Colombia for Ecuador.  

So I know you’ve spent time in Ecuador recently— 

ANGELO: Yes, (so I have ?). 

Q: —and your point that context really, really matters, what do you see in Ecuador and what—how optimistic are you about the ability of the U.S. to provide the type of security assistance that’s needed there?  

ANGELO: So I think the way that Ecuador and Ecuadorian politicians are painting their dilemma they want to understand their situation in the same light as Pastrana and Uribe understood Colombia at the turn of the century.  

But the scenario in Ecuador today is much more akin to Mexico than it is to the political military challenges that were—the Colombian state was confronting twenty years ago.  

And so, yes, a Plan Ecuador is needed but it should not look exactly like Plan Colombia. I think we would welcome the same—the spirit of, like, bilateral cooperation and the same conditionality and the same ambition of delivering improved democratic governance and improved governance of the security sector, improved coordination between security actors in the country.  

But the tools at our disposal are probably best applied if we’re looking to the Mérida Initiative as a model and there I think things like financial intelligence—Selina (sp) is in the audience—I think financial intelligence is probably one of our most critical tools because the problem in Ecuador is one of state capture where organizations and institutions are being corroded or corrupted by twenty-two gangs that have been branded as narco-terrorists, a term that doesn’t—that really harkens back to the way that Uribe referred to the FARC, the ELN, paramilitaries, and other drug gangs but doesn’t technically meet the definition of an internal armed conflict as we understand it globally.  

And so there are, like, some strange rhetorical challenges that the U.S. government as a partner needs to address in that relationship. But things like financial intelligence—the application of a security tax is something that President Noboa has already attempted to channel through the congress—and looking as well to creating a task force that—a task force that bring police in line with the various services to do policing work. 

At the end of the day, Ecuador really needs a long-term vision for how it’s going to prevent itself from falling into the trap in which Mexico has fallen, which is eternal militarization that has now become militarism in the country.  

And so I think that that’s one of the risks. But we can’t deny the effectiveness or the importance of the military as an actor for responding to what is the current crisis.  

O’NEIL: Let me go to Cindy right back there.  

Q: Thanks so much to both of you. I’m Cindy Arnson from the Wilson Center.  

Paul, congratulations, and my question has to do with current realities in Colombia. How would you describe the security relationship right now between the United States and Colombia and do you see strains that have been put on the fundamental sort of underpinning assumptions of Plan Colombia?  

Where do you think that this is going to go over the next few years and even after a Petro administration?  

ANGELO: I mean, if we only looked at Plan Colombia through the lens of counternarcotics then I’d say the Petro administration has taken an about—or made an about face in terms of its approach to dealing with the narcotics issue.  

But because, as Shannon mentioned, the geography of organized crime and drug trafficking in the United States has shifted Colombia is no longer the epicenter. Yes, it’s the largest producer of cocaine in the world but it’s no longer the epicenter from a U.S. perspective. 

The United States government cares more about what’s happening with synthetic opioids and fentanyl crossing the border from Mexico than it does about what’s happening in Colombia. Yes, we care about Colombia because it’s a place where we’ve invested and we have great partners in the Colombian government but the strategic calculus for the United States is different today than it was during Plan Colombia and that’s something I think that we need to accept and recognize, that President Petro’s sovereign decision to pivot on counternarcotics policy while it does betray the legacy of Plan Colombia it isn’t necessarily something that will hurt the U.S.-Colombia relationship in a way that it would have twenty years ago.  

And so, you know, I think security cooperation with Colombia institutionally remains as strong as it’s ever been and that, I think, is a testament to the investment that the U.S. government and its Colombian partners made in institutions over Plan Colombia, and this is something I get into in chapter eight of my book. It’s about sustaining progress—how do you—what kinds of things do you implement to ensure that the best lessons of Plan Colombia aren’t lost.  

