New CFR Book Assesses Multi-Billion Dollar U.S. Security Assistance Programs for Colombia and Mexico

New CFR Book Assesses Multi-Billion Dollar U.S. Security Assistance Programs for Colombia and Mexico

March 8, 2024 11:41 am (EST)

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“For the United States, Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative were each a means to an end: a reduction in drug trafficking, the stabilization of volatile and violent neighbors, and the defense of democratic partners in the Western Hemisphere. But security assistance also carried tremendous political symbolism, elevating Colombia and Mexico as top U.S. foreign policy priorities even as the U.S. national attention was focused mostly on the Middle East and Central Asia,” asserts Paul Angelo in his book, From Peril to Partnership: U.S. Security Assistance and the Bid to Stabilize Colombia and Mexico.

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Drawing upon extensive fieldwork in both nations, Angelo explores how the initiatives—both “multi-billion-dollar programs aimed at enhancing security provision, fortifying justice, and deepening democratic governance”—came to very different results. Although both programs lasted at least a decade, “Colombia was able to subdue its worst offenders while improving security for its citizens.” Meanwhile, “Mexico has failed to dismantle its cartels and reduce crime and violence,” evidenced by the persistence of violent crime as a leading issue for Mexican voters heading into the June 2024 presidential election.

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“The U.S. government played a major role in taking on criminals and helping refashion, and even forge, new state security forces . . . In both Latin American countries, the United States pursued a whole-of-government approach to facilitate institutional reform in the security and justice sectors,” writes Angelo.

“From a U.S. policy perspective, Plan Colombia was a counterdrug, counterinsurgent, counterterror, stabilization, and state-building mission all at once—in large part because the Colombian government also understood its challenges through those same lenses. For the Mexican government, however, the Mérida Initiative was primarily an opportunity to gain access to new equipment, technology, and intelligence, and Mexican authorities siloed their law enforcement strategies in rigid institutions that seldom cooperated with one another, let alone with the United States,” Angelo argues.

Angelo explores this difference in strategic approach through the priorities of three influential groups in Colombia and Mexico: business elites, political parties, and state security forces. In contrast to the strategic alignment in Colombia, “U.S. and Mexican ambitions via the Mérida Initiative were mismatched: whereas Washington sought to stabilize Mexico by dismantling criminal groups through deeper cross-border cooperation and improved security sector governance, Mexico City preferred the less disruptive train-and-equip model,” he writes.

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“The incongruity of strategic vision between the U.S. and Mexican governments led to disappointments on both sides of the bilateral relationship; the Mérida Initiative began and ended as a mismatched partnership,” Angelo explains. 

He also draws parallels to two other highly visible instances of U.S. security assistance: Afghanistan and Ukraine. “The more than $85 billion the U.S. government poured into Afghanistan over two decades had a nearly negligible impact on the effectiveness, never mind the will to fight, of Afghan security forces . . . In contrast . . . the caution, scale, and sustainability of U.S. security assistance to Ukraine from 2014 forward helped build trust between the two countries and ever-growing proficiency in the Ukrainian forces.”

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“Security assistance as a tool of democracy promotion and citizen security provision is here to stay, but the one-size-fits-all model has failed,” Angelo concludes. “More nuanced, tailored designs that permit the accommodation of local preferences and power structures present a sustainable direction for security assistance and, in the end, a more palatable and natural model for security sector leaders in recipient countries.”

Angelo is currently director of the William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies. Angelo also serves as a commander in the U.S. Navy Reserve, supporting the U.S. Naval Forces Southern Command as a foreign area officer. He wrote the book when he was the fellow for Latin America studies at the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). 

Read more about From Peril to Partnership and order your copy at https://www.cfr.org/book/peril-partnership.

To request an interview, please contact CFR Communications at [email protected].

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