Key to National Peace and Prosperity: U.S. Civilian Agencies’ Interagency Collaboration in Latin American Drug War

July 8th, 2020

Approximately 150,000 organized-crime-related intentional homicides occurred as a result of Mexican government’s official declaration of its war on drugs (“Mexico Drug War Fast Facts”). The U.S. government has been aiding the Mexico can government in this battle, hoping to weaken narcotic groups and create regional peace and prosperity (Seelke & Finklea). Officials of the State Department (DOS) and the Pentagon agree that drug trafficking organizations (DTO) can “spread corruption, undermine fledgling democracies and can potentially finance terrorists” (Lopex). Thus, since the 1970s, multiple collaborative programs have been proposed and implemented by domestic and international interagency to curtail drug trafficking and reduce violence (Huey). The Foreign Service, under DOS, has been collaborating with and coordinating the other U.S. civilian agencies, such as the Department of Justice (DOJ) and the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), to implement those programs. Their collaboration has yielded great results. However, in the implementation of Plan Colombia and Merida Initiative, the lack of interagency interaction to coordinate different agency goals, procedures, and timetables in the collaborative implementation process has led to delays in funding and difficulties in the nationalization of US’s aid. Therefore, it is necessary to establish a joint interagency coordination group (JIACG), within which regular, timely, and collaborative working relations among DOD, USAID, and other U.S. government civilian agencies can be established to tackle obstacles in funding and nationalization. 

For the past few decades, DOS has been the leading force that manages the majority of counternarcotic policy in Colombia under the overall direction provided by the National Drug Control Strategy (“Colombia”). Every year, DOS produces an annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Report that incorporates the inputs of other U.S. agencies involved in counternarcotic efforts (“Colombia”). For Plan Colombia, which was the first official collective effort of the United States and Colombian governments, the Office of National Drug Control Policy (ONDCP), USAID, DOJ, DOS, and Department of Defense (DOD) were collaborating on the implementation and management of all programs. Since 2007, the focus of U.S. aids has shifted from military assistance programs to nonmilitary ones, especially those providing alternative development (“Colombia”). For the implementation, USAID, DOJ, and DOS are responsible for overseeing nonmilitary programs (“Plan Colombia”). In particular, DOS has led the effort of all program and project implementation, whereas the USAID is in charge specifically of ensuring the long-term sustainability of alternative development programs and projects initiated by the U.S. government. The majority of funding of the DOS in Colombia came from the International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement account (“Colombia”). With different emphasizes, U.S. agencies are working together in this War on Drugs.

The enormous resources devoted to military programs have yielded significant positive results in strengthening Colombian security. However, the incorporation of U.S. agencies has encountered difficulties when they conduct interagency nationalization, which is the shifting of responsibility of managing ongoing programs from the U.S. agencies to the Colombian government. In response to the congressional direction for nationalization since 2005, DOS, USAID, DOD, and DOJ have been undertaking a series of separate initiatives. Nevertheless, as they each have their “own approaches to nationalization with different timelines and objectives that have not been coordinated to promote potential efficiencies” (“Plan Colombia”), programs have nationalized at different paces. In 2008, one program was nationalized, two were in transitions, and two came with undefined transfer date (“Drug Reduction Goals”). This mixed result is the outcome of poorly coordinated and non-collaborative acts of multiple U.S. agencies, postponing the process of nationalization. Recognizing the deficiency, the Congress has disbursed additional funds to expedite this process in 2008. Since then, DOS and DOD have been taking effective actions to nationalize the five major Colombian military and National Police aviation programs. However, USAID’s program- and project-specific nationalization efforts have not been integrated with those of other government agencies (“Plan Colombia”). The absence of an integrated plan of all U.S. agencies is hindering nationalizing assistance programs in Colombia. To achieve the optimal efficiency, more interagency collaboration to “incorporate and rationalize the complex mix of agency programs, funding plans and schedules, differing agency goals and varying timetables for nationalization” is needed (“Plan Colombia”).