Well, you institutionalize them. How do you institutionalize them? In this case it’s things like documenting doctrine and holding your military and police to guidelines that have been published and are available to everyone. That’s something that the Colombian government and Colombian ministry of defense had never done before.  

It’s doing things like setting up budgeting processes for long-term planning and programming and doing so in a way that’s holistic and how capabilities that are developed in the air force aren’t replicated by capabilities that are being developed in the navy and deconflicting those and getting various services and even military and police working together in coordinated ways by institutionalizing the coordination mechanisms.  

Those are things that I think have helped keep the U.S.-Columbia relationship on the guardrails despite changing political and ideological currents at the highest levels of the Colombian government.  

O’NEIL: Let me go right here. Go ahead. Here comes the microphone. 

Q: Thank you very much. Guadalupe Correa, George Mason University.  

Paul, congratulations for the publication of this book. I was able to follow the whole process From Peril to Partnership since, you know, we kind of, like, follow up.  

My question is, what are your thoughts on the Bicentennial Framework in the case of the Mérida Initiative? I have read and analyzed the Bicentennial Framework, and I think it’s very important and interesting. What are your thoughts on the follow-up on that and a framework that would, you know, resemble and would go beyond the Bicentennial Framework or implementing something like that? 

ANGELO: So I think the Bicentennial Framework is an acknowledgement that the most ambitious goals of the Mérida Initiative were unable to be delivered. We under delivered on them, and so it’s more right sized and it’s more palatable for—at least for the Mexican government to accept that kind of partnership at that level with a focus on public health and demand reduction, et cetera.  

But any component relating to institutional reform that had informed all of our bilateral engagement for the fifteen years preceding the Bicentennial Framework has been completely extirpated from the document.  

And it’s not to say that it’s not an important line of effort for the U.S. government to continue to find a workable security sector and a good partner in the Mexican government but, you know, I think that the loss of the institutional reform objectives doesn’t meet or serve our best interests as a government and doesn’t serve the best interests of a bilateral relationship and certainly doesn’t serve the best interests of the Mexican people.  

Looking ahead—and this is something that Shannon and I were just talking about before we stepped in here—I mean, the constitutional reform package that AMLO has served up to congress, although unlikely to be passed, has essentially institutionalized Morena’s platform going into this next election and if Sheinbaum wins it will—has institutionalized her governing platform and her marching orders for at least the first couple years of her administration and one of the ambitions amongst the reforms is to constitutionally delegate authority over the national guard to SEDENA, the army, something that I think breeds further militarization and militarism and takes—puts the military in Mexico at great risk of losing its credibility.  

It remains a highly trusted organization but the more interface that it has with the population and the more it becomes involved in corruption as it’s taken on a plethora of responsibilities that go well beyond the democratic remit of a democratic military it will find itself increasingly constrained domestically and, simultaneously, it removes any instinct or impetus on the part of the Mexican government to actually genuinely resource its civilian agencies to include a civilian police.  

And so that’s a real risk that Mexico confronts, looking ahead, and, you know, I think we can’t take for granted the professionalism of the Mexican security forces, the Mexican army and navy, because they are a professional force. But that reputation is increasingly at risk.  

O’NEIL: Let me—I’m going to go back to questions in a second but I just—since I have the microphone I just have to ask you and push on Mexico.  

And so, you know, we see—you know, Mexico, as you said is the biggest concern for the United States, right. We’ve seen calls from various members of Congress as well as potential president—or presidential candidates, you know, to bomb Mexico, to invade Mexico to stop the flows of fentanyl.  

You know, we see a hundred thousand Americans die of overdoses of fentanyl, which are very different than the previous sort of plant-based, you know, supply chains and paths. Right now they’re coming from across Asia and the like, and precursors.  

So what could, should—if you were advising the next president of the United States or this one, let’s say, what can you do? What should be the security policy vis-à-vis Mexico, given that this is a real test for the United States? 

And, you know, there’s challenges on what the partner looks like down there and what it might look like just as you were just saying if you institutionalize some of these changes that AMLO has put forth? 

