Good news from Central America: Homicides fall in Guatemala, El Salvador

Attributed, in part, to an evolution away from hardline 'iron fist' policy approaches to crime and violence, El Salvador and Guatemala saw homicides fall in 2012 from record highs.

More than 300 days and counting. That’s how long the historic “truce” between rival Salvadoran gangs has lasted, helping reduce homicide, prison violence, and extortion in the Central American nation.

Since the March pact, the Salvadoran government, along with churches, civil society, and the private sector, have all had a hand in the turnaround, which represents an evolution from the hardline "iron fist" policy approaches of the past.

Homicides in El Salvador dropped 40 percent in 2012, from 4,371 the previous year to 2,576, the lowest level since 2003.

And El Salvador is not alone.

Guatemala has seen a decline as well. The full sum of the reasons behind last year's decline in homicides in both countries – and the sustainability of the trend – is still being studied. Yet, multifaceted initiatives, as well as programs to strengthen states’ institutional capacity, are helping reshape the security landscape in Guatemala and El Salvador, which have seen homicide rates fall from record highs.

While military and police forces remain critical to security efforts in the region, the mano dura “is no longer the be all, end all answer” to fighting gang violence and drug trafficking, says Jason Marczak, policy director of the New York-based Council of the Americas.

Local circumstances vary substantially, but Guatemala, too, has broadened its security strategy beyond the “iron fist” method that dominated the region's approach to violence and crime over the past decade. Homicides declined there for a third straight year, dipping nearly 9 percent in 2012 to 5,174 murders. 

“I think the examples of what is working in El Salvador can serve as a reference point for what can be accomplished in Guatemala and Honduras and how to do it,” says Mr. Marczak.

Peace pact lasts

The truce many in El Salvador believed couldn't last has evolved into a more complex peace process, according to those who guided the pact.

The truce has served as an example of how all members of society can play a role in sustaining peace.

Take Josué Alvarado, the Salvadoran founder of Maryland-based Rio Grande Foods. In El Salvador, where the company employs more than 450 people, Mr. Alvarado started recruiting ex-members of the feared MS-13 and Barrio 18 street gangs into a “reinsertion” program that includes faith-based rehabilitation through local churches, psychological treatment by the state health authority, workshop space loaned by the municipality, and vocational training provided by the company.

Other gangs in addition to the MS-13 and Barrio 18 have also pledged to end street violence. As a result of the directive, extortion – a primary source of gang income and a dangerous menace to small businesses – has edged down by 10 percent. Imprisoned gang members have largely kept the peace inside penitentiaries as well.

With Salvadoran communities thus nudged into a period of extended tranquility, the real work is just beginning. The government of President Mauricio Funes, who shifted from a hardline strategy to tacitly backing the truce, has kept its political distance – given that popular opinion still favors punishment over opportunity for gang members.

But the increasing participation of the private sector and civil organizations may help shift how society views the gang issue. At least 18 global or local companies and private foundations now boast some kind of violence prevention initiative in El Salvador, according to a recent Council of the Americas report. Meanwhile, international nonprofits such as Interpeace, focused on conflict resolution and peacebuilding, and a local coalition of churches of differing denominations, have joined the peace effort.

Building up institutions

Guatemala, meanwhile, has combined a military-driven strategy to combating crime with an effort to fortify judicial institutions that has resulted in more effective criminal prosecutions. Mexico’s southern neighbor is not only contending with gang violence like El Salvador but also with Mexican drug trafficking organizations fighting for control of Guatemalan turf.

Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has aggressively gone after organized crime and recently told local news outlets that impunity for homicide cases fell to 70 percent in 2012 from 95 percent in 2009, when she began the campaign.

Meanwhile, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala – mandated by the United Nations – has logged progress over the past five years in repairing the country’s broken justice system, according to analysis by InSight Crime, a website that monitors security in the region.

Regional solutions

More so than El Salvador, intelligence analysts say both Guatemala and neighboring Honduras are facing down an influx of heavily armed Mexican traffickers. The Honduran government has indicated that some 87 percent of the cocaine headed for the United States moves through their country. Mexican cartels are also expanding their activities and increasingly using Central America as a base for stockpiling precursor chemicals used to produce methamphetamine, and a Mexican-run cocaine processing facility was discovered in Honduras last year.

“Mexican cartels are continually pushing their sphere of influence south of Mexico as they want control of the entire supply chain of cocaine,” says Fred Burton, a security analyst with the Austin, Texas-based Stratfor.

Honduras, regarded as having the weakest institutions in the region, hasn’t registered the same successes as its neighbors. The country suffered the world’s worst per capita homicide rate in 2011 – 91.6 per 100,000 people. The government hasn’t released 2012 homicide statistics yet, but a serious decline isn’t expected.

Despite bright spots in El Salvador and Guatemala, the next step for the region is creating a comprehensive strategy that crosses borders, says Marczak, from the Council of the Americas.

“The cartels are not confined by state boundaries, but unfortunately the solutions are confined to each country,” he says. “It’s a balloon: You reduce violence in Guatemala and you’ll push the cartels to Honduras. They’ll go to the weakest link.”

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