U.S. Efforts to Advance Civilian Security in Central America's Northern Triangle

Special Briefing
William R. Brownfield
Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs
Washington, DC
June 17, 2016

MR KIRBY: Good afternoon, everybody, and happy Friday to you. I’m going to welcome here to the podium William Brownfield, who I think you know is our Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, in that role since 2011. He oversees a bureau responsible for leading programs that combat illicit drugs and organized crime and support law enforcement and the rule of law. As you know, yesterday the Assistant Secretary appeared before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations where he addressed the threat of transnational criminal organizations. Today, however, he’s going to focus more specifically on INL support in Central America.

So I’m going to bring him up here. He’ll have a few comments at the top and then we’ll get to some Q&A. As we’ve done before, I’m going to stand off to the side here and I’ll moderate the Q&A, and then when that’s complete we’ll get right into the regular daily briefing for the day.

So with that, Assistant Secretary Brownfield.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Thank you, jefe – because this is, after all, a Central America briefing. Ladies and gentlemen, I am Bill Brownfield. I am the Assistant Secretary for drugs and law enforcement. I oppose the first, I support the second. My real function today, as you can all imagine, is somehow to keep you entertained for a couple of minutes while you are stuck in this windowless room while conceivably the finest afternoon that Washington will see this entire summer is occurring outside without our participation.

We are at about the six-month mark from when the United States Congress approved the appropriation of an unprecedented roughly $750 million to support United States Government efforts in Central America. So it is not a bad time for us to take a look at what is happening there right now. That amount which comes to me is about a third of that 750 million, for security and law enforcement. That is one part of what the United States Government writ large is trying to do with its three-part strategy in Central America: prosperity, which speaks for itself – economic development, trade; governance, which is to make the institutions of government work in a way that delivers value for the people of Central America; and security, by which we mean managing, reducing, and ideally eliminating violence and violent crime which produces some of the push factor driving tens of thousands of citizens of Central America to seek residence in other countries, including the United States of America.

Our piece of this program is what we call the three-part – I’m into threes today – three-part strategy: bottom up, by which we are trying to support programs at community level that have an impact on people who live in the communities, walk on the streets, and work in those countries; top down, by which we mean reform of institutions, training, and creating better performing law enforcement, prosecutorial skills, courts, and corrections; and finally, support for operations – those units, those organizations that are in fact providing on a day-by-day basis the actual enforcement of the laws, management, control, and protection of the borders, control of sea ports and airports throughout Central America

We’ve had some cool results in the course of the last 12 months. We are working in an unprecedented way with USAID on what we call the place-based strategy – not a new strategy; it was first developed in a city called Los Angeles in the southern part of California, and cities like Juarez, Mexico, and Medellin, Colombia have pursued it as well successfully – by which we identify precisely certain zones in cities or even in rural areas and then provide a specifically targeted developmental and security approach to that zone. We have made some pretty cool progress in terms of efforts to control gangs, both law enforcement efforts and efforts to provide alternatives to the particularly vulnerable youth in poor neighborhoods that are otherwise very susceptible to gang recruitment.

You have seen in at least one country – Guatemala – how an anticorruption effort can truly succeed. The organization is called CICIG. We have been supporting it now for seven years. And for those of you who missed this story, at the end of last year with CICIG’s investigations, virtually the entire previous Government of Guatemala was removed due to allegations – not yet prosecuted, but allegations – of corruption.

And finally, there are an – impossible to name in their entirety – number of special law enforcement units and task forces that provide enforcement on issues such as major crimes, or special victims, or border-related issues, or counternarcotics, or gang units. In other words, we have not been sitting on our own hands over the last six months since the congressional appropriation, or the last seven years since the CARSI effort started here in the United States of America. Where we have engaged with the place-based strategy, homicides are down. The entire Government of Guatemala has been replaced. In Honduras, big chunks of the Honduran national police have been purged because of allegations of corruption. There are more than 50 locations in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador where there are now model police precincts which will become the core for a place-based strategy. And more than 60,000 Guatemalan, Honduran, and Salvadoran youth have gone through what we call the Gang Resistance Education and Training program, or GREAT, to give them some protection from recruitment by the gangs.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is my summary of where we are. And now I invite you to go on the attack. (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: I just can’t top that. (Laughter.) Pam.

QUESTION: In your Hill testimony yesterday, you mentioned a need for a shift from focusing so much on cocaine to more on heroin. Can you elaborate on that and how that fits into that? In particular, is this a shift in which the U.S. needs to change the way that it relates to countries that have been major producers of some of these illicit drugs?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNING: Sure. And in fact, the shift is logical in its – it makes eminently good sense on the part of the United States of America. Over the last 10 years, cocaine consumption in the United States of America has dropped by more than 50 percent. Over the last five years, the consumption of heroin has increased by more than 200 percent. QED, if we are trying to have programs and policies that respond to our realities, our problems, and our crises, we had better shift from a cocaine focus to a heroin focus. And we are. It’s – this is more complicated, however, than simply saying we will address these issues in a different way in the United States of America, because the sources of the product are very different.