ANGELO: I mean, historically, I mean, the United States has worked with both major—both SEDENA and SEMAR, the army and the navy, as separate institutions; and then previously had worked with the federal police, which now presumably has been replaced by national guard but is mostly made up of members of the Mexican military.  

And so where the United States has been most effective has been in dealing with specialized units within those organizations and particularly within the Mexican navy. The Naval Intelligence Unit is among the most trusted partners that the U.S. government has, trust it with the most sensitive intelligence, and the Mexican government has historically trusted it with its most sensitive operations against organized crime. And so if we’re trying to get after the organized crime problem, dealing with and engaging with those trusted partners is sort of our first line of effort. 

But this is the thing about Mexico: There are so many non-optional issues for the United States in dealing with Mexico. In my book I talk about the differing dynamics between U.S.-Colombia relationship historically and the U.S.-Mexico relationship historically, and for a long time the United States had the luxury of only seeing Colombia through the lens of a drug war, but with Mexico it’s always been so much more complex. And any kind of decision making that the U.S. government engages in on one front will affect other fronts, so, you know, what the United States says or how it engages on security will affect migration, will affect cross-border trade, will affect tourism. And so the most important thing is that the United States has to master in Mexico its interagency process and one of the challenges that—and I’m sure Ambassador Wayne probably had his own experiences with this one. (Laughs.) 

One of the challenges is that oftentimes you have U.S. Department of Justice actors who seek the delivery of justice in every regard, at any expense, which is often not aligned with what broader diplomatic sensitivities would require in managing a bilateral relationship. And so there are tradeoffs that need to be made, and that’s sort of—that’s a responsibility that’s put directly on the chief of mission in the country, and so ensuring that our own whole-of-government or interagency process is seamless and that we are presenting a united front to Mexicans is not an easy task but it is the most essential task, from a U.S. perspective.  

O’NEIL: Great. 

There’s a question over here, please. Yeah, go ahead.  

Q: Thanks. Daniel Mandell. I’m a fellow term member, so it’s good to see one of us up there. Lawyer and previously an international affairs fellow in Japan, where I focused on the Pacific Islands, and in the Pacific the U.S. is now engaged with a host of other countries as well as international organizations on trying to help that region develop. 

So I’m curious, when it comes to Colombia, Mexico, and other countries in South and Central America, what is the role for other countries, either hemispheric powers in the Western Hemisphere or in Europe or elsewhere, and what role should they be, not just for countries but also institutions, the EU, the U.N., et cetera? 

ANGELO: So I think one of the challenges that we confront today is that the United States is expected to be everywhere all the time, and we can’t. And our own Congress is in a scenario right now in which it won’t let us. We don’t even have an operating budget for this year, for instance. And so that makes the work of our allies and partners all the more important across the globe, and our allies and partners also bring a unique credibility, a different credibility, to security assistance or security sector reform, that the United States may not be able to bring, or unique messages. When the United States shows up to a country in Southeast Asia and starts wagging its finger about that country’s relationship with the PRC, it hits differently when the United States is saying it, when maybe Australia is saying it, or New Zealand is saying it, or, you know, a country in Europe might be saying it. 

And so I think that it’s incumbent on the United States to figure out how it should be synchronizing its work on security sector reform, security assistance globally, with allies and partners. And all too often, as somebody who works in the security cooperation space, we see that countries and their leaders will go to the EU, will go to the United States, will go to the OECD, will go to the OAS and ask for the same thing from every single entity, and sometimes you’ll find yourself in a scenario in which the United States is financing a program that’s been replicated by—being replicated by the EU, and the U.S. and the EU haven’t been talking and so—and so I think it requires an increase in institutional and coordination mechanisms to ensure that those scenarios don’t present themselves. And we need to think smarter, not harder, about how we’re broadly engaged in security assistance globally. 

O’NEIL: Jason. Oh, right up here. 

