William R. Brownfield
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Carnegie Endowment
Washington, DC
March 22, 2013

Distinguished ambassadors, current and former, representatives of the – and members of the Council of the Americas, ladies and gentlemen, I have just returned from what I believe is my sixth, if not my seventh, visit to Central America over the past two years.

Ladies and gentlemen, as Eric mentioned, we are well into the drama that we are calling the Central America Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. We are at, in essence, year five since we named it, and four full years of supporting it with resources and programs, people, and personnel. It’s a serious initiative which has been going on for nearly one-half decade, and not at all surprisingly, it has generated comments and commentary throughout its existence, and most particularly in the course of the past year. The comments have come from a broad spectrum that involves the United States Congress, the media, foreign governments, civil society and NGOs, the academic community, the so-called think tanks. Some of the commentary is good. Some of the commentary could be described more in the nature of criticism.

Regardless, at four years and counting, it’s probably a good moment to pause, review where we are, and take stock of this initiative and this effort to address regional security in Central America. May I start with a very – I promise very brief history in terms of how we got where we are right now?

Ladies and gentlemen, once upon a time, there were two countries that bordered Central America. In the year 2000, one of those countries – let us call it Colombia – had reached a point where it developed its own plan to address its problems in its own country, and it called that plan Plan Colombia. And the international community, with the United States Government very much a part thereof, supported it. It produced a great deal of success, and most observers would suggest that the Colombia of 2013 is a far better place than the Colombia of 1999.

However, one impact of that success was to push many of its problems from Colombia initially to the far side of Central America, another country known to many of us as Mexico. And beginning in the year 2007, the Mexican Government developed its approach, which they called the Merida Initiative, to address Mexican problems in Mexico, but closely working with its neighbor to the north, the United States of America. And while I by no means mean to suggest to you that that program has been brought to successful conclusion, I do suggest that it is now having an impact.

Much of the impact is positive. One bit of impact, however, is that just as Plan Colombia helped push the focus of criminal activity and presence north to Mexico, so has the impact of the Merida Initiative pushed the same activities into Central America itself. In many ways, Central America is the victim of its own geography as well as vulnerable institutions and societies that are found attractive to organizations that are attempting to engage in criminal activity.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, we calculate that 65 percent of all cocaine that leaves South America en route to markets to the north passes through Central America. We calculate that there are more than 70,000 members of the two principal organized gangs in Central America, MS-13 and Calle Dieciocho. Some countries in Central America have a homicide rate in excess of 86 per 100,000, and to put that in some perspective for you, the United States of America, a nation that many regard as not the least violent in the world, has a homicide rate somewhere around five - less than one-seventeenth that of at least one country in Central America.

CARSI was our response in the year 2008 to that set of circumstances. Our focus was twofold. We said we will focus on violence and we will focus on drugs. They are connected, but they are different. Not all violent criminals traffic in drugs. Not all drug traffickers commit violent crimes, but obviously, there is a substantial amount of overlap between the two, and the one feeds the other. At the end of the day, we concluded that a program that only addresses drugs does not really meet the needs and requirements of 45 million common citizens of Central America whose real concern is violence and criminality on the streets, in their communities, and outside the doors to their homes. And we also concluded that if we were going to maintain consensus for an ambitious program in Central America by the United States Congress and political leadership, we would have to connect it to something directly of interest to the American people, and that brought us into drugs.

Four years later, we have spent $496 million, nearly one half a billion dollars, in CARSI. The majority of that money has gone into the northern three countries of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – for reasons of the nature of the threat and the pressure that they are under today. But we have consciously attempted to incorporate all seven nations of Central America into this CARSI effort.

The objective was to coordinate all elements of the United States Government and foreign assistance establishment in a comprehensive and coherent program – institutions and capacity-building, economic and social development, and operations and operational capacity. The objective was to take what previously had been seven individual bilateral programs with each of the seven governments of Central America, and address the threats as a regional package instead of as individual country programs.

