Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Latin America’s Expanding Definition of National Security

by Shannon K. O'Neil
March 29, 2012

Job seekers join a line of hundreds of people at a job fair in Heredia Job seekers join a line of hundreds of people at a job fair in Heredia (Juan Carlos Ulate/Courtesy Reuters).

Two reports came out recently from the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and the Council of the Americas (COA), both looking at Latin America and framing their substance as “national security” concerns. The first from CSIS, “Police Reform in Latin America: Implications for U.S. Policy,” describes how police reform has become a mainstay of foreign police and national security, not only in war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan, but also in the Western Hemisphere.

This report provides a good overview of the history of police reform and assistance, which has been going on in one form or another since the 1950s. The history and changing scope of efforts attests to the challenges of security assistance, which would likely remain even if the U.S. Congress reforms its current legislation to allow more straightforward funding of these types of initiatives (one of the recommendations of the report). They also recommend concentrating mostly on Mexico and Central America (where we already have growing programs – the Merida Initiative and CARSI respectively), as these are the most important areas for immediate U.S. security.

The second report by COA, “Bringing Youth Into Labor Markets: Public-Private Efforts amid Insecurity and Migration,” also frames its concerns and recommendations around national security. It focuses on root causes of the violence and crime, specifically the lack of viable employment for young people, that Latin American police forces must tackle. Indeed, the statistics are sobering for those trying to break into the workforce for the first time. The report  highlights some small, innovative government and private sector programs in Mexico and El Salvador that are trying to provide a means for young people to enter the formal labor force.

One of the main challenges the authors portray is the gap between what is learned in schools and what is needed on the job. In this Mexico and El Salvador aren’t alone. While in Brazil a few weeks ago, I repeatedly heard a similar lament– even though the country is at record low unemployment. Talking with company executives in the United States (and reading this revealing piece in the Atlantic), shows that this is a wide-spread problem, for “emerging” and “advanced” economies alike.

Given the importance of police reform and youth employment for security, the question becomes what the United States can do (and how it can do it). This varies widely. The government can play a substantial role in police reform – though without a willing and motivated counterpart, it is unlikely to get very far in the big structural and cultural changes that this really entails. In terms of job creation and youth employment, the main catalyst has to be the private sector (recognized in the public-private partnership aspect of the report). What the CSIS and COA reports reflect more broadly is the expanding definition of national security, moving beyond militaries and defense budgets. Though much more complicated and inherently messy, these approaches are also more likely to succeed in the goal of creating sustainable and lasting security in the hemisphere.

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