Q: Thank you. Paul, congratulations. Look forward to reading the book. And Shannon, thanks for moderating a great conversation. 

I want to go back to a question that Shannon asked you beforehand, just to kind of maybe tease that out a little bit more, because I think what we saw in Colombia and Mexico was a very different paradigm insofar as the need to address security assistance because there was a time both programs when there—when there was less of a threat of transnational criminal organizations as we see today. So whether it’s Colombia and Mexico, whether it’s Ecuador, how do we address the fact that our assistance is oftentimes limited by borders but the—but the TCOs don’t see borders? And so what does that mean insofar as our ability to effectively work with countries to confront these threats in a way that has that long-term sustainability, in a way that can address those threats from a broader, cross-border perspective, where we’re kind of limited right now? So how do we effectively deal with—what are some of the lessons from Colombia and Mexico insofar as how to effectively deal with the growing threat of TCOs that are not just regional threats but they’re also global? I mean, Europe—I mean, the criminal organizations that operate in this hemisphere are connected very much to European drug trafficking and drug trafficking in Africa and other parts of the world. So what are the best mechanisms to confront that, based on the lessons that you saw in Colombia and Mexico? 

ANGELO: I think my initial response is, stop operating in geographic silos. I also wear a hat as a foreign area officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve and we recently had a robust discussion about how we should classify or assign area responsibilities to foreign area officers. Should we just go with the DOD geographic combatant command model, where you’ve got SOUTHCOM, NORTHCOM, and sort of these discrete territorial entities, or should we be basing our understanding of the world around bodies of water? Should there be a Mediterranean foreign area officer and an Atlantic foreign area officer? Because, frankly, our threats as naval officers happen across bodies of water, and so SOUTHCOM and AFRICOM aren’t often talking, even though it’s the same—these are the same transnational criminal organization networks that are operating across the median. And so I think that on our side that we need to be a little bit more agile and a little bit more flexible in our interpretation of the world. All too often we have, you know, Brazil asking us to pay attention to South Atlantic issues. Brazil oftentimes is more interested in engaging with the Lusophone countries of West Africa than it is in engaging with the Spanish-speaking countries that sit on the other side of the Andes from it. And too often we become—we have blinders on in terms of how we engage and we don’t see beyond a binational or a regional designation that we ourselves have derived. So I think that’s one important matter. 

But secondarily, the United States has credibility and has resources that it can play the role of convener for countries of the region to be having conversations that otherwise they would not be having across borders. And I think that there’s real power in that—not the United States showing up and saying, hey we’ve got security assistance for all these countries, but rather showing up and saying, we’d like to foster a dialogue with all of you about shared challenges and we’d like to come up with shared solutions for this. And I think one of the great examples of that is frankly something that has happened outside of the security realm that has security implications and it’s the Hermandad program, with Ecuador and the protection of the Galápagos, and you’ve got four countries—Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica have all agreed to patrol and protect the economic and natural resources of a large tract of body of water that they all share. And so that regional thinking is important but it’s not always happening, or it’s not always being facilitated by, again, a region where many countries and leaders are inward looking at the moment. And so I think the United States can play an important role as a convener of such conversations. 

O’NEIL: Michael. 

Q: Thank you, Shannon.  

And congratulations, Paul. I look forward to reading the book. I have a question that I think I asked you before— 

ANGELO: (Laughs.) 

Q: —but ask you again.  

ANGELO: I hope I have a better answer this time. (Laughs.) 

Q: Listening to you, and I may be on—not be on solid ground because my—I feel like I’m more comfortable with Plan Colombia than I am with the Mérida Initiative, but— 

ANGELO: You and everyone else.  

Q: What? 

ANGELO: You and anyone else who’s ever had a touchpoint with both of the experiences. 

