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CENTRAL AMERICA: Soaring Violent Crime Threatens Democracy

Thelma Mejía

TEGUCIGALPA, Sep 15 2006 (IPS) - Soaring violent crime rates could jeopardise democracy in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras over the next few years if only strong-arm (‘mano dura’) tactics are used to fight crime and the deeper underlying causes of the violence are not addressed, experts warn.

The number of serious crimes has climbed since the 1990s in the area known as the “northern triangle” of Central America, especially due to the strong presence of organised crime, according to local authorities as well as human rights groups.

In these three impoverished countries, a get-tough approach appears to be the only policy adopted to fight crime, particularly in the case of the “maras”, as youth gangs are known in the region, said experts interviewed by IPS.

Unlike in the 1980s, when the region was in the grip of civil wars “with an ideological-political component,” it is now suffering a wave of common crime that is spiraling out of control, said Enrique Gomáriz of the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO), based in Costa Rica.

In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, “the surge in urban violence is frightening, while a slight increase in homicides has also been seen in the countries in the southern part of Central America – Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama – although they have lower crime rates and better overall security,” he said.

In Gomáriz’s view, unless they are checked, the high levels of violence and crime will soon threaten the democratic system in the northern triangle countries, which have murder rates of over 40 per 100,000 population, compared to an average of 10 per 100,000 in the rest of Central America.

The Observatory of Violence and Crime in Honduras, set up by the United Nations and the National Autonomous University of Honduras, reported that in this country of 7.4 million, 710 murders were reported in the first quarter of the year, 100 more than in the same period in 2005.

“If these rates remain steady or increase in the next five years, the stability of the democracies in the northern triangle will collapse, and it will be next to impossible to implement social development policies,” Gomáriz, the author of several books researching crime, security and domestic violence, said categorically.

Santiago Escobar, a Chilean adviser on Latin American security issues in Germany’s Friedrich Ebert Foundation, said the case of Central America, and of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in particular, is alarming, “especially given the fact that the area is considered a peace zone, since the signing of the Esquipulas Accords in the 1980s.”

The last of these agreements, known as Esquipulas II, was signed on Aug. 7, 1987 with the subtitle “Procedure for the Establishment of a Firm and Lasting Peace in Central America”. The agreement was signed by Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua, and marked the beginning of the end of armed conflicts in several of the countries.

“Citizen security is more than the absence of crime,” said Escobar, who added that more than a police crackdown on crime is needed in Central America, a region of 38 million people.

Along with high overall violence rates, