There has been much to criticize about President Donald Trump’s handling of America’s national security, including his recent declaration of a national emergency on the southern border. But while that declaration might be misguided, Trump has been right about one thing: The United States has never developed an effective strategy for the actual security challenges south of the border.
Since the United States became a global power in the 20th century, it has used a sequenced method for addressing emerging threats—first building an understanding of them, then developing a working consensus among security experts and political leaders, and then relying on the military to develop strategic concepts, capabilities and plans. This was the approach during the Cold War and after 9/11, but it has never taken place for the security challenges from the south—mainly an influx of narcotics and related crime.
To an extent, this gap is because of the intricate complexity and multidimensional nature of the problem on America’s southern border. Its roots are the country’s insatiable demand for narcotics, which violent criminal cartels have thrived on, growing rich and powerful enough to challenge national governments in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras and Mexico. Against narcotrafficking gangs and cartels, these governments—already hobbled by corruption—have proven unable to provide adequate security and economic opportunity for their people. The resulting crime and violence have driven waves of people from the region, heading north to the United States for security and a chance at a job.
The entire region south of the U.S. border is in the throes of a devastating criminal insurgency that shares some features with the political insurgencies that the American military has faced in other parts of the world, most recently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Yet so far, the United States neither fully understands the scope of this conflict, nor has an effective, comprehensive strategy to address it.
The nexus of crime, corruption, overwhelmed governments and inadequate economic opportunity that is at the heart of the problem is unlike other security challenges that America has faced. Unlike the Cold War or the conflict with jihadism, there is no single enemy to be defeated; the problem is systemic and structural. And unlike America’s other security threats, the influx of narcotics into the United States and the criminal insurgencies being waged south of the U.S. border overlap with profound changes underway in the United States itself as the nation becomes more culturally and ethnically diverse.
For years, America’s approach has attempted to do three things: help the governments in Central America and Mexico fight narcotrafficking and gangs; stoke economic growth so that the people of the region will not feel compelled to come to the United States in vast numbers; and strengthen the overall security of America’s southern border. Between 2015 and 2018, for instance, the United States provided $2.6 billion in assistance to Central America and implemented a wide range of plans to help improve the region’s police and military institutions. The United States also has undertaken many border security initiatives, from building physical barriers to hiring more border control agents.
There is little reason to believe that Trump’s border strategy will work so long as America’s demand for drugs and cheap, often migrant labor continues at current levels.Trump, of course, has focused extensively on the border security aspect, rather than implementing a comprehensive strategy. His highest priorities have been finding a way to build a wall covering the full length of the southern border, while deterring further immigration with high-profile deportation programs and by making it more difficult and more painful for Central Americans to seek asylum in the United States.
There is, though, little reason to believe that this strategy—if it can even be called that—will work so long as America’s demand for drugs and cheap, often migrant labor continues at current levels. Narcotraffickers and people simply seeking work will find a way to get past any form of border security. No matter how much assistance the United States provides, police in Central America and Mexico will never fully eradicate gangs awash in drug money. Even the creation of more jobs in Central America and Mexico will not resolve the criminal problem, since low-paying jobs cannot really compete with coercive narcotraffickers and cartels. And with little education and few job skills, former gang members seldom find a place in the legitimate economy and society even if there are opportunities. Unless it is part of a comprehensive new strategy, a border wall will have little effect on this complex security challenge.
The only real game changer would be addressing America’s demand for drugs and cheap labor—admitting that the United States is part of the cause of the problem, not simply its victim. This might require deterring illegal immigration with draconian fines and even prison terms for people who employ undocumented immigrants. It might also require undercutting narcotrafficking by legalizing drugs in the United States or, at least, finding legal equivalents to them. Of course, these would be difficult steps to take. And even if taken, they would not immediately cure the problems that exist in Central America and Mexico. Criminal organizations are so ingrained there and the governments so penetrated and corrupt that a solution will take generations. No matter what happens, people will continue to seek opportunity and sanctuary in the United States for many years.
Even so, America’s political leaders and security experts must devote more thought to the challenges from the south. The attention the region receives pales in comparison to what is devoted to jihadist extremism and other security threats around the world. There is no established theory for how do to deal with criminal insurgency as there is for ideological or jihadist insurgencies—that’s a problem. Before a solution can emerge, American policymakers must first show understanding, consensus and a sense of urgency.