Cocaine is found for the most part only in three Andean nations in South America – Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia. At least to date it has not been produced in commercial quantities anywhere else in the world. Heroin, despite the fact that more than 80 percent, we believe, is produced in Afghanistan, the overwhelming majority of heroin consumed in the United States is grown and produced in Mexico. This is a different problem set for us. Cocaine very much had Central America as part of the issue because – work with me on this – in order to get from South America to North America, you must go through, over, or around Central America. They are there for part of that problem set. A drug that is produced in the neighboring country of Mexico obviously has no logical basis for working its way through Central America. That was what I was attempting to describe, perhaps unsuccessfully, to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Not that drugs are particularly different – they are – but that the nature of the problem has changed, and therefore the structure, the infrastructure, the strategy, the approach, the techniques, the technology that we’re going to bring to bear to this issue in an international context are going to be very different.

But before I stop, I do get to say I also said yesterday I’m pretty optimistic about this. Our dialogue with Mexico is very good. We are, in fact, talking about the right things. The Mexican Government is in fact moving in the right direction, and I believe our challenge is to ensure that we’ve got good coordination as we both try to do what we know we must do in the U.S. side to manage the demand as well as the treatment and rehabilitation issue, and on the Mexican side to address the supply – the cultivation and production of heroin, as well as its shipment and transportation to the border and across the border. That was my pitch yesterday.

MR KIRBY: Arshad.

QUESTION: Just wanted to pick up on the demand side matter, although I realize it isn’t, I think, directly under your purview. Can you give us a sense of how demand for illegal narcotics has evolved in the United States over the last few years, and what effect, if any, the legalization of cannabis in so many jurisdictions is or is not having on the demand for other narcotics?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Yeah. You’ve got a bit of the demand answer from what I was just saying. Part of the shift, the transition in the United States of America – and each country is different, but here in the United States of America, the story of the last 10 years, probably, and certainly the last five years is that the demand for cocaine has dropped dramatically. The demand for heroin has increased dramatically. Coming with the heroin, and perhaps the biggest element in the problem, is a chemical, a drug, a – what’s the word – a psychoactive drug that is added to the heroin by the traffickers. It is called fentanyl. It is overwhelmingly produced in China, and much of it enters the United States – most of it – via Mexico, where it is mixed and combined with the heroin. And ladies and gentlemen, it’s the fentanyl that’s killing us by the tens of thousands every year, not so much the heroin. The fact that the heroin user thinks he or she is just taking heroin and discovers that instead it’s fentanyl, a product that is like 30 to 50 times more potent, more powerful, and more dangerous than is the heroin – that’s the challenge that we are dealing with right now in terms of demand.

You asked a similar question to what the United States senator, one of the two from the state of Colorado, asked me yesterday, and that is the impact of selective legalization of cannabis, or marijuana, in terms of our international engagement. And may I preface my remarks by saying I have no right, no authority, and therefore no opinion on what the citizens of any individual state of the United States choose to vote for in the exercise of their constitutional rights as they determine which laws they will adopt within the jurisdiction of those states. I take no position on the decisions of the people of Colorado, Washington state, Oregon, or Alaska in terms of marijuana legalization.

I do say, as I said yesterday, it complicates my mission. Every time I go down to Mexico and engage in conversations with authorities of the Mexican Government in terms of cooperation on this issue, I hear about legalization and, in a sense, how can we ask for cooperation on this issue when states in the union are legalizing marijuana and cannabis in the United States of America. Now, I would like to think I’m not an idiot. I’ve been in this business for 37 years. I have an answer to that question, and it’s not a bad answer. But at the end of the day, it does complicate, at least, this discussion, this dialogue.

QUESTION: My question was actually slightly different, which was how is the selective legalization of cannabis to your knowledge affecting demand for other drugs within the United States. Is there a substitute effect, people are going with what’s legal and therefore not going for things that are illegal and therefore potentially expose them to penalties? I mean, is there any causal effect in terms of demand? Maybe it’s not been around long enough to study; I don’t know.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: It may be that, but it definitely is an area where I’m – I’m normally willing to opine on almost any issue on the planet. That is purely a domestic question. It’s a good one for DEA; it’s a good one for the Department of Health and Human Services. I’m a brave man, but I think I’ll stay out of that one from this particular podium.


QUESTION: Do you know whether the shift from cocaine to heroin was consumer-driven – they just prefer heroin to cocaine – or was it successful interdiction of cocaine or a marketing initiative by heroin producers?

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Actually, a little bit of all three, but particularly number three. And since there is clearly a foreign component to this otherwise domestic question, I will answer this one. Here is Bill Brownfield’s theory, which I think is shared by a tremendous number of people in the drug control and drug abuse community: As we worked our way through the 1980s and the 1990s, the American medical profession, to their credit, responding to the needs, the requests, the demands of their patients on matters related to pain and pain management, asked for and received from the legitimate, absolutely non-black market pharmaceutical industry, pain medication, opium-based – for the most part opioids – to address pain of patients. For about 15 to 20 years, this medication was widely prescribed because patients were asking for it, not as some criminal conspiracy to create a dependency for opioid-based pain medication.

