Paying Attention to Central America's Drug Trafficking Crisis

When President Barack Obama signed the annual list of countries with major drug trafficking or drug producing problems last September, five of six Central American countries made the cut. The list provides tangible support for thinking that is now prevalent in Washington’s policy circles: Central America’s drug-related security plight has reached the level of crisis. The situation in Central America is arguably as grave as in Mexico, which is currently attracting a vast majority of news headlines. Moreover, Central America’s drug trafficking and related violence are unlikely to get better any time soon.

Never a sedate place, Central America has seen a massive deterioration of its crime indicators in the recent past. In the past decade, homicide rates have gone up in every country in the region, in some cases dramatically. The northern half of the Isthmus, comprising Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, is now the most violent region in the world outside of active war zones. In 2009, Guatemala and Honduras had, each of them, more murders than the 27 countries of the European Union combined. Even in the safer southern half of the region, crime figures have taken a turn for the worse, with homicide rates increasing sharply in Costa Rica (63%) and Panama (140%) in the past 5 years, according to official sources.

There is hardly any doubt that the narcotics trade is behind the trend. Approximately 40% of the total number of murders are directly connected to drug trafficking in Guatemala, where, according to some estimates, more than one-third of the territory (particularly the unforgiving forests of Petén in the north) is under effective control of criminal organizations. The narcotics maelstrom engulfing the region cannot be underestimated. According to United Nations figures, cocaine seizures in Central America have grown six-fold in the past decade. Remarkably, since 2007, countries in the Isthmus have confiscated more than 3 times as much cocaine as confiscated in Mexico – about 100 metric tons per year.

Predictably, the region met the release of President Obama’s list with a chorus of loud calls for the United States to increase its counternarcotics assistance. Presidents Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica and Mauricio Funes of El Salvador explicitly decried the marginalization of Central America within the U.S.-funded Merida Initiative and requested a new counternarcotics plan specifically designed for the Isthmus. If the latter was meant as a serious request, it was a very odd one. There is a plan already – the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) – which was initially conceived as the Central American component of the Merida Initiative against organized crime. However, if the statements were meant to convey the urgency of scaling up the resources allocated to CARSI, they had a valid point. Since the start of the Merida Initiative in 2008, the funds allotted to the seven members of CARSI (the six Central American countries plus Belize) amount to approximately $260 million - less than one fourth of Mexico’s share of U.S. counternarcotics assistance. The requested funds for the fiscal year 2011 do little to redress the imbalance: funds for Mexico will still exceed those for Central America by better than a three to one ratio. That’s an indefensible disproportion, reflective of the fact that Central America has been an afterthought ever since the Merida Initiative was designed. The Isthmus is, however, no afterthought for organized crime syndicates.

The underfunding of CARSI is a mistake and a lost opportunity. For it is clear that the plan addresses in a sound way the region’s main vulnerabilities in the fight against organized crime – the marginalization of much of its youth and the terrible weakness of law enforcement institutions. Young people (15-24 years old) in Central America comprise 21% of the total population. They are, however, 45% of the unemployed. Remarkably, one-fourth of the young in Central America are neither at school nor at work, thus becoming a reserve army for criminal organizations and for the region’s notorious youth gangs (maras). Law enforcement problems are, if anything, worse. The region’s police and judicial institutions are underfunded, underequipped and undertrained, as much as they are prone to severe corruption. It is, thus, not difficult to fathom that they command little support from the population. According to regional opinion polls in no Central American country the majority of the population trusts the police or the judiciary and only in El Salvador figures go beyond 40%. Such mistrust results in pervasive impunity. In Costa Rica, less than one-fourth of offenses are reported to the authorities, an act that is widely considered useless if not counterproductive. The crux of Central America’s predicament with organized crime is easy to identify: its law enforcement institutions are not merely ineffectual to deal with crime; in fact, they compound the problem. To different degrees –from the severe in Guatemala to the mild in Costa Rica—they need to be purged and, in some cases, rebuilt from scratch.

CARSI largely reflects these priorities. More than two-thirds of the appropriated funds for the plan in 2010 go to community-based violence prevention programs and to improving the capacities of police and judicial institutions. The latter includes the funding of basic tools such as a region-wide fingerprinting system, the creation of vetted units to handle complex multi-national investigations, or the improvement of prosecutorial capacities with regards to complex financial crimes. Unlike the Mexican component of the Merida Initiative, less than 10% of CARSI may be regarded as military assistance. This is the right approach in Central America. It is to be hoped that, in the future, even more of CARSI’s funding will go to urgent institutional tasks, such as the improvement of internal control and anti-corruption units within law enforcement bodies, and the widespread adoption of modern information technologies as part of the policy making process in the security realm.

Yet, a dose of perspective is indispensable. CARSI is merely a drop in the ocean. Even the best designed and funded counternarcotics assistance program is no substitute for the difficult undertakings that may ultimately deliver Central America from the perils of organized crime. The Central Americans must accept that, just like achieving peace two decades ago, providing opportunities for young people and rebuilding their law enforcement institutions is something that only they can do. The cries for more U.S. funds will ring hollow unless the region’s elites get serious about improving their own countries’ precarious tax base, which makes reducing deprivation and insecurity a nearly impossible task. Who can expect the Guatemalan state to exert effective control over its territory, when tax collection in that country amounts to a paltry 10% of GDP?

At the same time, Washington must realize that if it doesn’t want lawlessness to become the fate of its southern neighbors it is essential to rethink the failed status quo of the so-called “War on Drugs” and have a rational discussion about alternative approaches, including the legalization of some drugs. Mutual responsibility is, indeed, the key concept. But for both sides it goes well beyond CARSI.