The headlines in Nicaragua these days have a familiar echo. In what feels like a 30-year high school reunion, the reanimated socialist Sandinista Front, led by president Daniel Ortega, is rekindling its old revolutionary romance with Russia, which has promised its former tovarishch millions of dollars in weapons, uniforms, helicopters, armored vehicles and training.
But this time, the Russian arms will be targeted at drug traffickers, not political insurgents. And the U.S., which spent billions of dollars to stop the expansion of Soviet influence in Central America in the 1980s, is welcoming its former cold war nemesis backinto the neighborhood.
“The truth is that we want collaboration, and if the collaboration comes from Russia in our hemisphere or if it’s the United States in Russia’s hemisphere, then I think that is positive,” Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, the Obama Administration’s point man on Central America’s drug war, said in response to Russian drug czar Victor Ivanov’s recent visit to Nicaragua.
While Russian involvement in Central America is still cause for concern in some Washington circles, the U.S. has much bigger problems in the region. In Guatemala and Honduras, two of the most violent countries on earth, the U.S.-led drug war has become an increasingly difficult endeavor. Success, according to Brownfield, may mean pushing the drug trade elsewhere and beginning the battle anew.
In Honduras, which gets $36 million of the $85 million in annual U.S. aid for anti-drug efforts in Central America, rampant corruption has led the U.S. to bypass the normal chain of police command to work with specialized units of agents “selected for their honesty and lack of corruption,” according to Brownfield. The U.S. refuses to work with Honduran Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla, whom U.S. officials are investigating for extrajudicial killings and other accusations ofrights abuses, and 20 top police commissioners under his command.
Brownfield, who recently visited Honduras, says the U.S. will maintain a policy of “two degrees of separation” from the country’s tarnished police commanders until the whole force is “purified” of corruption — a process he thinks will take five to 10 years.
The U.S.’ rocky relationship with the Honduran police force is not the only obstacle. Last July, the U.S. ended its controversial joint-drug operations on Honduras’ lawless Mosquito Coast amid international outrage at the alleged involvement of American DEA agents in the shooting deaths of four civilians in the remote Caribbean town of Ahuas.
U.S. anti-drug efforts also face challenges in Guatemala, where President Otto Perez, a former general, has become an outspoken opponent of the drug war. Perez is demanding a new approach, including legalization, a policy that won some support from the leaders of Costa Rica and El Salvador, where President Mauricio Funes initially backed the idea before quickly flip-flopping.
All of these problems loom large as President Obama prepares to attend a May summit of Central American leaders in Costa Rica. Analysts say that trip will need to be much more substantive than just a friendly grip-and-grin.
“When President Obama visits the region, he will need another message beyond ‘we care’ and ‘we are willing to listen’ to alternative ideas on drug policy,” says Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank on Latin America. “Washington needs to do more serious thinking on this issue, and recognize that the costs of a failed policy have been enormous and are being felt by our closest neighbors.”
Even top U.S. officials are starting to acknowledge that the drug war has not entirely been a success. “I would say at this moment in our efforts in Central America, we are in the second or third inning; the game has started and the pitcher is throwing well, even though unfortunately he gave up five runs in the first inning and at the moment the other team is winning 5 to 3, or something like that,” Brownfield said during a March 28 press conference.
Still, he’s optimistic that U.S.-led disruptions of the drug trade will eventually prevail. “We don’t have to establish a paradise in Central America to have success in the efforts against drug trafficking,” Brownfield said. “All we have to do is increase the operating costs for drug traffickers by perhaps 10% or 15% in the coming years. And when we achieve that, the drug traffickers will apply the law of the market that applies across the entire planet and they will look for new routes to traffic their products. And that is totally viable and possible in the coming two or three years.”
Brownfield says every drug shipment thatgets disrupted translates into rising business costs for cartel kingpins. Eventually, he says, the cost of trafficking narcotics through Central America will become too great, and the smugglers will seek cheaper alternative shipping routes.
Critics say that doesn’t sound like a winning strategy, but acknowledge Brownfield’s candor.
“It’s almost refreshing to hear him admit that U.S. drug control efforts have failed until now and that the only way they will ‘succeed’ is by shoving the problem elsewhere, presumably to the Caribbean,” says Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a New York-based organization that advocates for alternatives to the drug war. “Brownfield’s comment should also serve as a wake-up call for the island nations of the Caribbean; the more the drug war ‘succeeds’ in Central America, the more it will ‘fail’ in their neighborhood.”
With Russia jumping into the fray in Nicaragua, Guatemala pondering a truce and Honduras acting more like a liability than an ally, perhaps the best outcome the U.S. could hope for with its current policy is a drug war do-over somewhere else.