Small Wars Journal

Cutting Aid to the Northern Triangle Illustrates the Gap Between U.S. Strategy and Capacity in the Region

Thu, 06/20/2019 - 12:54am

Cutting Aid to the Northern Triangle Illustrates the Gap Between U.S. Strategy and Capacity in the Region

John Turner

In late March, the United States unexpectedly decided to cut foreign assistance to the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  The move caught some U.S. policy makers, diplomats, and defense officials by surprise as the countries have combined to receive over $4 billion dollars in U.S. foreign aid from 2009-2019, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development.[i]  Details about the withdrawal of U.S. aid remain unclear but it appears the U.S. decision to significantly reduce aid to these countries is unlikely to be reversed.  The U.S. decision to dramatically cut foreign aid to these countries is worrisome for numerous reasons, least of all these:   

From a policy perspective it makes little sense as the destructive dynamic plaguing these countries to include soaring violence levels, pervasive criminality, drug and human trafficking, corruption, poverty, unemployment, and the proliferation of gangs and transnational criminal networks (TCNs) stand only to further deteriorate and worsen with the withdrawal of U.S. foreign aid and assistance.  These negatives almost certainly will drive more U.S.-bound migrants north in search of more robust economic, and financial opportunities and a better quality-of-life.

An unintended consequence of the U.S. decision is that it places more of the security burden on an ill-equipped U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM), responsible for U.S. military operations and security cooperation activities across 34 countries in Central America, South America, and the Caribbean.  Bear in mind that the USSOUTHCOM needs a more robust air, and maritime presence across the region to bolster its drug and human smuggling detection, monitoring, and interdiction capabilities.  In early May, in testimony to the House Armed Services Committee, Admiral Craig Faller, Commander of U.S. Southern Command, stated the U.S. successfully interdicted only about six percent of known drug movements in the Eastern Pacific and the Caribbean in 2018.[ii]  Admiral Faller attributed this shortfall primarily to insufficient resources as he highlighted he only has six to ten maritime surface assets to patrol an area the size of the United States and relies primarily on U.S. Coast Guard (USCG) and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft to monitor, detect, and interdict illicit drug movements across his area of operations; Admiral Faller explicitly requested more ships, and ISR assets to increase patrols to better detect, monitor, and interdict illicit drug movements transiting international waters heading towards the United States.[iii]

The move further illustrates how U.S. national security and defense policies are out of sync and as a result are unlikely to achieve U.S. strategic national security objectives.  U.S. President Donald Trump has been frustrated and hesitant in sustaining support to these fledgling democracies, building partner capacity, and strengthening relationships as U.S. foreign aid has shown minimal signs of demonstrable progress in improving regional security, stability, and prosperity.  President Trump’s 2017 National Security Strategy states “the United States must devote greater resources to dismantle transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and their subsidiary networks…Every day they deliver drugs to American communities, full gang violence, and engage in cybercrime…The United States must retain a ready force that is capable of protecting the homeland while defending U.S. interests”.[iv]

Washington’s 2020 budget proposal invests $367 million dollars in CBP aircraft, surface vessels, surveillance technology, and equipment.  The U.S. budget proposal also includes $1.2 billion dollars to modernize USCG vessels, and maritime patrol aircraft.[v]  However, it seems most of this additional funding and resources are being prioritized to enhance security along the U.S./Mexico Southwest Border even as cocaine trafficking from Venezuela to the United States has dramatically increased as Colombian drug trafficking organizations to include the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC—Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia), National Liberation Army (ELN—Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional), and other criminal groups look to exploit Venezuela’s permissive environment, collusion of Venezuelan authorities, and power vacuum to increase shipments to the United States.[vi]  To underscore Venezuela’s lawlessness, one US official estimated that 240 metric tons of cocaine (estimated $39 billion dollar street value) crossed into Venezuela from Colombia in 2018 to be exported out of the country.[vii]  In addition, the number of suspected drug flights departing from Venezuela’s northwestern Zulia region toward destinations in the remote farmlands in Guatemala and the Honduras coastline has risen sharply from about two flights per week in 2017 to nearly daily in 2018.  From there the cocaine shipments are shipped overland through Mexico and distributed in U.S. cities.[viii]  It is reasonable to expect with the withdrawal of U.S. assistance combined with a Venezuelan government complicit in international drug trafficking activities that traffickers will be even more keen to accelerate drug flights into these countries.       

If Washington is serious about dismantling TCOs and disrupting cocaine trafficking into the United States it must prioritize more assets to support Admiral Faller’s efforts so that his command is better resourced to interdict and reduce the flow of dangerous, illicit drugs from entering the United States.  If not, Washington should lower its expectations and rethink its regional objectives as the withdrawal of U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador diminishes U.S. regional leverage and leaves many U.S.-declared goals like dismantling transnational criminal networks no longer viable.

The views expressed in this article solely reflect those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the United States Military, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

End Notes

[i] FAE: Dashboard. Accessed June 8, 2019.

[ii] U.S. Southern Command Official Website. Accessed May 19, 2019.

[iii] ”Full Committee Hearing: National Security Challenges and U.S. Military Activity in North and South America." House Armed Services Committee - Democrats. Last modified May 1, 2019.

[iv] The White House. Accessed May 19, 2019.

[v] The White House. Accessed May 19, 2019.

[vi] U.S. Department of State - United States Department of State. Accessed June 8, 2019.

[vii] Nick Paton Walsh, Natalie Gallón and Diana Castrillon, CNN. "Corruption in Venezuela Has Created a Cocaine Superhighway to the US." CNN. Last modified April 17, 2019.

[viii] Nick Paton Walsh, Natalie Gallón and Diana Castrillon, CNN. "Corruption in Venezuela Has Created a Cocaine Superhighway to the US." CNN. Last modified April 17, 2019.


About the Author(s)

John Turner is a U.S. Department of Defense (DoD) national security professional with 10 years’ experience analyzing Latin America, Asia, and Middle East security issues.  Previously, John served in a staff position with the U.S. Defense Attaché Office in Mexico City and deployed to Iraq in support of Operation New Dawn.  He holds a M.A. in International Relations/Security Studies from St. Mary’s University.