Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Is Central America Losing the Battle against Drug Violence?

Q: Honduras has the world's highest murder rate, with 82.1 homicides per 100,000 people, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime said Oct. 6 in its Global Study on Homicide. Organized crime is to blame for the increase in murders in Honduras as well as in El Salvador, which the study said had the world's second-highest murder rate, with 66 homicides per 100,000 people. Are Central American countries losing the battle against drug-trafficking violence? Are Central American governments making any strides against violence? How is the violence affecting businesses and the economies of the isthmus?

A: Peter Hakim, member of the Advisor board and president emeritus of the Inter-American Dialogue and Kimberly Covington, program assistant at the Inter-American Dialogue: "The nations of Central America-particularly the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras-today confront grave dangers, threatening their democratic stability and territorial integrity. To varying degrees, these three countries have long suffered fragile and corrupted institutions and sky-high rates of criminality and violence, but the expanding presence of Mexico's brutal crime syndicates is pushing them close to the brink. None of these countries has shown the capacity to mount even a moderately effective response to these powerful intruders. Though every Central American leader has professed a commitment to regional cooperation, intergovernmental distrust has frustrated collective security initiatives. Still, Central Americans continue to demonstrate extraordinary resilience. They have survived years of cruel and exploitative dictators and bloody civil wars. Although with uneven success, they have instituted democratic electoral systems. Indeed, for two decades every Central American president but one achieved office through elections and served out their terms. But these are bleak times for the region, and it is hard to be optimistic about future. The Colombian experience suggests what the commitment to beat back drug-fueled violence, criminality and corruption requires. Exceptional internal leadership is key-and is not visible anywhere today in the region. Huge external support supplementing substantial domestically generated resources was also critical for Colombia's advances, but it is unlikely at this economically difficult time that either Central America or potential U.S. and European donors will come up with the needed amounts. Without leadership and resources, it is hard to envision a solution anytime soon."

A: Enrique Rodríguez Burchard, Liberal Party member of the Honduran Congress: "Are we losing the battle? I am afraid, yes. The region is infested with drug trafficking-related violence. When its neighboring countries faced insurgent wars in the 1970s and 1980s, Honduras managed to avoid an internal conflict; however, this time the country has a murder rate higher than Middle Eastern countries engaged in large-scale military conflicts. El Salvador and Guatemala are suffering a bellicose environment as compared to the days of their civil wars. The forecast is darker, experts predict that drug cartels will keep 'buying' territory and authorities and killing anyone who dares to oppose them. They are increasing their political influence with bags full of dirty money. Central American governments do what they can, but it is not enough. Lack of resources, fragile institutions and poverty is a deadly combination. Drug lords have also two important allies: corruption and impunity. These countries need to clean corruption within their own institutions. Kingpins fund armed gangs, and when these gangs are not working for drug organizations, they are available to serve other masters. Hiring a hit man can be as cheap as $500. The traditional way of life has deteriorated dramatically. Children are now accustomed to seeing heavy weapons in the streets and dead bodies in their barrios. Security expenses for businesses are now a heavy load, according to the World Bank. Security accounts for as much as 20 percent of businesses' expenditures, representing billions of dollars. Safety concerns are eroding businesses willingness to invest, affecting sensitive industries like tourism. The region is paying a bloody toll to fill American joints with a forbidden fruit. Each kilogram of drugs that makes its way to the United States leaves a pathway of deaths in Central America. We need more commitment from the consuming countries. A 'Plan Colombia' for Central America? The fact is we can't win this battle ourselves."

A: Kevin Casas-Zamora, senior fellow in the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution and former vice president of Costa Rica: "One figure sums up how dire the crime situation has become in the northern part of Central America: every year since 2007, Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have had, each of them, more murders than the 27 countries of the European Union combined. The roots of this tragedy are complex and certainly include the pervasive presence of drug trafficking and other forms of organized crime. Yet, this merely begs the question of why are Central American countries so attractive to crime syndicates. It is not just about geography. They also have a large reserve of marginalized youth (one fourth of young people between 15-24 years old are neither studying nor working), feeble law enforcement institutions and very weak states. In some cases, notably Guatemala, but also Honduras, those states are not able to exert effective control over the territory, an obvious lure for criminal organizations. The effects of this on the region's economies and democracies cannot be overstated. The direct and indirect costs of violence were estimated at nearly 8 percent of the region's GDP in 2007. Moreover, according to recent polls, more than half of the population in Central America's Northern Triangle is willing to support a coup if that helps to improve the crime situation. Turning back this tide will be extremely difficult and will require assistance from the international community. However, the Central Americans need to understand that changing the structural factors that feed into absurdly high crime levels is something that only they can do. One good place to start is tax collection. With 10 percent of GDP in revenue, it is hardly mystifying that the Guatemalan state has serious problems controlling its territory. Following the Colombian example in the past decade, governments in Honduras, El Salvador and Costa Rica have recently introduced or are in the process of introducing wealth taxes earmarked for security policies. That's one of the few encouraging signs amid a dark landscape."

A: Víctor Borge González, research, marketing and electoral politics consultant and general research manager at Borge y Asociados in San José, Costa Rica: "The United States is losing the war on drugs. And of course, so are its allies. The countries in northern Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) do not have the economic resources nor the institutions to combat narcotrafficking. Their fragile economies are sustained thanks to the exportation of labor and commodities and their maquilas. There are no resources for a real fight against organized crime. Police forces, armies and courts have low levels of professionalism and equipment and there are frequent corruption scandals. The countries' populations have little opportunity for education and employment. This has led to emigration, along with family disintegration and the loss of human resources. And this has been a breeding ground for the emergence and growth of youth gangs. Thus, our societies suffer multiple fractures: poverty, malnutrition, low education, gangs, drugs and organized crime. All this has driven up the homicide rate in the two decades after the civil wars. Killings and violence in general have a large economic cost as companies and households must invest in private security. Also, it hinders foreign investment and investment by local entrepreneurs. Untying this knot of problems is only possible with a strong reform program that does not seem possible without increasing the tax burden, purging the armed forces and the courts and strengthening political parties. But above all, the focus of the war on drugs should be changes to being a public health problem."

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