USA’s Prison Industrial Complex Moves South of the Border

by Nasim Chatha

The United States today uses an extensive and unprecedented form of imprisonment and policing as social control of its most marginalized communities. It is a unique culture of incarceration: no other country locks up their population to the same degree that we do, nor has so perfected imprisonment as a tool of innocuously perpetuating racial division. (Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow)

Led in large part by William R. Brownfield, the Assistant Secretaryof State for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, the US is aiding Latin American countries to build “a new penitentiary culture”; a complete package to becoming more completely “American”, involving new prisons, new imprisonment style, and new community policing strategies. The US has long been heavy-handed in its involvement with Latin America, where for decades it has backed right-wing militaries to protect its financial interests and fight alleged threats of communism, and also created “development” programs for exactly the same reasons. This militarized relationship was maintained until the present through military bases, partnerships and free trade agreements. In the past several years, US military influence is seeping anew into Mexico and Central America, this time nominally in order to combat drug violence and reduce drug trade.

Within the past five years, the U.S. has been implementing programs directed at building or reshaping prisons and increasing community policing in Mexico, Honduras and the rest of Central America. The Merida initiative, which began programs in 2007, is the main agreement that funnels billions of U.S. dollars into Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s drug war. The plan mostly sends Mexican police military equipment bought from private U.S. contractors, but also has an important imprisonment aspect: the plan, as William R. Brownfield notes, is “multi-pronged”.

“In one of our more innovative and successful programs,” he says, “the State Department is working with the State Corrections Training Academies in Colorado and New Mexico, and the U.S. Federal Bureau of Prisons, to provide training and technical assistance for all levels of corrections staff” in Mexico, says Brownfield. This accompanies an increase in the number of Mexico’s federal prisons from six to twenty two, which Brownfield likes: these “will greatly relieve the state facilities of severe overcrowding”, although he says nothing of the massive increase in police activity, domestic militarization and warfare that will increase convictions. His gratuitous approval in an article actually about the programs of Plan Mérida suggests that the U.S. exerted heavy sway in the creation of these new prisons. In a very similar plan enacted in Colombia ten years earlier, where the U.S. did explicitly build new prisons, the increased capacity lead up to an exponential increase in arrests and incarceration.

Another of Plan Mérida’s successful programs in Mexico, William Brownfield states, is a massive criminal database that the U.S. has helped build called Platforma Mexico, a component of which is supervision of emergency hotlines and centers for victims of crimes. According to La Jornada, the Mexican government awarded 29 sweetheart deals to private contractors to build the database. The paper also calls the database “failed and onerous.” The Mexican government organization ASF (Senior Auditor of the Federation) says that Platforma Mexico does not provide follow up information on any of the emergency calls or police station visits, which makes it useless for protecting citizens.

Plan Mérida has also helped Mexico develop a voice and fingerprint tracking system, which in combination with Platforma Mexico suggests that the U.S.’s “security” style of branding certain people as permanent criminals is moving south of the border. Another component of Plan Mérida is sending investigation equipment and training police officers to use it, especially around Mexico’s southern border. These largely illegal road and highway checkpoints are operated by a confusion of the military, police or both. They nominally seize drugs but also serve to track the movements of autonomous or indigenous groups and suppress political dissent.

The prison projects do not stop at Mexico, but continue south into the entirety of Central America under the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). CARSI is “a new security initiative sponsored by the United States, which is pressuring the weak states of Central American to assign their local armed forces to the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime,” notes André Maltais, a Canadian journalist. Training prison guards is a central component of the program’s security management in all the countries involved. Central America is an important region geographically for the U.S., especially for its rich natural resources. “While the [leftist guerrillas of the ‘80s] have disappeared, drug trafficking and violence, in addition to being profitable businesses for the U.S. banks and security industry, are now excellent pretexts for a permanent Pentagon military presence in the region.”

William R. Brownfield visited Honduras in March this year, where he committed U.S. money to another “multi-pronged” program. The U.S. has been increasing military and police financing for the illegal government of President Porfirio Lobo since the military coup in 2009. This support has funded Honduras’s ongoing state repression against democracy activists. As the U.S. embassy report illuminates in bullet points, the new prison program will operate through CARSI. The plan includes anti-gang programs, a model precinct program which will be launched at a police precinct in Tegucigalpa, and a model prison program. The most “innovative” parts in this plan are the ones which involve previously civilian institutions: the U.S. ambassador Lisa Kubiske said “He’s going to show that… we have good relations as much with the people who apply the law as with the military side.” Brownfield aims to follow the program of either Mano Dura or Super Mano Dura, both of which are anti-gang initiatives which failed in El Salvador, according to La Prensia. Says Sonja Wolf writing for Sustainable Security, Mano Dura resulted in massive gang incarceration, and “confinement in special prisons allowed gang members to strengthen group cohesion and structure”. (

CARSI is very similar to Plan Colombia, enacted more than a decade earlier, in that it increases US military presence in the plan’s respective region; so similar that the Colombian Armed Forces provide training to Central American police and military officers through CARSI. Colombia has been in a state of turmoil for most of the past century due to an intense ongoing political, social and armed conflict, culminating in the 47 year old conflict between the Colombian government and paramilitaries with the Marxist-Leninist insurgent group, FARC (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia). The broader armed conflict also includes insurgent groups such as the ELN (Ejército de Liberación Nacional), as well as private armies of narco-traffickers.

