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 , Staff writer

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.

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.

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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.

Former President Arias said in a Los Angeles Times interview in 2000, when asked how he was able to get leaders to agree to a peaceful solution: “I appealed to their sense of history, to their responsibility of transferring to our children a peaceful Central America, to their dignity, not accepting what Washington was recommending.

"And I believed I touched their hearts when I said, ‘We need to choose between life and death. The superpowers are providing the arms. We are providing the death.’”

He was also helped by international events, including the Iran contra scandal, the murder of Jesuit priests in El Salvador, and the fall of the Berlin Wall – all of which fractured US views about what was at stake in Central America, says Cynthia Arnson, director of the Latin America Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center and editor of “In the Wake of War: Democratization and Internal Armed Conflict in Latin America.”

“The end of the wars in Central America was a confluence of changes in the US that created an opening... and the region's leaders coming together around an alternative proposal,” Ms. Arnson says.

Polarization has 'not been overcome'

The wars didn't end immediately, and some of the worst fighting happened afterwards in El Salvador. Peace came there in 1992, after the death toll reached 75,000; in Nicaragua it reached 80,000. In 36 years of civil war in Guatemala, some 200,000 were killed from 1960 to 1996.

But the agreement paved the way for national accords that followed, and since militaries have been downsized – even though they have been increasingly called upon, particularly in Guatemala, to fight powerful drug trafficking organizations – and put under civilian control, elections are fair and democratic transitions have been peaceful.

But even if the military crisis ended, the roots of conflict have kept a stubborn hold on the region.

“One thing that has happened is that the polarization and cleavages of the political system during the war have not been overcome,” says Arnson. “Peace accords were not able to overcome that polarization. As a consequence it has been very difficult in places like El Salvador [and] Guatemala to come together around a social pact to address the enormous problems of exclusion, poverty, and inequality.”

The World Bank, in a 2011 report about Central America, considered the drivers of present-day violence in the region, including its history of civil strife – which can mean a surplus of guns among other factors– weak institutions, exclusion, and the prevalence of youth gangs.

Since the signing of the agreement, economic crisis has led to mass migration, mostly to the urban US, where gangs were formed and sent back home among tougher immigration laws in the US. Today, drug organizations have used Central America as its principal route for cocaine into the US. Honduras ranked as the deadliest country in the world, according to the UN's Office on Drugs and Crime’s 2011 report.

In a recent Gallup poll, Latin Americans reported feeling the least safe of any region of the world. Of the countries listed, four are in the top ten of feeling least safe, including Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Costa Rica.

“It was easier to end the wars than construct institutions that perform their function of protecting people and delivering justice and law enforcement,” says Mr. Shifter. “This anniversary is very odd in that there was a hope to have this celebration be about how far the region has come, [yet] Central America is in the midst of this tremendous insecurity.”

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