In April the Nicaraguan armed forces disrupted a drug-trafficking base of operations in Bluefields, on the country’s Atlantic coast, seizing 2.5 tons of cocaine and a speedboat. Three men from the Mexican state of Sinaloa were found to be smuggling cocaine worth more than $200,000 and were in possession of bags used to transport the drugs.
Incidents like these are becoming much more common in Nicaragua and all of Central America where drug trafficking has increased dramatically since 2008. On September 17 President Barack Obama named five Central American nations as major hubs for drug transportation from South America. All five of these countries have been a part of the so-called Merida Initiative, the U.S. anti-drug aid package to the region since 2008. Though the bulk of the Merida Initiative’s military, police, and technical aid go to Mexico, $248 million has been allocated thus far to Central America to be used for counter-narcotic technology and training.
Obama’s announcement confirms this expansion of the U.S. drug war into Central America, an area in which Washington has historically wielded tremendous power. Critics say that U.S. intentions may follow a broader geopolitical strategy, one that includes the arrival of U.S. troops into some parts of the region.
The United States will be using the same anti-drug policies in Central America as it has used in Colombia and Mexico, where results have been murky at best. Both countries have seen the corruption of public officials and the armed forces, and many dead civilians; violence in Mexico has spiraled so out of control that more than 28,000 people have been killed since 2007, including public officials.
U.S. anti-drug policies have not been able to impede production of drugs in Colombia, or other parts of South America. They have not been able to stop drugs smuggled through Mexico, and they have not been able to stop the historic high number of illicit drugs that enter the United States today. Nonetheless, U.S. policymakers are attempting to replicate the same failed strategy, as they turn to Central America, sandwiched between Colombia and Mexico, in an attempt to cut off the traffickers before they ever reach Mexico and the U.S. border.
Despite the history of failure, several Central American nations have not only signed on to the Merida Initiative, but are considering accepting U.S. troops in order to assist in anti-drug operations.
First and foremost is Costa Rica, which will allow approximately 7,000 Marines into the country. The troops will be transported to Costa Rica on the USS Makin Island, one of the largest amphibious aircraft carriers in the world. The carrier will be accompanied by 46 warships and several planes. The stated mission of the fleet is to stem the flow of drugs into Costa Rica and along its coasts.
The deployment of thousands of U.S. troops into a nation with no army may raise tensions between the United States and the rest of the region. In the case of Colombia, Latin American leaders have protested the deployment and maintenance of U.S. troops in that country’s counter-narcotic operations as a cover for Washington’s desire to flex its military might in the region. The forces headed to Costa Rica has led many to believe it will be the U.S. staging ground for the drug war in Central America.
Honduras's Minister of Security, Oscar Álvarez, has requested that the United States formulate a plan similar to Plan Colombia for Honduras. Álvarez wants to share tactical and strategic information and receive economic aid from the United States in order to combat narco-trafficking beyond the scope of the Merida Initiative. The implementation of this plan is likely, given the post-coup reality in Honduras.
The government of El Salvador, however, says that it will not receive U.S. troops to combat drug trafficking, but welcomed assistance in the form of intelligence officers and economic aid. Foreign Minister Hugo Martínez stated, in an interview with La Prensa Grafica, “Whatever help that they [the United States] wants to give, will be appreciated, but we see no need for, or legality in, the presence of a foreign military [in El Salvador].”
In September U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compared the problems plaguing Mexico and Central America to “Colombia . . . twenty years ago . . . where the narco-traffickers controlled certain parts of the country.” Clinton even hinted that the Obama White House was formulating a more intense version of the Merida Initiative — mimicking Plan Colombia — for Mexico and Central America to squelch drug trafficking in the region. A “Plan Central America” would be modeled on Plan Colombia and the U.S.-Colombia Defense Cooperation Agreement, and might allow U.S. armed forces to land in Mexican and Central American military bases.
However, there has been strong dissent to plans of the U.S. armed presence in more nations. Dominican Republic president Leonel Fernández explained that continued emphasis on attacking the suppliers of drugs would not end the drug war, because “you cannot control drug traffic if you only look at supply.” Adam Isacson of the Washington Office on Latin America recently stated in a report on Plan Colombia that “Colombia's security gains are partial, possibly reversible and weighed down by 'collateral damage.'” This fate, suggested Isacson, might also befall Central America under a similar plan.
Many activists see the landing of U.S. troops in the region as an attempt for Washington to retain power in the region through force. A leaked U.S. Air Force document outlined that the purposes of U.S. forces in Colombian air bases would not be restricted to counter-narcotics operations but would offer “full spectrum operations throughout South America” and would meet threats from “anti-US governments.” There would be nothing stopping the U.S. government from using similar bases in Central America to maintain pro-neoliberal and pro-U.S. administrations in those nations. An increasingly independent and confrontational Latin America is not in Washington’s perceived best interest.
Kevin Alvarez is a NACLA Research Associate