A Comparative Study of Security Sector Reform in Colombia and Mexico: The Cases of Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative

Colombia and Mexico represent two recent instances of security sector reform (SSR) as a component of broader processes of democratic consolidation. In both cases, U.S. governmental assistance to the recipient governments, respectively known as Plan Colombia (1999-2011) and the Mérida Initiative (2007-2017), infused billions of dollars into military, police, and judicial agencies in an effort to improve the effectiveness and accountability of security sectors struggling to contain formidable threats to citizen security. Notwithstanding similar challenges and programme designs, however, Plan Colombia contributed to a reformed, professional, and increasingly democratic security sector that has demonstrated improved capability to deliver enhanced citizen security, whereas the Mérida Initiative struggled to produce in a similarly effective or accountable security sector in Mexico. This study explores the disparity in outcomes between the two SSR efforts. Employing the comparative method and a process tracing, the author identifies three independent variables in the Colombian case, which are absent in the Mexican case, that exhibit a positive relationship with improvements on the dependent variable of this study, security sector governance. Chiefly, SSR under Plan Colombia was more successful than under the Mérida Initiative due to buy-in from national economic elites, partisan consensus on the SSR effort, and the centralisation of the security sector bureaucracy. By identifying these three factors, this study contributes to the nascent body of literature on the domestic factors that impact the successful adoption of externally supported SSR and, more broadly, on the domestic power arrangements that constitute political will to carry out SSR. Furthermore, it advances understanding of the dynamic between democracy promotion efforts encouraged from abroad and local politics--a theme at the heart of recent academic and policy debates on democratic consolidation. Indeed, restoring the agency to local actors in SSR processes, an oft underappreciated and little-explored facet of SSR, is central to the analysis of the Colombian and Mexican cases and one of the crucial contributions of this study.

Paul Joseph Angelo /University College London