Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor

Would Another Peace Accord Help Central America?

Editor's Note: This commentary was originally published in the Inter-American Dialogue's Latin America Advisor on August 27, 2012.

Aug. 7 marked the 25th anniversary of the Esquipulas II Peace Accords, which helped provide the framework to end years of conflict in Central America. Speaking at the OAS, former Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo called for a new Esquipulas Accord to confront the issues that currently threaten the region's stability, arguing that violence, corruption and inequality can only be mitigated by a cohesive response from Central America's leaders. Would signing an "Esquipulas III" be a good idea? In what ways has Central America seen successes in recent years, and which are its most intractable problems? How should weak institutions be strengthened? What steps could leaders take to more effectively confront the region's crises?

Vanda Felbab-Brown: Regional coordination and sharing of intelligence and best practices can mitigate the dangers of illicit economies and organized crime being displaced to new locales and cushion some of their worst manifestations. Historic rivalries, however, have often hampered anti-crime coordination efforts in Central America.

Given the level of corruption within law enforcement agencies in Central America, governments there have also feared that sharing intelligence will augment the chances of it leaking out to criminals or—conversely—expose corruption in one's political and legal system. But there are limits to what even effective coordination can achieve. Absent a significant reduction in demand, drug supply and transshipment will inevitably relocate. As long as an area has weaker law enforcement and state presence, crime will move there. Such crime displacement takes place also within countries with strong governments and effective rule of law and law enforcement capacity: Anti-crime successes in New York City, for example, displaced crime into broader New York state and New Jersey.

Larger institutional reform to increase state capacity and social equity may well be critical for robust success of anti-crime measures in Central America. But governments there have found it difficult to implement such measures.

In the context of high corruption and weak state capacity, initial anticrime interventions should prioritize targeting street crime and the most violent criminal organizations. Model courts and model prisons can be a first step toward bolstering the effectiveness of judicial systems. Anti-crime efforts should also include well-conceived and evidence-based socio-economic programs designed to address root causes of crime. Civil society needs to play an active role in such anti-crime efforts, such as by encouraging community police exchanges and exposing corruption.