In 2000 their Minister of Justice signed “The Program for the Improvement of the Colombian Prison System” together with the US Ambassador to Colombia, Anne Patterson. The agreement and ensuing “improvements” went largely unnoticed and unreported. However, USAID and the US Federal Bureau of Prisons funded and advised a project to construct and/or redesign as many as 16 medium and maximum security prisons, leading to a 40% increase in prisoner capacity.

The U.S.‘s overall involvement in Colombia was justified as part of the international War on Drugs. Nominally, the new prisons (an initial 4.5 million US dollars were spent) that resulted from this program were built to lessen overcrowded conditions at the previous maximum and medium security institutions. However, more prisons have not apparently improved conditions but instead have been filled; arrests have outpaced the newly built holding space. The prison program may have motivated a surge of arrests, or at the very least were positioned to receive the resulting prisoners. In addition, the new prisons are more militarized; greater blurring the lines between the civilian police forces and the military.

According to the Colombian Coalition Against Torture, “It is of serious concern that Colombia’s prisons are increasingly militarized. Indeed, the majority of prisons visited …are under the command of high-ranking members of the military and police forces, either retired or active, and lack the skills necessary to manage a prison.” At least five of the sixteen prisons were run by graduates of the notorious School of the Americas. The program in the end was no improvement, but instead an expansion of the role of the prison in social control.

Colombia’s notorious new prison, La Tramacua, with its filthy and violent conditions, has held scores of Colombia’s thousands of political prisoners and is known for using torture: currently, the Colombian prison system holds 9,500 political prisoners, the great majority being held for nonviolent resistance and political opposition.The prison population has grown by over 57% since 2000 while the population has grown only by 14%. In addition, the strange phrase “New Penitentiary Culture” used by the Colombia prison program, so captivating when it leads one to reflect on the nature of the culture we send abroad, was also used by the Dominican Republic’s attorney general Radhames Jimenez Peña in an announcement that six new prisons were being built: “We are beginning a new penitentiary culture in the Dominican Republic,” he said. Likely there is U.S. or Brownfield influence there as well, seeping quietly into the phrases that make it into press releases.

The pattern set in Colombia twelve years ago is significant to understanding how the newer security and prison agreements will develop in Mexico and Central America. The most obvious reason to expect similar results is William Brownfield, who has been central to the development of all of these country’s prison programs; while the Colombia program was initiated, he was ambassador to next-door neighbor Venezuela, and then inherited the prison program when he became ambassador to Colombia in 2007. We can expect more arrests and less true security in communities after the new prison programs are implemented. Moreover, the prison program in Colombia also accompanied the U.S.‘s international War on Drugs, a clumsy practice when decreasing drug flow is concerned, but excellent for maintaining military presence in an area and for niche US business interests like military suppliers. In Colombia the militarized and expanded prison system was an important tool for stifling dissent; the newer prison plans in Mexico and Central America will likely serve this purpose as well. We can expect many more arrests in the affected countries.

Yet we can look beyond even Colombia into the origins of these new prison programs: the original model for all is of course of the United States. Our home-grown Prison Industrial Complex has its roots in right-wing political campaigns of being “tough on crime” and warring against drugs. Drug sales persist freely, but ghettoized black and brown communities, victims of the decline of industry, are under constant police surveillance. In every city exists a population of men with felony records who have no redemption in the eyes of society and much less access to employment. This is the nature of our “penitentiary culture” which we have now begun to export. Our prison industrial complex perpetuates the spirit of Jim Crow legislation, the system created to psychologically privilege poor whites in order to kill interracial class-based political alliances against the rich business class (Alexander). It thus suppresses broad political dissent, and also holds very explicit political prisoners, notably many Black Panthers, Indigenous activists, and Puerto Ricans. The “War on Drugs” declared by the Reagan administration which led to current incarceration practices has never been contained within the US’s borders; all the internal violence is mirrored, and in some ways amplified and distorted, in much of the rest of the Americas.

What will happen in Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean as a result of the new prison programs is uncertain. The native imprisonment cultures in these countries are currently no match to the divisiveness, scope and intensity of U.S.A., but are likely heading in that direction. U.S. prisons are part of the “multi-pronged” policing weapon against communities wherever they are. The building of new prisons, and the implementation of our noxious penitentiary culture, should be opposed both at home and south of the border.