And finally, the objective was to ask Central American leadership to be in the lead, to take ownership of the initiative, to provide the action plan under which we would provide assistance and support, and to guide us, modify and adjust us, as the years went by.

Ladies and gentlemen, that was the concept. Four years later, I can say to you that we have heard, are hearing, and, I confidently predict, will continue to hear voices of criticism suggesting how it could be done better, or in some cases, merely noting failure. Let me offer five of the strongest criticisms and offer my own observations on each of them.

First, “CARSI is nothing more than the militarization of our unsuccessful and failed war on drugs.” Ladies and gentlemen, may I start by stating that we are not fighting a war on drugs, nor have we been fighting a war on drugs since Bill Clinton, in his first year of presidency in 1993, declared correctly: This is not a war; this is about education and rehabilitation. This is about public health. This is about economic and alternative development, as well as building police capacity, prosecutor capacity, and some law enforcement. It is not a war, said the 42nd President. And ever since that time, we have been in fundamental agreement.

In the case of CARSI, the point is even more clear in that less than one-third of the $496 million that has been made available under CARSI in fact goes to drug programs at all. That would be $160 million of the $496 million. The remainder goes to things such as the model precincts programs in vulnerable communities. It goes to anti-gang youth programs. It goes to community policing and community development programs that are tied together in ideally a coherent way. And it goes to police, prosecutor, and corrections reform throughout the Central American region. It is designed to build institutions, and it is those institutions that will eventually deliver what the societies and communities and peoples of Central America are demanding in terms of security and safety.

To call it a ‘war on drugs’ completely misses the point.

Criticism number two: “Brownfield, you’ve been at this for more than four years. All the problems persist. You have failed and CARSI is a failure.”

Ladies and gentlemen, I have, in fact, learned one or two lessons over the last 50 years or so. One of the most important, I submit, is this: When you are dealing with a problem set that has required generations to develop, the solution will take more than just a couple of days to produce itself. It will take years.

I would suggest to you, for example, that if you had asked me in the year 2006, six years after we had begun an intense, systematic, and coordinated effort to work with the Government of Colombia under the so-called Plan Colombia. If you had asked me in 2006, “Has this plan succeeded?” I would have said then, “No, it has not. We do not see the statistics, we do not see the evidence on the ground.”

By the next year it had. Lesson: I don’t think there’s a difference between 2006 and 2007, it is the fact that it takes a long time for systematic security reforms and enhancement of institutions to have an impact. I would suggest to you that if the only measure of success is whether the problem continues that you are attempting to address, ladies and gentlemen, we in the United States of America have attempted to stop homicides, to end discrimination, and to end poverty for more than 200 years. Have we failed? Are we to give up? Is that what it means?

My own personal view is we’re going at these problems gradually and systematically. At the end of the day, we will measure our success in CARSI through a variety of factors: homicide rates, undoubtedly, but also rates of prosecution, poverty rate, and education rates; air and maritime tracks – because there is a drug element to this; gang activity, gang truces in places like El Salvador. The totality of these factors and the statistical story they tell will eventually tell us if CARSI is or is not a success. But ladies and gentlemen, they will not tell us that in days, weeks, or months. They will tell us that in the process of years.

Criticism number three: CARSI cannot succeed because the institutions of government are so corrupt that they cannot actually perform what we are asking them to perform under CARSI. Ladies and gentlemen, I freely acknowledge right up front corruption and impunity are part of the problem set that CARSI is supposed to address, and not just a small part of it. They are a fundamental part of that problem set. In a sense, that is what CARSI was collectively developed to address. How to make institutions less corrupt, more responsive, more accountable to the peoples, the nations, the governments with which they are affiliated and to whom they report.

