Cover: U.S. Resourcing to National Security Interests in Latin America and the Caribbean in the Context of Adversary Activities in the Region

U.S. Resourcing to National Security Interests in Latin America and the Caribbean in the Context of Adversary Activities in the Region

Published Apr 28, 2022

by Jason H. Campbell, Stephen Dalzell, Anthony Atler, Mary Avriette, Jalen Zeman, Kevin J. Connolly


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Research Questions

  1. To what degree are the U.S. State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, NORTHCOM, and SOUTHCOM appropriately resourced to carry out their respective national security–related missions in LAC?
  2. What are the goals and objectives of China, Russia, and Iran in LAC, and how is each adversary pursuing them?

Despite being in the United States' "neighborhood," Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) has typically not been a priority region for U.S. national security objectives, and in recent decades threats emanating from the region have largely been perceived to be tied to narcotics and other illicit trafficking. This posture may need to be reassessed, especially in light of the increased activities and investments made in the region by adversaries in the context of great-power competition.

In this report, the authors assess the sufficiency of resources available to pursue U.S. national security objectives in LAC, drawing on strategic guidance documents issued at the national and departmental levels, as well as by U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM), U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs at the U.S. State Department, and the Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean at the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID). The authors also provide an in-depth review of the goals and objectives of China, Russia, and Iran in the region and the ways in which each adversary is pursuing them.

Key Findings

U.S. strategic guidance for LAC has gaps with regard transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) and great-power competition (GPC)

  • TCOs are becoming more prevalent in LAC, but how they threaten U.S. interests and how efforts against them should be prioritized have not yet been definitively articulated in national strategy.
  • TCOs tie into GPC concerns because they provide global adversaries with a conduit for contesting U.S. national security interests in the region — but this point is often ignored in discussions of GPC strategy and the allocation of resources.

China's efforts to gain influence in LAC are much more comprehensive than Russia's or Iran's

  • Russia and Iran are very opportunistic and highly dependent on political contingencies (e.g., anti-U.S. governments assuming power) and on illicit networks and ungoverned spaces.
  • China is implementing comprehensive, large-scale, and multidomain (diplomatic, economic, military, cultural) global plans that include LAC as an increasingly important component. China emphasizes relationship-building at all levels, which gains it access and influence in the short term while also promoting lasting long-term investment.

U.S. resourcing to national security objectives in LAC should be further improved

  • Recent changes made to Title 10 security cooperation authorities have improved interagency coordination efforts.
  • Sustaining regular engagement with partner nations is a persistent concern for U.S. officials in LAC, and there may be opportunities to find ways to increase and routinize such efforts in the region.
  • The size and perhaps the composition of the NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM staffs appear insufficient to sustain the level of partner-nation engagement necessary to compete in a GPC context.


  • U.S. officials should more comprehensively define what constitutes a TCO and the ways in which TCOs threaten U.S. interests.
  • National security guidance should go beyond existing programs to assign and apportion forces and direct how GPC will be implemented regionally and operationally.
  • Congress and the Department of Defense (DoD) should collaborate on a comprehensive review of current authorities that regulate funding for partner-nation engagement. This should include considering how to make Title 10 authorities more flexible and responsive to changing conditions on the ground; seeking ways to better align authorities with lines of funding; and revising legacy authorities, such as those pertaining to counternarcotics, if they are leading NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM to pursue resources to satisfy current priorities via indirect methods.
  • Stakeholders within DoD should review any updates to personnel requirements at NORTHCOM and SOUTHCOM to improve their effectiveness at executing their respective missions in the context of GPC.
  • Interagency stakeholders should conduct a review of the current International Military Education and Training program in the context of GPC.
  • Congress and DoD should consider ways to make annual resourcing levels more predictable, such as by establishing a baseline amount of funding and access to rotational forces.

This research was sponsored by the Office of the Secretary of Defense–Western Hemisphere Affairs (OSD-WHA) and conducted within the International Security and Defense Policy Center of the RAND National Security Research Division (NSRD).

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