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North American security: The missing agenda

Jorge Chabat

For different reasons, states tend to securitize some issues more than others. What causes one issue to be securitized is related to the real threat it poses to national security but also to the perceptions of the political elite or to public opinion. In this sense, states tend to be more aware of the immediate threats that affect the everyday lives of its citizens, but tend to react slowly to threats generated in other countries because borders provide the illusion of security. That is why national security agendas differ within regions. This is clearly the case in North America where Canada and the U.S. have been slow in responding in a co-ordinated way to the major security challenges posed by the rise of organized crime in their hemisphere.

During the second half of the 20th century, the security concerns of the U.S. in its global fight against terrorism have dominated the trilateral agenda and most of the countries of the world have had to accept this, just as they did during the Cold War.

However, an old problem has recently re-emerged as an immediate and stronger threat: organized crime. It is affecting Mexico and Central America in a very direct way and the situation is deteriorating. Certainly, the Organization of American States (OAS) has considered this threat in its agenda and the Permanent Council has issued a Hemispheric Plan of Action against Transnational Organized Crime. Additionally, bilateral programs of co-operation, such as the Mérida Initiative, have been put in place to help some countries develop tools to combat this threat. However, all these actions seem insufficient to deal with a very powerful enemy that has provoked unusual levels of violence in Mexico and is expanding all over Central America.

The heart of the matter is that multilateral co-operation has a restricted capacity to face these threats because it has been based on the principle of sovereignty. Consequently, the measures proposed in multilateral agreements are limited by the institutional strength of every state. Certainly, international co-operation contemplates reinforcing national public institutions to fight organized crime but since most of the institutional weaknesses preventing the effective enforcement of laws are structural, these measures have a limited effectiveness. The case of Mexico and Central America clearly illustrates that point: these countries have very weak institutions corroded by corruption and co-operative efforts have had very limited impacts in combatting the problem. Even when multilateral arrangements provide financing as well as equipment and training to governments to fight organized crime, none of this will work if corruption is not eradicated. It is needless to say that if this issue is not tackled, organized crime will extend not only to Central and South America but will also affect the stability of countries with stronger institutions such as Canada and the U.S. in a serious way.

So far sovereignty has been the cornerstone of international co-operation and it has been useful to prevent abuses committed by strong states against weaker ones. However, this principle has also been very useful in preventing any serious reform of state institutions. The idea that institutions, especially the security and justice apparatus, are an internal affair has hindered the participation of the international community in making any improvements in this regard. The most serious problem in the fight against organized crime is corruption because the real power of its networks comes precisely from money. All the measures proposed to stop criminals lie on the assumption that states have the capacity to do so. However, corruption spoils everything. The idea of fighting criminal organizations by attacking their profits sounds very logical indeed, but states are trapped in a vicious circle: in order to target the profits of criminal organizations they need effective institutional tools and they do not have them precisely because of the immense economic power of organized crime that corrupts the state itself.

North America faces many new threats. The region is very conscious of most of them and has been moving the agenda in order to adapt to the new circumstances. The old idea that threats to security come only from conventional military actors has been abandoned. However, the construction of a new agenda is still trapped in the Westphalian cage of territorial sovereignty, at a time when most of the emerging threats are moving outside the national framework. At the same time, the clear distinction between domestic and international issues that existed in the past is not useful anymore. Nowadays the most important threat to the stability of the region comes from organized crime and its power derives from the domestic institutional weakness of the states, particularly corruption. If the region is not able to deal with this reality and develop new approaches to the problem, the stability of the region will grow ever more jeopardized.

Jorge Chabat is professor and researcher within the International Studies Division of the Centre for Research and Teaching on Economics (CIDE), Mexico.

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