Of course we must deal in the short term with corrupt institutions. If we are going to reform or professionalize an institution, we must talk to it, deal with it, work with it, and in fact provide assistance, training, and support to it. At the end of the day, with many institutions, it will require an entire generation to cleanse – the word in Spanish is depurar, and I’m not exactly sure what the best English translation would be …to purge. An institution that is that thoroughly corrupted. And may I suggest it is unfair to ask a community or a society to wait an entire generation before they can see any hope for relief from violence, criminality, organized crime on their streets and in their communities. Our solution to that problem: What do we do during the next 10 years or so that it would take in the best scenario possible to purify, cleanse, and purge a corrupted institution? Our short term solution is the vetted unit. Small, select groups that are carefully selected, carefully examined in terms of their background, if necessary subjected to technical testing means to determine whether they are fundamentally honest, and to use those groups to do basic, specialized law enforcement while waiting for the larger institution to improve.

Criticism number four: Systematic human rights abuses by government institutions in the region mean that CARSI will fail. Ladies and gentlemen, that criticism is absolutely true. If we do not address systematic human rights abuses, CARSI will, indeed, fail. No initiative that I know of for the last two or three thousand years or so has succeeded unless it has followed a basic human rights – respect for human rights pattern that allows the people and the communities to support the initiative, to agree with what it is trying to accomplish, and to support those people, organizations, and institutions, that are delivering those services. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why human rights must be a central and integral part of every element of the Central America Regional Security Initiative. Vetting the people who will be trained or educated, training them specifically in human rights procedures and proper operational engagement, and full accountability for acts that they commit and behavior by those institutions, these are fundamental elements of CARSI. And ladies and gentlemen, let me say it again, CARSI will not succeed if the human rights element of CARSI does not succeed.

Final criticism - number five is the balloon; “the balloon effect.” We’re going to fail, because even if we accomplish something in Central America, all we’re doing is squeezing the balloon, and the problem will squirt out and go somewhere else. To that, I say, ladies and gentlemen, maybe.

But, I would offer three sets of statistics. In the year 2000, the Republic of Colombia produced more cocaine than all the rest of the world combined. Now, its cocaine production has dropped by two-thirds. And it has, in fact, dropped to position number three among cocaine producers in this world. In the year 2006, U.S. consumption of cocaine, that is to say consumption in the United States of America, was 40 percent higher than it is today. That’s a clever way of saying cocaine consumption has dropped 40 percent in the U.S. in the past seven years. And methamphetamine consumption has dropped 50 percent.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, I do not mean to suggest that this means the drug problem for the world is over and done with. I presume there are enough smart people in this world to realize that other countries have increased cocaine production over the last eight or ten years and that other drugs in the United States have, in fact, increased in popularity in the United States. But I do mean to suggest to you that if we’re going to use the balloon analogy, we have to acknowledge the balloon has gotten a little bit smaller.

And I might add, if I were a citizen of one of the seven countries of Central America – and I am not, but if I were one – I might say why do we have to be the balloon? Where is it written that says it is the responsibility of Central America to absorb all of the crime, all of the violence, all of the homicides that come with vast quantities of narcotic product being transited through our territory? If you can show me where the people of Central America made that commitment, made that agreement, I suppose I would say to you I find the balloon argument a little bit more compelling.

I have not, in my many, many trips to the region, ever heard a single citizen of any of the seven republics of Central America say: We are prepared to absorb this burden forever so that others will not have to suffer from this. I haven’t heard it. If you have, I will pause shortly, and you will have every right in the world to draw my attention to that.

Ladies and gentlemen, let me conclude with a couple of lessons. And I would suggest to you that we have had the opportunity to learn lessons over the last thirteen and a half years, because in the Western Hemisphere, we have been working four different initiatives, starting with Plan Colombia in the year 2000, following with the Merida Initiative in the year 2007, the CARSI Initiative for Central America in 2008, and at roughly the same time, albeit at a much more preliminary stage, the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, or CBSI, at the same time. Ideally, all four initiatives, while separate and distinct, link together in a coherent fashion.

And over these last 13 years, we have learned some lessons. Lesson number one: Strategies take time to develop, not days, weeks, and months, but years.

