Small Wars Journal

Stability in Latin America: A Theater Army Approach

Fri, 02/10/2017 - 6:01am

Stability in Latin America: A Theater Army Approach

Mark Lavin

“Strategies that weaken illicit power structures and strengthen legitimate state authority are vital to national and international security.”1

-- LTG H.R. McMaster.

For over half of a century the democratically elected Government of Colombian (GOC) fought a complex and dynamic insurgency.  Although not ideologically aligned, numerous armed insurgent groups, and narcotics traffickers and profiteers challenged the government’s legitimacy along each instrument of national power: Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic.2 The GOC was successful because it adapted to the unique circumstances and challenges posed by each strategic and operational variable.  Colombia transformed from a failing state on the brink of collapse in 1998 to a regional leader capable of exporting security to friends and allies.3 The Colombian Civil War is over and now that President Santos has multi-year financial support from the United States, the post-conflict resolution of the war is merely a math problem and reconciliation algorithm; one that gets easier with time.4

As the people of Colombia brace for peace, the United States Government (USG) should learn from their strategic victory and evolve the current approach to countering the complex transregional transnational threat networks (T3Ns) destabilizing Central and South America. 

Defining the Problem: Transregional Transnational Threat Networks

The demand for illegal drugs within the United States fuels a significant share of the global drug trade.  This demand is a key source of revenue for T3Ns including violent extremist organizations such as the Islamic State5 in the Caribbean and Lebanese Hezbollah in South America, criminal groups like MS13 in Central America, and insurgent factions like the ELN in Colombia.  These networks undermine the stability of Latin America, the Caribbean and U.S. public health and national security.  T3Ns are well-resourced organizations who move drugs, weapons, counterfeit items, money and people through multi-domain networks. Ignoring international law, these networks threaten citizen security, undermine basic human rights, cripple the rule of law through corruption, erode good governance, and strangle economic development in order to operate and profit unhindered by governing institutions.

Now that the Department of Defense (DOD), with the help of Congress has revolutionized Theater Security Cooperation and Countering Narcotics authority6, the USG can evolve the fight against T3Ns.  This evolution, if properly executed, will apply pressure across the spectrum of threats and over time build a global coalition of professional and capable security forces in Latin America.  This concept is NOT a renewed war on drugs but a military offensive to reduce the capability and capacity of these dangerous networks.   

The Need for Change

Counter-narcotics is a term that has become passé in the current era of legalized drugs and the resurgence of opiates and methamphetamines.  Consequently, the current US Government strategy fundamentally misunderstands the nature and character of the problem and continues to reinforce failure based on flawed logic, baseless assumptions, and skewed measures of effectiveness.7 For example, the Alliance for Prosperity, is a multi-national commitment to police reform, greater transparency and effectiveness in managing government resources, and prison reformation.  Moreover, in December, 2015, the US approved funds for the Central American Engagement Strategy which included $750 million to improve governance, strengthen security, and promote the economic integration of Central American nations. Despite these efforts, results remain stagnate, migrations continue into the United States, and innocent people across Central and South America live under the constant threat of T3Ns. 

Plan Colombia

In 1999, Plan Colombia was largely developed because insurgent groups and narco-terrorist organizations were threatening the stability Colombia.  It had two objectives: reduce cocaine production and improve security.  By cost expenses alone, it is clear that Plan Colombia focused heavily on improving security. 

Plan Colombia was a transition point where the governments of Colombia and the United States adjusted to the severity of the threat.  Although production of cocaine may not have fallen, the United States has a strong partner in Colombia now capable of addressing the root causes of illicit trafficking both locally and regionally. 

With rapidly deteriorating security conditions in Central America, how does the United States and key partners adjust to the severity of the threat?

An enduring challenge of USG economic and diplomatic efforts in Central America is that they not synchronized and do not reflect the realty of the deteriorating security environment.  While intentions are noble, many US government organizations act in silos of excellence which negatively impacts regional partner’s ability to impact the specific threats in their environment.  Additionally, the USG suffocates partners with the love of 21st century Jeffersonian policy demands.  This forces partner nations to choose between unique solutions and isolation like Nicaragua or protracted conflict underpinned by iterative support on a two-year Congressional election cycle.  Plan Colombia and the requisite results have shown that the United States can do better.  The reality is that partner nations in Central America face existential security threats and without changes they will continue to struggle with the unique challenges posed by corruption, violence, and human trafficking inherent in T3N networks.8 It is time to put the military in the lead until security conditions can anchor and integrate the economic initiatives of the United States and regional partners. 