Q: Exactly. But you know, my sense—and this, I think just—I don’t know to what extent you deal with this in the book, but it seems to be a very powerful factor, explanatory factor of why there was this difference that you’re trying to explain, was that in Colombia, before Plan Colombia, there was this sense of national urgency that the very viability of the country was on the line. People in Colombia were leaving the country in droves, which meant in Colombia that you might as well turn out the lights if they were leaving at that rate. Barry McCaffrey comes back, General McCaffrey says, you know, what do you say, this is a national emergency, we got to do something, calls the alarm. And you know, that—and Colombians felt that, as you yourself said. So that sort of—sort of perception among Colombians itself creates the conditions for elites to work with each other, for parties to come together, for all those things that you talk about. 

But it seems to me the prior sense is that this country is—may no longer exist. You know, I went down and visited the embassy in 1999, and I said, you think the FARC will take over the country? And the political officer at the embassy says, I don’t know about the FARC; maybe the paramilitaries. I said, well, that’s reassuring. You know? 

I mean, so, now, maybe in Mexico there was the same thing. Again, I plead ignorance. But my—as sort of an observer of Mérida, not really involved in it, I thought—my sense is that this was a very serious problem in 2005/2006 that Calderón, you know, decided to attack and—with U.S. assistance. But it’s not like the very, you know, existence of the country, at least as perceived by Mexicans at the national level, was really at stake. So I wonder if you can comment on that. 

ANGELO: I think—I think that’s an absolutely correct assertion. I think that in Mexico there was a real sense that the country wasn’t dealing with a national problem but rather dealing with a bunch of regionalized, local crises—security crises. And the instincts of the national government were to respond to them locally and to work with local interlocutors, but never to create a sense in the country that—because it would have been bad for tourism. It would have been bad for business. It would have been a huge hit to the GDP. And it would have been a huge hit to the legacy of Calderón. And so the responses tend to be more localized. Yes, there was an acknowledgement that the country’s facing a crisis, but there was also the rhetoric during the Calderón and then following on to the Peña Nieto administration was a rhetoric that suggested, yes, we have problems; but don’t you worry, we’re taking care of it. And so they often externalized the problem for the Mexican people in a way that you never saw in Colombia. And so I think that it really was a—there wasn’t a national pressure to deal with spiraling drug violence in Mexico as you had in Colombia. 

Another part of that is because elites in Colombia were the specific victims of revolutionary violence. They were the enemy to the FARC and the ELN, and to a lesser extent to the AUC depending on where they were in the country. But—and so elites were being kidnapped or killed in ways that you never saw in Mexico. We saw hints of that in the 1990s, but Mexican elites then invested in private security firms, armed themselves to the teeth, and no longer really faced threats from drug gangs. There are a couple of examples that I explore in my book where elites started feeling that kind of pressure—Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, Tijuana—and we saw local responses, but they were never national-level responses. The one exception was in Ciudad Juarez, and Calderón showed up and inaugurated this whole plan, Todos Somos Juárez. And it actually—I mean, depending on who you speak to, that federal attention to a subnational problem, or a problem in a border city, actually fueled new cycles of violence, because you introduced new armed actors into the equation, and they had conflicting loyalties and conflicting cartel ties—(laughs)—to the security actors that were already in place. And so, you know, Mexico is just incredibly complicated, and that was reflected in the political calculations that were being made by people at the highest level of government. 

O’NEIL: Great. 

We’ll get one more question, right back there. 

Q: Hi. My name’s Heidi Smith (sp). 

I’m curious about—you were talking a little bit about the bureaucratization of policy and Mexico’s change from NORTHCOM to SOUTHCOM. And if you’re saying it was a—the unsuccessful case in your book, did it—does it matter? 

ANGELO: So, you know, I think the understanding of Mexico and the way that the United States classifies Mexico as a partner matters very much to the Mexicans and matters very much to the Mexican government. For the last fifteen years, the United States government has been working very hard with Mexico not on just helping Mexico defeat organized crime, but also on institutionalizing a mature defense relationship with Mexican—the Mexican military, the two forces of the Mexican military. And so to be lumped in with the rest of Latin America and to be classified, you know, as SOUTHCOM even though Mexico is very clearly a North American country, and to experience a kind of downgrade where Mexico would no longer be seen on par with Canada, would be a very difficult thing—pill for Mexico to swallow. And so it does matter, and that should be top of mind for people who are contemplating any potential change of geographic combatant command status. 