Lesson number two: Strategies must be flexible and adaptable. We should not be embarrassed or ashamed to say that what we are doing today is actually very different from what we thought we were going to be doing four years ago. We are learning as the process develops. We are reacting to and responding to changes. We’re learning from mistakes. And quite frankly, ladies and gentlemen, the bad guys, the criminal organizations, they’re adapting and adjusting their strategies. If we don’t adjust ours, we’re probably going to lose.

Lesson number three: Our strategy must be comprehensive. Years ago in the 1970’s, back when even Mr. Farnsworth was only about 40 or 50 years old, we had the brilliant idea that if we would just eradicate all of that pesky illicit drug in the field, the drug problem would go away. It didn’t. A few years later, we refined it, and we said, well, eradication doesn’t seem to do it. Let’s just interdict it like crazy, and once we have severed the transit route, the problem will wither on the vine and go away. It didn’t, once again.

Lesson learned – your strategy, your initiative, your policy must incorporate all elements of the problem, education and treatment and rehabilitation, alternative and economic and social development. There has to be some degree of law enforcement, but there also has to be institution building, whether it’s investigators or community police or prosecutors or courts. The corrections system has to be incorporated into this. It’s more than just the campesino and the guys who are working in the labs. It’s also your money launderers, the financial system that is built up. All elements of the problem must be addressed. If you leave a gaping hole anywhere, that will be the means by which your initiative or your strategy will prove to be a failure.

Lesson number four: While there must be a law enforcement component to any security strategy, the focus of law enforcement should be on the genuine criminals, the large-scale, multibillion dollar criminal organizations that are making huge sums of money from this process rather than poor farmers or poor consumers who are victims as much as criminals.

And lesson number five: Institution building produces and pays far better long-term dividends than does operations. I do not disagree with operations. I get as happy as anyone else when I hear of a takedown of 30 or 40 tons of pure cocaine in some sort of maritime or air operation. But at the end of the day, that gets you a result that will last for a headline and a week. Institution building will last for a generation.

Ladies and gentlemen, CARSI is a baseball game. I submit we’re in the fifth inning, the score is tied 3-3, and I might add the good guys have come back from being down 3-0 in the first inning. But we’ve got half of the game still to play. The starter’s still in there, but he is tiring. We’ve got a pretty solid bullpen and we’ve got the best closer in the league. All of which is to say I’m fairly optimistic as to how this game, this strategy, this initiative is going to play out.

I am optimistic first because as a native son of the state of Texas I have a great deal to be optimistic about. I am optimistic second because of the economic and social logic of this situation. If the objective number one is to attack the drug transit problem in Central America, I say to myself the logic is we do not need to create law enforcement paradise in Central America; what we need to do is improve capabilities by 10 or 15 percent. That will drive up the cost for the trafficking organizations of doing business in and through Central America. And when that happens, simple market economics comes into play and they say let us find a more economical place where we can do business, and they will go elsewhere.

If the objective is, as it is, to reduce violence and basic criminality on the streets of Central America, then my logic, my social logic, goes as follows: You actually don’t need to make your law enforcement institutions perfect; you need to allow the communities and societies to see improvement, to see that the police are getting better, prosecutors are actually prosecuting more cases, courts are actually rendering judgments with a degree of fairness and predictability to them. When you get the trend line moving in the right direction, history teaches us that societies will then begin to support their institutions. They don’t support the institutions if they don’t think the institutions are working. What we have to do is not create perfect institutions, but improving institutions.

When that Rubicon is crossed, when you reach that tipping point, eventually then the society and the community will carry you the rest of the way. Because ladies and gentlemen, and I conclude with this fine old chestnut, never, to the best of my knowledge, in the history of the human race, since Ugg and Thugg joined Ugga and Thugga in their cave somewhere 45,000 years ago and established a community, never since then has a criminal organization been able to succeed against a community and a society determined not to let them succeed. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why I believe in another number of years I will be invited back here by Mr. Farnsworth to talk to you about the success of CARSI and how we did it.

I thank you very much and I look forward to your questions and the dialogue. (Applause.)

[This is a mobile copy of Remarks at the Council of the Americas]