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Central American peace accord celebrates 25 years, but has it brought peace?

The Esquipulas peace agreement succeeded in ending political and ideological strife, but it failed to create peaceful societies. Today Central America is one of the world's most violent regions.

By Sara Miller LlanaStaff writer / August 7, 2012



Mexico City

Esquipulas, on Guatemala's eastern border with Honduras, is best known today for its towering white basilica, which draws thousands of religious pilgrims each year.

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But the town goes down in history as the birthplace of a landmark peace accord in Central America, signed at a time when the Contras were battling the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and death tolls were mounting in El Salvador and Guatemala as the military fought to upend leftist guerrillas.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Esquipulas peace agreement by five Central American presidents, which paved the way, albeit not immediately, for a negotiated end to civil war across the isthmus.

It was considered a turning point for Latin America, a regional framework that marked a departure from Reagan-era anti-communist policies and its view of Central America as a stage of the cold war. The Esquipulas agreement garnered its head architect, former Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, the Nobel Peace Prize.

But if the accord succeeded in ending political and ideological strife, it failed to create peaceful societies. Mired in crisis, today Central America is one of the world's most violent regions and increasingly so. Gangs and more recently organized crime networks are threatening to undermine already weak institutions in many countries and their abilities to deliver justice, protect citizens, and foster a sense of social inclusion.

“Society was so weak after those terrible years ... [Many political players] didn't really understand the importance of a bigger state and important reforms in education and health and more inclusive economic growth,” says Anders Kompass of the United Nations office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights who worked closely on the Central American peace agreement. Still, he says, the “Esquipulas agreement was a landmark in the history of Central America, and I think it's going to be seen like that … 50 or 100 years from now.”

'We are providing the death'

Protracted wars showed no signs of abating in the 1980s, worsened by the cold-war climate that saw the United States and Soviets boosting their respective sides in a Central American proxy war. The majority view in the US at the time was to pump money to the Contras in Nicaragua and the government of El Salvador, which was battling Soviet-funded guerrillas.

In the wake of intra-regional hostilities and other failed peace negotiations, Mr. Arias, who served as Costa Rica's president from 1986 to 1990, took the lead on a plan, debated in Esquipulas, to demilitarize the region. This included folding all sides into democratic systems and downsizing militaries. Weakening military control was pinpointed as the first step toward peace, but the accord also aimed to halt international players, like the US, from funding irregular forces like the Contras.

“It revealed a degree of initiative and independence that the region hadn't seen before, almost a defiance of the Reagan policy,” says Mr. Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, which is sponsoring an event this month with the Organization of American States (OAS) to mark the 25th anniversary of the Esquipulas agreement.

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