O’NEIL: David, do you want to ask? Give you the last question. (Laughter.) 

ANGELO: Oh my gosh, David knows everything about this book. I mean, he’s—(laughter)— 

Q: I’m hoping not to lose my right to a shout-out at this point. (Laughter.) David Gevarter, Department of Commerce, formerly Paul’s research associate. 

I’m really curious because one of the—one of your frames of reference or one of your three layers of analysis, you know, the first one is relations between elites. And I think that, you know, as you said earlier—and this ties into the question of how elites play into the equation—is that, you know, in Colombia, where the economic and the political elites had a lot of cross-pollination and were in many instances the same actors, I think, you know, in the context that our relationships with these countries are multifaceted and often include democratic, you know, governance and anticorruption, I think that sort of raises a lot of eyebrows when the suggestion or the recommendation is there needs to be more cross-pollination between economic and political elites. And so how do you sort of square that circle and address that, you know, in the—in the multifaceted way that we address, you know, aid to these countries more broadly? 

ANGELO: I mean, the elite variable is an important variable because it signifies or signals continuity. The United States will not be involved in security assistance in robust terms with—in Colombia or in any country, for that matter, for fifteen, twenty years. The Afghanistan debacle demonstrates to us a real distaste for engaging in that level of occupation/security assistance/stabilization anywhere in the world. 

But what was critical in the case of Colombia and critical in the case of, you know, the two subnational case studies that I explore in chapter six of my book was that elites bought into a security strategy that they financed, and they were able to sustain a lot of the programming and the agenda-setting that had accompanied Plan Colombia or the Mérida Initiative in these two cases in Mexico well beyond the drawdown of U.S. assistance. That’s the importance of the elite variable. And it doesn’t—and, yes, if you’re engaged in elite-centric consultations at the bilateral level, it may silence or may sideline more popular preferences or voices, and that’s just a tradeoff that you have to make in the negotiation of security assistance. 

One of the ways that we deal with that, and particularly as it pertains to security assistance, is we seek not to sideline or derail or quiet the human rights community, because human rights is elemental. It’s a legal requirement that we have, to ensure that the recipients of our security assistance are not abusing human rights or engaged in massive acts of corruption. And so we create mechanisms to institutionalize their participation in the program. 

In the case of Colombia, civil rights—human rights organizations and civil society were major recipients of U.S. assistance—development assistance throughout the years of Plan Colombia. The U.S. government, particularly through USAID, provided consistent—again, served as a major convener to get human rights organizations in Colombia talking with agencies and institutions within their government. 

Same thing in Mexico; it was a requirement of our—the administration of our assistance. There was no human rights conditionality, necessarily, in the Mérida Initiative, because Mexico wouldn’t agree to those terms on the issue of—on the pretext of its own sovereignty considerations. However, there were monthly meetings and a monthly letter that had to be written with the consultation and the input from Mexican civil society organizations about the way that the security assistance was affecting the work that they were doing. 

And so I think you can still engage in elite-centric consultations while not completely ignoring non-elite actors in the instance of security assistance. 

O’NEIL: So, as you can tell from this conversation, there’s just a depth of knowledge that’s in this book. 

ANGELO: A lot. (Laughs.) 

O’NEIL: And with Paul in general. So I hope it’s enticed you all. The books are for sale back there. Hope you share them with others. And in case you want to come back to this conversation or share it with others, this was an on-the-record meeting, so you can find it on CFR’s website very soon in terms of audio, video, and transcript. But for now, please join me in thanking Paul and please enjoy the reception. (Applause, cheers.) 


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