Last January, I wrote an essay for The Nation on Washington’s integration of Mexico, Central America and Colombia into a “security corridor.” I called it a “rump Monroe Doctrine,” an explosive mix of militarism and neoliberal economics. Militarily, assorted bilateral and regional treaties are fusing the region’s military, intelligence and judicial systems into a unified, supra-national counterinsurgent infrastructure. Economically, there’s been an intensification of socially and environmentally disruptive resource extraction—mines, biofuels plantations, hydroelectric dams; tying it all together are loans and other funding from the World Bank, the IMF, the UN and the Inter-American Development Bank, capitalizing projects aimed to synchronize the region’s highway, communication and energy networks, blending the North American and Central American free-trade treaties and, eventually, the pending Colombian Free Trade Agreement into a seamless whole.
In other words, as the rest of South America pulls out of the US orbit (which I would argue ranks as a world historical event as consequential as the fall of the Berlin Wall, though less noticed since it has taken place over a decade rather than all on one night), Washington is retrenching in what’s left of its backyard. Today in the New York Times, Geoffrey Wheatcroft has an interesting opinion piece that reads events in Egypt as part of a broader recession of US power in the world. Certainly another sign of this recession is this retrenchment running from Mexico through Colombia: unable to secure its interests and project its power in all of Latin America through a mix of hard and soft power, Washington has, by default if not conscious design, returned to some premodern “secure the flank” conception of security. Washington is building a moat around a besieged fortress America.
In the year since I wrote that essay, a number of events have taken place that has advanced the construction of this security corridor. These include: a new proposal for a “Plan Central America,” that would bolt together Plan Mexico and Plan Colombia, creating “synergies,” as a US official called it; a program by which Colombia trains Mexican policy to fight gangs, instruction that may soon be extended to Central American countries; a deepening commitment to the El Salvador–based and Washington-funded International Law Enforcement Academy, which critics have described as a new School of the Americas; the use of airbases in Panama and (post-coup) Honduras to launch US drones; and the construction of even more US military bases. To get a graphic image of this “security corridor,” check out this map created by the Fellowship of Reconciliation, where Central America seems to have been turned into one big landing strip.
Josh Frens-String’s excellent blog, Hemispheric Brief, which daily gathers and crisply analyzes news concerning Latin America, has a number of posts on the topic. Another great source of news and analysis is the North American Congress on Latin America, along with the Americas Program, particularly Laura Carlsen’s essays and blog posts.
The origin of this security corridor is Plan Colombia—Bill Clinton’s multibillion-dollar aid program to one of the worst human-rights violators in the world. The main effect of Plan Colombia has been to diversify the violence and corruption endemic to the cocaine trade, with Central American and Mexican cartels and military factions taking over export of the drug to the United States. This, along with the economic disruptions caused by NAFTA and the CAFTA, kicked off the cycle of criminal and gang violence that today engulfs the region. This violence, in turn, has been accelerated by the rapid spread of mining, hydroelectric, biofuel and petroleum operations, which wreak havoc on local ecosystems, poisoning land and water, and by the opening of national markets to US agroindustry, which destroys local economies. The ensuing displacement either creates assorted criminal threats that justify harsher counterinsurgent measures, or provokes protest, which is dealt with by new-style death squads.
As during the cold war, the uniting of regional security and intelligence forces under the banner of a broader, international crusade creates the “hostile environment” in which death squads florish. But in a way, today’s death squads have gone legit: they are now called “private security companies,” some of them staffed with ex-Colombian paramilitaries. The Canadian group Rights Action has documented a clear pattern of increased repression throughout the region, much of it linked to biofuels production and mining, which includes a rise in death-squad killing of peasants in Honduras.
It’s best to think of the Mexico-to-Colombia “security corridor” as less a defense initiative than a blueprint of how to build a perfect machine of perpetual war.