Central American drug war, crime top agenda at regional summit

US Secretary of State Clinton and presidents from around Central America are convening in Guatemala City to determine ways to boost security and contain the sway of regional mafias.

Central America has always been a so-called “highway north” for drugs en route to the US. And with a history of civil strife, weak institutions, and staggering impunity, the isthmus has struggled for decades to maintain stability. But with pressure mounting on drug traffickers in the past decade in Colombia and Mexico, Central America has found itself swept into a new era of violence.

Now leaders are trying to forge a security plan for a region that many say has been overlooked by the billion-dollar US aid packages provided for Colombia and Mexico. Presidents from Central America are expected to converge at a security conference hosted by the Central American Integration System (SICA) in Guatemala City today. Guests include the presidents of Colombia and Mexico, as well as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“I would call it a crisis, especially among the three most critical countries, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras,” says Donald J. Planty, the managing director of The Emergence Group in Washington and former US ambassador to Guatemala.

New attention on Central America is not just an effort to salvage judicial systems and police forces increasingly overwhelmed by drug violence. Leaders say they must contain the sway of mafias in order to achieve overall success against crime in Latin America.

“The biggest neighboring countries in the region have serious concerns about Guatemala, above all,” says Manfredo Marroquin, president of the board at Accion Ciudadana, a Guatemalan democracy-building organization formed after the Guatemalan peace accord in 1996. “It could help a lot for Guatemala to realize what a threat it is to the region.”

In the past decade, it was gangs like the 18th Street Gang (M-18) and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) that dominated security issues in the region. But now organized crime, squeezed by government efforts in Colombia and Mexico, has increasingly moved into Central America as well, with groups using it as a major transit zone today for drugs. There are signs of "spillover violence" from Mexico into northern Guatemala. Some evidence suggests the region is becoming a manufacturer, too. In March, police in Honduras found what they said was the first cocaine processing laboratory in the country.

World's deadliest region?

Central America is the world’s deadliest region outside of war zones, with an average homicide rate of 33 per 100,000 in 2008, according to the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Organized crime and drug trafficking are responsible for a large part of the violence, logging 79,000 homicides in the past six years, according to SICA.

Of all the countries, Guatemala, which shares a porous border with Mexico, is one of the most vulnerable. In May, 27 people were found murdered in a village near the Mexican border, presumably the result of spreading drug activity across Central America. Recently a state prosecutor was shown beheaded on the cell phone of an arrested drug trafficker, according to the Associated Press. The homicide rate surged in the past decade, from 25.9 per 100,000 in 2000 to 46.3 in 2009, before falling to 41.5 last year, according to Guatemala's Interior Ministry.

A national discussion about violence and crime is dominating this year’s presidential election campaign in Guatemala, fed by a steady flow of headlines on bloody crimes that contribute to a sense of rising lawlessness. Armed criminals frequently attack buses – the country’s Human Rights Investigator’s Office reported last month that there have been 1,200 murders on public transport in the country since the beginning of 2006.

Driving his bus, painted red and black with silver trim and the nickname “Nora” written across both sides, driver Juan Jose Martinez Ortiz says that earlier this year three men boarded his bus in the capital, fired shots through the ceiling, and robbed everyone on board. Mr. Martinez Ortiz didn’t bother to report it.

“The government has done nothing to support us,” he explains en route to Guatemala City on a recent day. “There’s not enough police to protect us.”

“The perception and the image that most of the Guatemalan population has is that they are increasingly overshadowed by violent homicides,” says Rolando Yoc, director of public policy and conflict resolution programs at Guatemala's Human Rights Investigator’s Office.

Aid from the US and elsewhere has attempted to deal with the situation, but those efforts have largely been piecemeal. “There are a lot of patchwork efforts. ... There needs to be a real regional effort to tackle this problem in an organized fashion,” says Mr. Planty. But he says challenges include a lack of understanding between countries, a lack of resources, and weak institutions.

For example, in Guatemala, rooting out corruption will require significant investment in public institutions, where resources are scarce. The finance ministry predicts the total tax take in 2011 will equal 11.8 percent of gross domestic product, which is low even by Latin American standards. The Inter-American Dialogue reported last year that government revenue in the region averaged 25 percent of GDP, compared with 42 percent in developed countries.
“You have to have a state that has the capacity to implement public policies,” says Mr. Yoc.

The SICA conference aims to provide international support for a security protocol signed in 2007 called the Central American Security Strategy, and to determine what financial resources are needed. Among the stated goals of the conference is the creation of a Global Fiduciary Fund.

Eyes on Central America

US Assistant Secretary for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield, talking to reporters Monday, said that Central America needs attention. “We have dedicated a vast amount of resources over the last 11 years to our efforts in Colombia through the so-called Plan Colombia, and a vast number of resources over the past three years to the situation in Mexico through the Merida Initiative,” he said. If we do not address the Central America issue as well in a comprehensive and coherent manner …then we are merely moving the problem around the chessboard.”

Mr. Brownfield said the strategy should look not only at law enforcement and drug trafficking issues, but also at development and institution building. Some have voiced concern that a Central America initiative will merely replicate hardline, military-led efforts in Colombia and Mexico. Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom sought to reassure Guatemalans this week saying this plan will place an emphasis on “co-responsibility,” and will include measures to reduce consumption, arms sales, money laundering, and the sale of chemicals used in drug production.

Even if cooperation improves among Central American states and with the US, solutions won’t come easily, says Sylvia Longmire, an expert on the Mexican drug war and author of the forthcoming book Cartel: The Coming Invasion of Mexico's Drug Wars.

“I don’t think anyone could argue that there is not a need for the strengthening of institutions in Mexico and Central America,” she says. “But it’s certainly a herculean effort. Latin America is dealing with centuries of corruption that go back to colonization and beyond. It’s ingrained in society.”

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