The Merida Initiative and Central America: The Challenges of Containing Public Insecurity and Criminal Violence

Diana Villiers Negroponte
Diana Villiers Negroponte Former Brookings Expert, Public Policy Scholar - Woodrow Wilson Center

May 31, 2009


The rising level of violence in Central America, as well as Mexico, has created sensational headlines in the daily press and Hollywood style footage on the nightly news. The focus of this violence has been on the drug cartels and the fights among them for routes to market both in the United States and within the region. However, parallel to the drug related violence caused by the cartels are two distinct, but related issues: a pervasive sense of public insecurity and rising levels of criminal violence. Both are related, but not directly attributable, to the possession and trade in illegal drugs. Intentional homicide, assault, robbery, extortion and fraud have all risen in the last seven years leading us to ask how serious is the problem, what should national governments do to contain, if not prevent their occurrence, and what is the appropriate U.S. contribution.

This monograph will examine the reasons for the growth in public insecurity within El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, known as the Northern Triangle, and seek to determine the effectiveness of government policies to restore public trust and security. In the pursuit of greater security, these governments, as well as Mexico, have called upon Washington to assist them.1 The affected governments emphasize a “shared responsibility” to engage in reducing levels of violence, reduce consumption of illegal drugs, regulate the sale of firearms to the cartels and organized crime, as well as to confront corruption and impunity that pervade state institutions.2 The problems are regional, if not global, and to be effective, the response should include both U.S. federal and state authorities.