During the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama promised to "produce a regional strategy to combat drug trafficking, domestic and transnational gang activity, and organized crime” along with the United States' neighbors in Latin America. Obama envisioned "a hemispheric pact on security, crime and drugs” that would "permit the U.S. and Latin America and the Caribbean to advance serious and measurable drug demand reduction goals, while fostering cooperation on intelligence and investigating criminal activity.”
Experts we interviewed said that steps had been taken in this direction, but they agreed that there was no single "hemispheric pact” as Obama had envisioned, and they also cautioned that it's been hard to demonstrate concrete progress in curbing transnational gang activity.
Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano have met with a range of counterparts from the region, said Eric L. Olson, associate director of the Mexico Institute at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
In addition, there has been no shortage of formalized cooperation with nations throughout Latin America during Obama's term.
The clearest example of a broad, "hemispheric” approach as promised by Obama came from the sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia, in April 2012. (This was the international meeting better known for the revelation of a U.S. Secret Service prostitution scandal.)
The summit produced a communique in which participating nations pledged to "commit, at the highest political level, to the establishment of a hemispheric approach against transnational organized crime” and a series of "mandates” to carry out those approaches.
However, the Summit of the Americas approach was the least specific in its substance -- and will likely take a while to implement. Eric Farnsworth, vice president of the Council of the Americas and formerly an aide in the White House Office of the Special Envoy for the Americas under President Bill Clinton, said the next summit "won't be until 2015 in Panama City, and it's tough to think that anything would be produced at a hemispheric level prior to that time, if then.”
Efforts with a more immediate impact have been made on a smaller scale -- agreements with individual nations or regional groups, not the hemisphere as a whole. "Cooperation on investigations and intelligence sharing has increased dramatically,” Olson said.
The Central America Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI, is an example. Under this program, the U.S. has spent upwards of $165 million to enhance member nations' law enforcement and security forces so they can better confront narcotics and arms trafficking, gang-related crime and money laundering efforts, as well as boosting judicial systems and social programs for at-risk youth. "CARSI envisions strengthening and integrating security efforts from the U.S. Southwest border to Panama, including the littoral waters of the Caribbean,” according to the State Department.
In addition to CARSI, agreements have been struck with a variety of countries including Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, said John J. Bailey, a professor of government and foreign service at Georgetown University. the Obama administration. Caribbean nations have been invited to join the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative, and the Andean Regional Security Initiative has been updated, Olson said.
To keep these various agreements working in harmony, the State Department has created a senior position within its Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau, Olson said.
The farthest-reaching of the binational or regional agreements is the one with Mexico. Known as the Merida initiative, it has provided $1.6 billion to Mexico since 2008, including training and equipment for law enforcement, according to the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
There is some evidence that drug-related violence in Mexico has fallen since a peak in mid-2011. However, the toll has been grim.
"Keeping track of the drug deaths is difficult,” the BBC concluded in an issue brief on Mexican drug violence, but "the Mexican government issued partial figures on 11 January 2012 that showed 12,903 people had been killed in violence blamed on organized crime from January to September 2011. It is estimated that more than 50,000 people have died” during the past six years.
And while the recent votes by Colorado and Washington state to legalize marijuana for recreational use throws some uncertainty into the situation, the effort to keep drugs out of the U.S. has a long way to go before declaring victory.
In August 2011, the National Drug Intelligence Center, a federal office, found that Mexican-based gangs "dominate the supply, trafficking, and wholesale distribution of most illicit drugs in the United States.” Criminal activity, primarily on the Mexican side, include "kidnappings and home invasion robberies directed against individuals involved in drug trafficking,” though "limitations on the data make it difficult to assess whether such activity is increasing.” In addition, the report found, "heroin, marijuana, (ecstasy), and methamphetamine are readily available throughout the United States, and their availability is increasing in some markets.”
Significantly reducing gang- and drug-related crime "is a process without clear benchmarks and certainly no end point,” Farnsworth said. "There is a lot of good intent; hard results are more difficult to gauge.”
Overall, then, Obama hasn't created "a hemispheric pact on security, crime and drugs,” but he has created or expanded the reach of binational and regional agreements. These agreements have made some progress on curbing international drug-related crime, experts say, but the job is far from done. On balance, we rate this promise a Compromise.