The Security Summit in Central America: On the Modest Meaning of Shared Responsibility

At last week’s international conference convened to support Central America’s regional security strategy, held in Guatemala City, all the talk was about the co-responsibility of drug-consuming countries, such as the United States and Europe’s own, in solving the region’s security crisis. But alas, the meeting in Guatemala yielded relatively little in the way of fresh funds to combat organized crime in the isthmus.

True, the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank committed $1.5 billion for security projects over the next few years—but those resources took on the form of loans and the conditions and contours of these pledges remain unclear. For instance, it is not readily apparent whether a recent IDB $132 million security-oriented loan to Costa Rica would be included in that amount. Furthermore, non-reimbursable aid commitments were few and far between. The United States revised past offers of aid, with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledging $300 million to the region, rather than the $200 million offered by President Obama while visiting El Salvador last March. How much of this is new funding and how much is simply a reiteration of undisbursed past pledges remains anybody’s guess. Given U.S. diplomats’ recent insistence on the unlikelihood of dramatic increases in counternarcotics assistance to the region, it can only be assumed that a horse which Central America had already bought was now given nicer ribbons, an extra carrot or two, and once again put on sale in Guatemala. Spain, Australia and a couple other countries followed suit with small financial pledges of their own.

Other governments made specific and valuable offers of technical security assistance. Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos’ intervention merits special note. Speaking with the tone of someone who understands as well as anybody the isthmus’s current security plight, President Santos extended some very concrete offers to train Central American law enforcement bodies on tasks ranging from counterintelligence to complex financial investigations. His proposal to establish a regional center focused at countering money laundering is surely deserving of attention. Santos’s willingness to offer assistance contrasted with Mexican President Felipe Calderón’s deafening silence starkly. Ever so eloquent in providing an articulate defense of his government’s onslaught against drug trafficking organizations, Calderón was nonetheless supremely shy in pledging anything other than moral support to his Central American neighbors. If anything, the Mexican President “jumped the counter” and placed himself squarely beside his Central American peers in demanding abundant international support for his own endeavors.

The relatively modest pledges made in Guatemala suggest that the event’s real value lay in its political message, evidenced in the convergence of a remarkably broad group of nations and organizations all rallying in the name of an unprecedented regional effort to improve the isthmus’ dire security situation. The feat of organizing a summit attended by 9 heads of state or government from the region, as well as top officials from key regional and extra-regional partners, such as the United States, Spain, the Organization of American States, the IDB and many, many others, has to count as a significant achievement for the frequently underwhelming Central American integration institutions that coordinated it. The hitherto weak Central American Integration Secretariat (SICA) has carved a prominent role for itself. It now carries a major responsibility in this process. If crafting a regional approach against organized crime is a pressing necessity in Central America, then what emerged from Guatemala, with SICA at its helm, is now the only game in town.

From a substantive standpoint, however, what emerged remains little more than a blueprint with a vague strategic statement and a list of 22 mostly adequate concept papers for potential projects on four areas: law enforcement, crime prevention, rehabilitation and prisons, and institutional strengthening. The blueprint unveiled in Guatemala still requires a lot of technical work—not to mention sustained political will—if it is to result in concrete improvements. Perhaps the international community will step up its commitments once that strategy is fleshed out more clearly and turned into a coherent set of fundable proposals. So far, the international community seems willing to vouch for SICA’s leadership role, but SICA will need a lot more external support if it is to lead the process successfully. In this regard, Secretary Clinton’s unexpected announcement that the United States will seek observer status in SICA is reassuring.

If there is some skepticism about SICA’s ability to catalyze this process, there is even more doubt about Central American governments’ capacity to absorb and effectively use a heavy influx of external security aid. This is an argument that U.S. officials routinely note in justifying the presently low levels of counternarcotics assistance. While a valid concern, this argument should not be used as a reason to deny the region’s governments the support they badly need in their battle against extraordinarily well-funded enemies. Let me put it this way: when it comes to using external aid wisely, Central American countries are certainly not Sweden, but they are no worse than Mexico. If anything, in cases like Costa Rica and Panama they may even be considerably better. Yet, since 2008, Mexico has received five times more counternarcotics assistance from the Unites States than the six Central American countries combined. Moreover, this argument fails to explain why the international community is so oddly reluctant to provide secure funding to bodies such as Guatemala’s UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) that can hardly be accused of wasting their resources. As I write, the CICIG, one of the few safeguards remaining to prevent the capture of the Guatemalan state by crime syndicates, is scrambling to find funding (approximately $20 million per year) to keep its doors open past August 2011. This argument thus carries more than a hint of disingenuousness. Central American governments certainly must step up to the plate, but their ability to improve their security performance ought not to be dismissed from the outset.

Improving governmental performance is a key part of Central America’s shared responsibility, but it is not the only one. Indeed, judging from the watchwords of the conference’s remarks— Secretary Clinton’s included (“True security cannot be funded on the backs of the poor”)—international donors will be paying close attention to regional efforts at improving tax collection among the wealthy to fund security policies. The signs on this front are not entirely discouraging. Just a few days ago, Honduras’s legislators approved a temporary tax hike, earmarked for security purposes, expected to yield $80 million per year for five years, while governments in El Salvador and Costa Rica are engaged in similar political battles. Unfortunately in Guatemala, where the threat of organized crime is by far the most pressing, President Alvaro Colom seems unable to break the age-old political jinx that has impeded any kind of tax reform in his country. The Guatemalan business elite—as recalcitrant and reactionary as any—seems unfazed by the collapse in public safety and has vowed to resist any security-oriented tax hike. In all likelihood they will prevail. Guatemala’s embarrassingly low tax burden—10.5 percent of GDP in 2010—will be left intact; and the country will continue to suffer for that.

In sum, the conference in Guatemala was a useful step towards reversing the tide of violence that is engulfing Central America. At this point, the world has taken notice. But the real job remains to be done, and real commitment to help Central America help itself remains to be shown.