South America's Shifting Security Paradigm

International Relations and Security Network, 24/3/2009)


Months ahead of the planned closing of Eloy Alfaro airbase at Manta, Ecuador, the US and Colombia continue to negotiate terms that would allow the US military limited access to Colombian airbases. The agreement favors both nations, as the US struggles to maintain surveillance operations in the Pacific, and Colombia maneuvers to remain relevant in regional security matters while Brazil continues to exercise its regional leadership.


The most recent round of talks between Colombian and US officials in mid-March have likely sealed a new era of US Colombian relations, amidst an uncertain long-term future for Plan Colombia.

Yet even while Colombian Defense Minster Juan Manuel Santos last visited Washington for three days at the end of February, the US House of Representatives approved US$545 million for the continuation of Plan Colombia through the 2009 fiscal year, maintaining the same level of funding approved for fiscal year 2008.


This short-term support, however, is likely to dwindle over time as Colombian President Alvaro Uribe no longer enjoys the same level of support in the US Congress. He also faces an opposition growing in strength back home. His own vice president, Francisco Santos, told Colombian daily El Tiempo on 16 March that Plan Colombia had “outlived its usefulness,” according to Agence France Presse. Santos has also publically stated that Plan Colombia had a high political cost at home.


Plan Colombia, for all its faults and perceived failures, has at the very least earned some hard fought interdiction successes, which is in part why Mexican drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), have taken center stage in the hemisphere’s black market concerns. Plan Colombia gave Colombian presidents - especially Uribe and his predecessor Andres Pastraña - unprecedented access to the White House and halls of Congress. But these days are over.


The conclusion of Plan Colombia will mark a fundamental paradigm shift in how Washington will engage South American security matters over the next four years and beyond. Brazil is on deck to be the region’s principal partner for Washington.


The recent meeting between Brazilian President Luis Inacio “Lula” da Silva and President Barak Obama was a breakthrough for both nations. Lula has a US counterpart that he can publically embrace, and Obama has found a partner in Brazil who has enough socialist street credit to help him broker new relationships with Cuba, Venezuela and Bolivia – considered three diplomatic sore spots in the region that Obama wants to focus on first.


Regarding matters of security, both Obama and Lula are aware of Washington’s pressing need to focus on Mexico and the border. Given the spectrum of international events, the Obama administration will have less time to spend on managing relationships and effectively policing South America. That job he would like to leave to Lula, with only little oversight from the US State Department.


During their mid-march meeting in the White House, the two men discussed matters of security, among other topics. Lula suggested that the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) create a new Council that would focus solely on drug trafficking and organized crime. UNASUR currently hosts the South American Defense Council, but the members have correctly agreed that drug trafficking and organized crime is not a military, but a police, problem.


If an organized crime council were formed in 2009, it is likely that Brazil would play a strong leadership role, one that would further establish an ongoing working relationship between Washington and Brasilia.


Moving in the direction of a regional effort to cooperate in the fight against drug trafficking, Colombia and Brazil signed an agreement on 11 March that grants mutual overflight privileges during hot pursuit situations. This agreement will allow the military and police forces of both nations to pursue their quarry up to 48 kilometers inside of each nation.


With this agreement, Brazil has taken a demonstrable step forward towards investing in regional security. Officials in Bogota recognize Brazil’s leadership role, and as the country sheds the mantle of Plan Colombia, Bogota will do well to engage Brazil on its southern flank and Washington to the north, to keep the country relevant as a self-sufficient regional security program evolves.


Nevertheless, Washington still needs Colombia. Of the 822 missions flown from the Manta airfield in 2008, intelligence gathered by these flights resulted in the interdiction of 229 tonnes of cocaine. Officials in Colombia recognize Brazil’s decision to take a leadership role, but they are smart to not abandon Washington, and for that both the US and Brazil will see that Colombia is richly rewarded.