As we moved into the 21st century, we then had a large segment of our society – this is a U.S.-specific response – that had developed a dependency, if not an addiction, to opioid-based pain medication. As that dependency and addiction spread more broadly into communities, those who produce and market heroin spotted an opportunity to develop a market. And what did they do? Despite the fact that they are a criminal enterprise, they did what any good lawful enterprise would do: identify the market and offer their product substantially cheaper than the alternative. If you were to say, which was a good guess, that in order to get a black market opioid-based pill, you might pay 40 bucks on the black market, they could offer the same amount of buzz through heroin for $10. What then happens? Those that have this addiction or dependency turn to heroin because it’s much cheaper and to a certain extent easier to obtain. And Bob’s your uncle, 15 years later we’ve got ourselves a genuine, authentic, unquestioned heroin crisis in the United States – something that we have not seen, by the way, ladies and gentlemen, since the late 1940s and the early 1950s – the immediate aftermath of the Second World War – when huge amounts of morphine hit the U.S. black market at the conclusion of the Second World War when it was no longer needed for combat purposes. That’s how long it’s been since we have had to deal with this sort of crisis. And to a very considerable extent, that’s how far behind the power curve we are in terms of how to deal with it.

And I know you’re going to throw me out of here in just a second. I will say one group that actually was slightly ahead in this regard, if you will permit me to say so, it’s called INL. It’s a bureau in the Department of State. Why? Because during the last 50 years when the rest of the world – we did not really have a heroin issue; other chunks of the world did. And we have developed curriculum in terms of demand reduction, treatment, education which we were applying in places in Latin America, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Burma, which in fact we’ve now had to flip back from overseas and apply it here in the United States of America. What goes around comes around. I am now done. You may eject me if you wish.

MR KIRBY: I think we’re going to let you take one more --


MR KIRBY: -- and then we’re going to kick you out.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: He’s going to kill me on this one.

QUESTION: Thanks. You talked about anticorruption programs and results largely in terms of officials and law enforcement officers that have been removed. I was wondering what kind of steps are being put in place to ensure that incoming replacements aren’t equally corrupt or aren’t succumbing to the same issue.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: By the way, when I say “government officials in Guatemala,” you all do realize that I’m talking about the previous president of the Republic of Guatemala and his vice president – both of whom have been formally accused, I believe, as of – formally charged as of this week – and much of the cabinet. This was not a kind of a pro forma sort of thing.

Now, you ask a valid question, but you’ve got two different categories. In terms of law enforcement and, if you will, the professional members of any government, whether it’s prosecutors, investigators, community police, corrections officials, border guards, and border personnel – whoever it may be – there are ways, and we support them, by which you can vet the incoming personnel, by which you can have institutions within the organization. In police, at least in the United States, they are normally called internal affairs divisions. In other countries they might be called the inspector general. But they are those who have the responsibility of policing the police and ensuring that those within the institution meet certain basic standards. There is as well a – and we provide this in the way of capacity building and training – also the need to have prosecutors who in fact are both willing to and trained to prosecute these particular cases.

The second thing that we can do – and you would be surprised at how necessary this is – and we have been quite successful in the effort – is ensuring that there is statutory law in every country that makes it very clear that these are criminal offenses. There are a number of countries still in the world where there’s – these are gray areas in terms of how a police officer or a corrections officer enhances his salary through non-traditional sources of income. Actually, they can be quite traditional sources of income depending upon where you are. And I would suggest that the answer to your question is yes, there are mechanisms. There are systems that can, when properly applied and supported, ensure or at least reduce the likelihood of continued corruption in the institution or the government.

You mentioned a second blob of people, and that is kind of government or elected government officials. Now, that’s trickier. As you well know, most countries in the world have a constitution and they elect their government through the constitutional process. And you kind of say, if they choose to elect a criminal, the people are going to elect a criminal. If they choose to elect somebody that they have reason to believe is corrupt, they are going to elect that human being.

What we would try to do is ensure that there are bodies, institutions in place in the government to, one, investigate; two, provide some degree of transparency in the event that they discover certain activities that are happening that would, by most people’s standards, fall into the category of corruption; and then third, that the constitution itself permits some mechanism for adjudicating and, if they should so decide, removing from office those who have engaged in corrupt activity, corrupt behavior.

That in many ways is far trickier, far more complicated, than purging corrupt officials in a police force. Fortunately, there are far fewer senior elected officials in any government than there are members of a police force.

MR KIRBY: Thanks very much, sir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: I’m backing away now, over to you. Good luck to you. Thank you.

MR KIRBY: Thank you so you so much. I appreciate it.


MR KIRBY: I’m going to need it.

QUESTION: Thank you sir.

ASSISTANT SECRETARY BROWNFIELD: Don’t be easy on him. (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: They never are. I can’t possibly – (laughter) --

QUESTION: Why don’t you and he switch jobs? (Laughter.)

MR KIRBY: Thank you for that, Arshad. (Laughter.)