Despite the innovative efforts of Joint Interagency Task Force (JIATF) South, effective change requires more than just resourcing a military surge of similar activities.  Monitoring and Detection in the Air and Maritime domains has made USG security operations predictable and vulnerable to the asymmetric nature of T3Ns.  Although the Coast Guard has seized historical levels of cocaine, there is little evidence that the throughput of narcotics into the US has been drastically reduced.  Moreover, the unintended consequences of JIATF-South’s success has been T3Ns destabilizing Central American governments in order to control the transit of illicit goods over land.

Strategic Imperative

If disrupting T3N activities is a top priority for Latin America, then the USG strategy must add focus to improving security in the land domain.  The DOD must lead efforts to create conditions that facilitate economic and diplomatic initiatives currently having little to no impact on the growing threats to Central America.  Land domain objectives can then be operationalized in theater security cooperation planning, execution and integration processes to combat the effects of T3Ns. 

Land Domain Concept

US Army South is well positioned to support the disruption of T3N networks through regional integration, information sharing, and building partner capacity but it must inspire a renewed Joint approach to solution strategies. A networked approach postures the Theater Army in a layered defense of the homeland able to illuminate key T3N nodes and infrastructure while enabling JIM partners’ direct action to deny freedom of movement.9  Accomplished by-with-and through JIM partners that have shared interests and influence within regional and multilateral institutions,10 a layered defense Network requires the Theater Army to integrate the capabilities of the entire Department of the Army to achieve sustainable results against T3Ns.  A multi-domain package of diverse capabilities to counter T3N influence and promote USSOUTHCOM as the premier security Partner of Choice employs the Total Joint Force (AC, NG, USAR), to increase regional engagement, interoperability, and readiness.11  Against 9 billion dollars of Theater Security Cooperation expenditures a year globally, a modest 15 million dollars, significantly contributes to the defense of our southern approaches and enables an international effort to defeat networks that threaten our partner’s sovereignty and vital U.S. national interests.  The new normal12 effect is to develop partner nation security forces able to protect their sovereignty from T3N threats and contribute to regional solution strategies.13

Near Term Goal: Protect Citizen Security in Central America 

Failed or failing states are defined by an inability to provide basic security to its citizens.  These conditions are the goal of T3N networks in order to violently compete for majority control of billions of dollars in illicit revenue and unhindered access to the United States. The initial goal of BPC in Central America must be conducting tactical training that enable JIIM direct action to reduce T3N capacity and capability.14

El Salvador.  “Safe El Salvador” was implemented in 2015 by the government and implements a whole of government approach for solving the T3N problem, which at its peak resulted in one homicide an hour.  A year later, with crime continuing to rise, the government is placing an added focus on establishing a secure environment for the rule of law to exist.15 How does the US government reinforce these efforts to ensure that a democratically elected government is not threatened by the T3N networks that have evolved from Los Angeles street gangs?

Honduras.  Approximately 87% of cocaine headed to the United States transits through Honduras.  This staggering fact relies on Honduras’ status as the poorest and most crime stricken country in Central America.16 The mass migration of Hondurans is a symptom of the lack of security and ability for rule of law and economic initiatives to take root.  As Mexico begins to turn migrants back, how does the US government ensure diplomatic and economic policies are built from safe environments?

Guatemala. The existence of T3N activity is potentially the most deeply rooted and sophisticated in Guatemala. As potentially the executive management hub for T3N activity, what can the US government do to ensure efforts are having a positive regional effect against the capability and capacity of T3Ns?

Mid Term Goal: Guarantee Sovereignty and Prosperity

Guarantee Sovereignty

In order for governments to effectively implement the governing principles of democracy and the rule of law, they must be able to guarantee the sovereignty and freedom of their citizens.

The ability to respond to humanitarian crisis is inextricably linked to the Army’s credibility and garnered trust of the people.  Whether it is mitigating the catastrophic implications of natural disasters or providing protection from violent exploitation, an Army’s ability to rapidly respond is a No Fail Mission.

How can DOD efforts lead the development of safe conditions in Central America and enable partner nation militaries to guarantee their citizens sovereignty?

BPC in Central America must be able to sustain operations against T3N networks, secure borders, and support domestic security mechanisms capable of managing T3N actions and prevent large scale violence. Through leader development, and by extension a holistic commitment to building a profession of arms, a strong dedication to readiness, an empowered noncommissioned officer corps, focus on the prevention of human rights violations, and building generational relationships across all ranks and genders enables an army to transform to a professional organization focused on external challenges. 

