Enhancing co-operation in Central America

In Central America, 'talking shop' is not necessarily a pejorative expression. Since the culmination during the 1990s of protracted insurgencies and civil wars in Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, the region's elected leaders and government officials have been engaged in a succession of security discussions, summits and dialogues that make the EU seem reticent by comparison. This perpetual talking has helped prevent Central America from lapsing back into the cycle of intra-state violence that plagued the isthmus for most of the preceding century.

Despite the end of the conflicts and the transition to more or less democratic governance in all of the Central American states, levels of human security in the region remain startlingly low. In place of politically motivated insurgents and guerrillas, transnational narcotics traffickers, criminal syndicates and urban and rural gangs have emerged, which between them help to make Central America one of the world's murder and kidnapping blackspots.

Against this background, Central American security discussions have for the last two years been dominated by the issue of enhancing regional co-operation, specifically in the form of an integrated 'rapid reaction force' drawing on the military capabilities of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua. The concept was first proposed by Guatemala - large swathes of which remain effectively ungoverned, providing a base for some of the region's most notorious gangs and other illegally armed groups. The idea was given tentative approval by the other Central American governments despite misgivings over the force's potential operational remit.

The rapid reaction force concept was developed during 2004 and 2005 and received a second formal endorsement at a Central American defence ministers' meeting in October 2005. By this stage, the range of duties for which the force might be used had been expanded from counter-narcotics and transnational law enforcement to include disaster response operations and expeditionary UN peacekeeping missions. Although this apparent mission creep served to heighten the original national misgivings, the defence ministers once again expressed their commitment to pursuing the project in broad terms.

In 2006, however, the project has lost political momentum. At a defence ministers' summit in Managua, Nicaragua in October, national disagreements over the operational remit of an integrated force had become so entrenched and divisive that it was not even possible to re-state the commitment to the broad concept of regional military integration, still less the rapid reaction force itself. The general conclusion in Managua was that the rapid reaction force stands little chance of getting off the drawing board for the foreseeable future. The project's failure highlights a broader shift away from the use of the military in combating 'non-traditional' security challenges towards a preference for development and civil society-led approaches.

Problematic proposition

Even without the disagreements over its operational remit, an integrated Central American military force would have been exceptionally difficult to bring to fruition. The military capabilities of the Central American states remain geared towards the Cold War-era threats of external invasion and internal insurgency and guerrilla war, with arsenals primarily constituted of small-arms, light artillery and antiquated air defence systems. These arsenals are of severely limited use in counter-narcotics and cross-border security operations, where the principal requirements are mobility, tactical agility and the sophisticated command, control and co-ordination of military and civilian assets.

Moreover, the post-civil war settlements have produced very different military-security outcomes in the various Central American states. Guatemala and Nicaragua have pursued the dual aims of military demobilisation and subjection of the military command to civilian control. This process has been successful in the sense that the two countries' militaries have ceased to pose a significant threat to the elected governments. However, the scaled-down Guatemalan and Nicaraguan armed forces are now incapable of playing a major role in combating drug traffickers and armed gangs, many of whose ranks have been swelled over the last decade by demobilised military personnel.

In El Salvador, the demobilisation of the bloated civil war-era military has been accompanied to a greater extent than in Guatemala and Nicaragua by a process of re-tooling and re-training. The Salvadorian military has not only been more successful than its Guatemalan and Nicaraguan counterparts in conducting drug interdiction operations but has also made a modest contribution as an 'exporter' of security on the world stage, for example by sending a detachment of troops to Iraq. In all three countries, however, the extension of the military's remit into a range of new security functions has been fiercely opposed by civil society groups and is widely perceived as potentially damaging to the wider process of consolidating democracy, a process that has long been predicated on the gradual retreat of the military from political and civilian life.

