A New Standard for Security

If Canada wants to help strengthen security in Latin America, it will need to acknowledge how Latin America's approach has shifted.
By: /
August 2, 2013
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After years of neglect, the Canadian government seems to be ratcheting up international cooperation with its Latin American counterparts. The increase in diplomatic overtures is motivated by the promise of forging new trade relationships and enhancing existing ties, but also by the apparent continent-wide consequences of organized crime and drug trafficking. While an “Americas Strategy” was launched in 2007, the government only recently started matching its rhetorical commitments with action. The Foreign Minister has already made two trips to Latin America in 2013, before and after the Prime Minister’s visit in May. As the many press releases on the most recent visit make clear, strengthening regional and thereby hemispheric security – especially support for more law and order – is at the center of Canada’s renewed engagement with the region. 

Canada’s ambitions on this front are lofty, but not matched by adequate investment. Since 2009, Canada’s flagship security program – the so-called Anti-Crime Capacity Building Program (ACCBP) – has allocated just $15 million a year for all of Latin America and the Caribbean. (It is rather more difficult to determine Canada's precise development aid portfolio for Latin America.) While paltry, the ACCBP is intended to support the efforts of dozens of governments and NGOs to tackle transnational crime, including drug trafficking, human trafficking, money laundering, corruption, and police and justice reform. By way of comparison, the United States devoted some $860 million in security assistance to Latin American and Caribbean countries in 2012, the lowest amount in years. Adding in development assistance and American aid rises to over $2.1 billion a year.   

As the Canadian government calls for more prosperity and security in Latin America, it would do well to carefully examine the transformations underway south of the United States. Although sharing a hemisphere with Canada, Latin America is more foreign to many Canadians than other parts of the world. When considered at all, it is typically associated with murderous cartels, drug trafficking, and authoritarian leaders. But the truth is that the region is exceedingly diverse and dynamic; most countries have experienced dramatic transformations over the past two decades. Its rapid economic growth, coupled with the declining influence of the United States, is emboldening larger countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico to start solving their own security problems, in their own ways. 

There is no denying that the United States still plays a fundamental role in shaping security priorities in Latin America. It is also generally accepted that in spite of the proliferation of regional and sub-regional organizations across the region, the Organization of American States (OAS) remains one of the more capable in influencing debate, including on sensitive security matters. But it is also true that new emerging patterns of international cooperation are privileging South and Central American priorities over those set by North Americans.

A widening number of Latin American countries are especially seized with a new formulation of security, that of "citizen security" – a decidedly homegrown concept. Citizen security emerged in opposition to conventional national security paradigms favored in the past. During the Cold War, more than three quarters of all Latin American countries experienced a decade or more of military rule. Most Central and South American states exhibited national security postures, which emphasized the central place of military and policing institutions. State security organs were routinely deployed to crush opposition movements and soon morphed into mano dura approaches to deal with local crime. 

In exchange for confronting communism and the drug cartels, governments received generous assistance from the United States and its allies. However, a wave of democracy from the 1980s onward generated sweeping reforms and more articulated civil societies. In the 1990s, mayors joined with civil society leaders and scholars to demand fundamental changes – they wanted security priorities to be determined from below, and began working to subvert the national security paradigm by calling for more attention to citizen participation and state accountability.

As with most revolutionary ideas, the citizen security project did not immediately catch-on. Conservative international institutions such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank were at first unsure of how to engage with the project’s advocates, conscious of the political connotations of working on delicate security matters. Bilateral government donors were likewise preoccupied about the way citizen security challenged their interests, mandates, and operational guidelines. Not-for profit agencies and foundations such as the Open Society Institute and International Development Research Center, while also initially apprehensive, were more alert to the possibilities for change that the project represented.

Over time, all of these entities came to endorse citizen security, in large part because of pressure from their Latin American counterparts. They also came to see how citizen security represented a merging of hard and soft measures, combining efforts to address gangs, the arms trade, human trafficking, money laundering, and cyber-crime with community policing, judicial reform, youth programs, and other preventive measures.

A shift in the form and function of international cooperation for security has taken place over the past two decades. Owing to the graduation of many countries to middle income status, donors are recalibrating their strategies to emphasize political and trade considerations, as Canada has done. In some cases, as with the European Union, they are reducing the size of their footprint in the region. Meanwhile, most donors are also re-focusing their attention to specific Central and South American countries, where citizen insecurity is especially acute.

The United States and European Union countries are advocating a more balanced approach to citizen security, emphasizing both transnational and local challenges and regional solutions. And while they pursue distinct policies across the Central and South America, they are prepared to invest in more nuanced preventive strategies designed to empower citizens – a stark contrast to the overwhelming focus on the war on drugs.

While confronted with monumental challenges, Latin Americans are in fact setting a new standard for citizen security. The region is at the epicenter of a global debate on drug policy and countries such as Bolivia, Colombia, Guatemala, Mexico, and Uruguay are calling for policies emphasizing decriminalization, public health and harm reduction rather than coercion and incarceration. Equally novel, governments across the region are investing in new forms of security cooperation, including training and capacity support for police and judicial personnel as well as exchanges of information and “lessons learned”. Countries such as Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico are exporting their citizen security models around the neighborhood. After years of failing to develop a genuinely regional project, Latin America is taking tentative steps to establishing a common security community.

Canada could make an important contribution to advancing the citizen security agenda in Lain America, but only if it ups its game and sheds the traditional, narrow conceptualization of security to which it still clings. Current investments are puny – Canada could expand its influence by developing an Americas Fund, perhaps even a joint trust fund with other like-minded partners in and outside of Latin America, to advance innovative safety and security schemes.

Canada could also refocus its cooperation with a small selection of countries facing acute difficulties, while simultaneously promoting south-south and triangular assistance with countries like Brazil, Colombia, and Mexico. Also, the Canadian government could usefully re-examine its own increasingly outdated approach to drug policy. Rather than adopting a narrow focus on supply reduction, Canada should listen carefully to the debate underway in Latin America and identify opportunities for engagement that increase the chances for peace over a war without end.