Far Term Goal: Export Security

Export Security

The Colombia Action Plan was created by President Obama and President Santos in 2011 as a regional response to growing instability in Central America. The program, coordinates Colombian military security cooperation in order to provide law enforcement and military build partner capacity activities focused on countering violent extremist organization networks.

The program continues to improve and build a network of regional partners unified by shared security objectives.  This capability would not be possible without a persistent and strong relationship with partner nation security forces that spans six decades. 

Can the program improve by DOD leading the security develop integration and DoS focus on rule of law capacity and Colombian mentorship in Central America?

The complex operational environment challenges nations unable to adapt, while providing tremendous opportunity to those able to understand and learn from rapidly changing circumstances.  When politically and economically feasible, a professional army must seek to export security to friends and allies with whom they share common security challenges.  While it is impossible to predict how the world will change, the Theater Army must assure partners that mutually shared security goals will be pursued together, as a coalition of professional warriors who are committed to democratic principles and the rule of law. 


The demand for illegal drugs within the United States fuels a significant share of the global drug trade.  This demand is a primary funding source for regional actors and a key source of revenue for terrorist and insurgent networks across the globe.  The DOD, if properly executed, will apply pressure across the spectrum of threats and over time build a global coalition of professional and capable security forces.  This is not a renewed war on drugs but an offensive against T3N networks that threaten the sovereignty of partner countries and the security of US citizens. Similar to Plan Colombia, the USG strategy must evolve and add focus in the land domain and allow security conditions to enable economic and diplomatic initiatives currently having little to no impact on the growing threats in Central America.

End Notes

1. Hughes, Michelle and Mikaucic, Michael, Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition, Foreword by LTG H.R. McMaster, page v.

2. Rabasa, Angel and Peter Chalk. Drugs and Insurgents in Colombia: A Regional Conundrum. Santa Monica, CA: RAND Corporation, 2001.; accessed 19 December 2016.

3. Hughes, Michelle and Mikaucic, Michael, Impunity: Countering Illicit Power in War and Transition, Article by Carlos Ospina, Colombia and the FARC: From Military Victory to Ambivalent Political Reintegration, page 151.

4. Chan, Szu Ping, Colombia: from failed state to Latin America powerhouse,; accessed 9 May 2016.

5. Cottee, Simon, ISIS in the Caribbean, The Atlantic,; accessed 19 Dec 2016.

6. Section 333, National Defense Authorization Act; 23 Dec 2017.

7. Porter, Eduardo, Numbers Tell of Failure in Drug War,; accessed 9 May 2016.

8. Miklaucic, Michael, Beyond Convergence: World without Order, presentation Perry Center, National Defense University, August 14, 2015.

9. CTOC National Strategy,; accessed 14 February 2016.

10. US Strategy for Engagement in Central America;; accessed 14 February 2016.

8. USSOUTHCOM CTOC Approach,; accessed 21 February 2016.

9. US Army South CTOC Strategy, 25 February 2016.

10. US Army South influence mechanisms include venues such as the Conference of American Armies (CAA), the Regional Leaders Conference (RLC), Caribbean Nations Security Conference (CANSEC), Central American Security Conference (CENTSEC), and South American Defense Conference (SOUTHDEC) to obtain the assistance of international partners in combating this common threat in our AOR. 

11. US Army South Concept Paper for Operation Together Forward, 15 January 2017.

12.  New Normal is part of the new Joint Doctrine for Campaigning that supplements the term military endstates.

13. Chinn, Clearance (K.K.) Commander, US Army South, Command Brief, Military Endstates, 4 June 2015.

14. Miklaucic, Michael, Beyond Convergence: World without Order, presentation Perry Center, National Defense University, August 14, 2015.

15. County Overviews El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala,, accessed 9 May 2016

16. Ibid.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Lieutenant Colonel Mark Lavin II is a U.S. Army Strategist currently serving as the Strategy and Policy Branch Chief for U.S. Army South and previously served as a planner at the Army Capability Integration Center, Training and Doctrine Command.  LTC Lavin holds a BA in Political Science from Rockhurst University and a MS in Geology and Geophysics from the University of Missouri S&T. Commissioned a CBRN officer, LTC Lavin has held leadership positions at the company and platoon level including company command during Operation Iraqi Freedom II with the First Infantry Division.  He has served as a Small Group Instructor and Army Congressional Fellow.  His Joint assignments include Deputy Legislative Assistant to the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Legislative Director for the Commander, US Forces-Iraq during Operation New Dawn.