Military spending across Central America has declined in recent years, in large part as a consequence of the civil war settlements and the subsequent demobilisation of large conscript armies. Again, increasing military spending to fund the creation of a regional rapid reaction force is widely considered to be at odds with the broader imperatives of democratisation and economic development. Such a move is strongly opposed by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, on which Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua are each heavily dependent for development funding.

The credibility and financial viability of any Central American integration initiative depends to a large extent on the participation of Costa Rica, the region's wealthiest nation. This is a difficult proposition in the security field because Costa Rica has no military forces of its own, preferring to conduct domestic security functions through a gendarmerie-style police force. Although Costa Rica's gendarmerie forces could in theory be integrated with its neighbours' military assets within the framework of a joint security force, the situation is complicated by a sharp divergence in security priorities. With its peaceful recent history and relative economic prosperity, Costa Rica does not, for example, share Guatemala and El Salvador's preoccupation with urban gangs and demobilised guerrillas and paramilitaries. For this reason, Costa Rica pushed for a review of the operational remit of the mooted force, attempting to shift the focus away from 'hard' security provision towards 'softer' resilience priorities, such as natural disaster response. Costa Rica's re-interpretation of the project was initially indulged by the other states because of Costa Rica's dominant economic and political position in Central America. Ultimately, however, the failure to contain this expanding remit undermined the original rationale for the rapid reaction force and helped to bring about the recent decline in political support.

US influence

In view of the budgetary and capability limitations of the Central American states, the rapid reaction force concept was developed with the tacit assumption that the US would play a major supporting role, providing funding and military expertise. Strong US endorsement for the project during 2005 indicated that this assumption was justified. However, a recent shift in the terms of the US security debate has reduced the likelihood of the US making a significant financial contribution in the near future.

In the US's 2006 National Security Strategy and the accompanying Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR), the administration of President George W Bush and the Pentagon expressed a desire to move away from a primarily military approach to countering non-traditional security threats towards a greater focus on "inter-agency approaches", "influencing the choices of countries at strategic crossroads" and "building partner capacities and capabilities". This shift has been reflected in US policy towards Colombia, where discussions on the future of US aid and assistance have focused increasingly on development, reconciliation and alternative livelihood programmes and placed less emphasis on military-led narcotics eradication and interdiction operations.

Since 1998, the framework for Colombia's counter-narcotics strategy has been provided by 'Plan Colombia', a military-led operation with strong financial, political and logistical backing from the US. Despite concerns regarding its effectiveness, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe declared in May that it would be a priority of his second administration to continue with Plan Colombia and maintain strong backing from the US. However, Uribe also called for Plan Colombia to enter a "second stage", moving away from the overwhelmingly military focus of recent years towards a more "multi-dimensional" approach. Bogotá has asked Washington to grant it increased spending flexibility under Plan Colombia, arguing that this would allow it to consolidate military successes in, for example, the eradication of coca crops by making strategic investments in social and economic development, thereby reducing the incentives for farmers to return to coca cultivation.

Plan Colombia emerged in 1998/99, as a result of a series of negotiations between the Colombian government and the Clinton administration. This plan focused on military-led narcotics interdiction and eradication to a much greater extent than the Colombian government's original plan. Plan Colombia has had a strong military emphasis ever since, with military aid averaging 85 per cent of total US aid to Colombia since 1999. In addition, US Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has maintained between 500 and 800 military personnel in Colombia since 1999 for the ostensible purpose of training Colombian security forces in drugs interdiction. SOUTHCOM has also provided extensive logistical support to the Colombian military and security forces.

Bogotá's efforts to shift the emphasis of Plan Colombia towards a more multi-agency, as opposed to a primarily military approach, sit well with broader intellectual currents within the US defence and security establishment. The recent QDR emphasised the need for the US military to think in terms of "full spectrum operations", in which the Department of Defense must treat conflict prevention and post-conflict security, reconstruction and stabilisation operations as equal priorities alongside war fighting. In this context, Plan Colombia was specifically identified as an example of a "broader mission", in which the US could help a local government "seize the initiative against illegal armed groups, demobilise thousands of illegal paramilitaries, decrease violence and return to government authority areas that have been under the control of narco-terrorists for decades".

