Tough Love for Central America

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

June 22, 2011

During Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s trip to Guatemala this week, the governments of Central America will unveil their strategy for fighting entrenched organized crime in the region. The meeting is meant to raise the profile of the isthmus’ severely deteriorated security situation and marshal international resources to the task of improving it.

The stakes are high. Central America’s drug-related security plight is as grave as Mexico’s. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have violence rates second only to those of active war zones. Honduras’ murder rate (77 per 100,000 people in 2010) is 15 times that of the United States and more than four times that of Mexico. Moreover, in the last decade, murder rates have gone up in every country in the region, in some cases dramatically.

The narcotics maelstrom engulfing Central America is a big part of the problem. Whereas in 2006 close to one-fourth of U.S.-bound cocaine shipments traveled through the region, in 2010 the figure was higher than two-thirds, according to radar tracking from the U.S. government. Organized crime has flourished in Central America alongside the drug trade, in part because of structural conditions that have long doomed the isthmus to violence and underdevelopment, and that can be addressed only by Central Americans themselves. The region is plagued by weak states, poor law enforcement institutions and a lack of opportunities for the region’s youth.

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