Today, DOS, USAID, DOJ, and DOD have been managing the implementation of the Merida Initiative; nevertheless, they have been facing the same challenge of the lack of interagency communication and collaboration that have resulted in delays of program implementation. In the fiscal year 2008, DOS constructed its detailed Spending Plan in cooperation with other U.S. agencies mentioned above (“Merida Initiative”). However, in actual implementation, even though DOS has managed the obligation of most funding, it employs three different obligation processes due to the three bureaus that manage the funding account differently (“Merida Initiative”). While the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) appropriates the majority of the funds, USAID is administered by the U.S. Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs and receives funds from the Economic Support Fund Account (“Colombia”). DOD, meanwhile, can only start obligating the funds after they have been allocated by Foreign Military Financing (FMF) and the Central Transfer Account (“Colombia”). All three state bureaus utilize their own methods to track funds, prolonging the process of obligation and complicating the tracking of funding status (“Status of Funds for the Mérida Initiative”). In fact, 46% of the nearly $1.6 billion of Merida funds appropriated by Congress between 2008-2010 has been obligated, and only 9% has been disbursed (Olson & Wilson). The delays in funding convoluted DOS’s job. In 2008, DOS was required to submit a spending plan of appropriated funds that included “concrete goals, actions to be taken, budget proposals, and anticipated results” due to the Supplemental Appropriations Act (“Merida Initiative”). In addition, under 22 U.S.C. & 2413(a), DOS is required to inform Congress of the “type of assistance and level of funding to be provided to individual countries and international organizations” (“Merida Initiative”). In order to construct the spending plan and the annual report to the Congress before implementing programs and projects of the Merida Initiative, DOS has been consulting with agents from DOD, USAID, and DOJ on their progress that are all measured and executed with different procedures. Consequently, delays have happened, which frequently interrupted ongoing programs to stop and wait for funds to resume. Those delays have compromised “programs’ credibility with host country counterparts” and resulted in “missed opportunities to provide support to address urgent issues” (“Merida Initiative”). The various procedures, objectives, and timetables of U.S. agencies are undermining the efficiency of the Merida Initiative and require more interagency collaboration to resolve. 

In the War on Drugs, DOS, under the general guidance of the White House’s ONDCP (“Colombia”), has led other U.S. agencies in the implementation of both military and non-military programs to support counter-narcotic efforts of Latin American nations. The Foreign Service, in particular, has played key roles in the communication between U.S. Congress and U.S. civilian agencies as it is responsible for providing detailed and thorough reports regarding funding status, program progress, and recommendations of improvements to the Congress. Nevertheless, discrepancies among all U.S. agencies’ implementation processes have impeded the US’s effort in combating illicit drug trafficking through interagency collaboration. In order to optimize the U.S. agencies’ involvement in nationalizing programs that are supported by the U.S .in Colombia and providing prompt implementations of programs in Mexico, better coordination of interagency works must be conducted through the establishment of a specific JIACG that focuses on encouraging communication of newest updates of funding and implementation status between agencies, improving interagency coordination of ongoing military and alternative development assistance programs, and integrating nationalization plans to sustain programs after their start-up phase. 


*”Five Key Points to Understanding the Merida Initiative.” U.S. Embassy & Consulates in Mexico, Accessed 21 May 2020.

Huey, David. “The US war on drugs and its legacy in Latin America.” The Guardian, 3 Feb. 2014, Accessed 22 May 2020.

Lopex, Daria, et al. “U.S. military expands its drug war in Latin America.” USA Today, 3 Feb. 2013, Accessed 20 May 2020.

“Mexico Drug War Fast Facts.” CNN Library, 27 Aug. 2019, CNN Accessed 22 May 2020.

Olson, Eric L. & Wilson, Christopher E. “GAO Report Finds Merida Initiative Needs Better Performance Measures.” Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Mexico Institute, WIL50N Center, Accessed 22 May 2020.

*Seelke, Clare Ribando & Finklea, Kristin. “U.S. Mexican Security Cooperation: The Merida Initiative and Beyond.” Congressional Research Service, 29 Jun. 2017, P41349, Accessed 21 May 2020.

*United States Government Accountability Office. Colombia – U.S. Counternarcotics Assistance Achieved Some Positive Results, but State Needs to Review the Overall U.S. Approach. Washington, DC. 2018, GAO-19-106. Accessed 21 May 2020.

*United States Government Accountability Office. Drug Control – Agencies Need to Plan for Likely Declines in Drug Interdiction Assets, and Develop Better Performance Measures for Transit Zone operations. Washington, DC. 2005, GAO-06-200. Accessed 22 May 2020.

*United States Government Accountability Office. Merida Initiative – The United States Has Provided Counternarcotics and Anticrime Support but Needs Better Performance Measures. Washington, DC. 2010, GAO-10-837. Accessed 22 May 2020.

*United States Government Accountability Office. Plan Colombia – Drug Reduction Goals Were Not Fully Met, but Security Has Improved; U.S. Agencies Need More Detailed Plans for Reducing Assistance. Washington, DC. 2008. GAO-09-71. Accessed 20 Mar. 2020.

*United States Government Accountability Office. Status of Funds for the Mérida Initiative. Washington, DC. 2009, GAO-10-253R. Accessed 21 May 2020.

* denotes primary source

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Sharon Huang

On a self-exploring journey. Cultivating interests and intelligence. Living the present moment. Envisioning and pursuing my dream. Practicing mindfulness.

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