Channelling large sums of aid into the Colombian and other Latin American militaries has become increasingly problematic as the Bush administration has increased its emphasis on 'democracy promotion' as a broad security policy objective. The prominent political and social role of the armed forces has for many years been seen as one of the principal barriers to democratisation in Latin America. The Colombian military in particular has been the subject of a series of damning human rights investigations by Amnesty International, the UN and numerous non-governmental organisations in the last 10 years. Shifting the emphasis of the security debate towards civilian agencies therefore helps to overcome this uncomfortable policy dilemma.

A similar trend was evident at the recent Managua summit of Central American defence ministers, where the US delegation sought to shift the focus away from 'hard' military approaches to narcotics traffickers and armed gangs towards addressing the underlying sources of these problems, such as economic underdevelopment and weak state institutions. There is a clear political and budgetary sub-text to this shift: the demands of long-term operations in Iraq and Afghanistan have increased the incentives for the Pentagon to shift 'ownership' of Central American security policy to civilian agencies, regional governments and civil society. Washington's desire to pursue security objectives within a longer-term, development-led strategy is, however, also broadly consistent with the priorities of regional governments and with the region's other major external actor.

EU influence

The principle of regional security integration, although given fresh political impetus by the Guatemalan rapid reaction force proposal over the last two years, has been a long-standing preoccupation of the Central American Integration System (Sistema de la Integracion Centro Americana: SICA). Established in 1991, SICA was designed as a multilateral forum for crisis and conflict prevention and a driver of post-conflict reconstruction and development. As peace settlements in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua have been consolidated in recent years, causing the prospect of major armed conflict between and within the Central American states to recede, SICA's focus has increasingly shifted towards the development side of its remit. This tendency has been reinforced by intense discussions over the last year between SICA and the EU aimed at achieving an EU-Central America free-trade agreement.

The principal focus within the SICA forum in recent months has been the agreement of a regional customs and immigration union, which has been stipulated by the EU as a pre-requisite to free-trade talks. Against this backdrop, Central American governments have increasingly seen the military integration issue as a potential distraction from the more pressing economic and political integration process. The EU, moreover, has sought to foster a Central American integration process based on the EU model, with economic union providing the basis for increasingly close political integration, possibly extending into the defence and security field at some point in the future.

Adapting the European integration model is not universally popular with Central American leaders. Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, for example, has expressed fears that relaxing border and customs controls without some form of enhanced security co-operation could give a boost to drug and other contraband trafficking through Central America. A common border procedure could also be problematic as a result of several ongoing frontier disputes. A section of the land frontier between Costa Rica and Nicaragua, for example, remains semi-militarised and has been the source of periodic diplomatic tensions for many years. The Nicaraguan military and Costa Rican security forces on either side of the border remain more concerned with monitoring each other than with interdicting the cross-border operations of narcotics traffickers.

The issue of disputed maritime boundaries between several Central American nations is equally serious in the context of co-operative and/or integrated security operations. This, combined with the tendency of weak governments to use minor border infringements as a political tool, makes cross-border security operations a perennially risky undertaking in the absence of a more comprehensive political framework.

Despite some early enthusiasm for the creation of an integrated Central American security force, the concept now appears at odds with the regional security agenda being pushed by the US and the EU, as well as by the Central American governments themselves within the SICA framework. Sustainable economic development, the reduction of poverty and inequality and progress on alternative livelihood programmes are now seen as the crucial variables in enhancing human security in Central America in the long term. Military-led solutions are perceived, at best, as a distraction from this process and, at worst, as actively damaging. Although some Central American states will continue to co-operate closely on security operations on a bilateral basis, a viable integrated security force appears a remote prospect for the foreseeable future.

Mark Joyce is Americas Fellow with RUSI

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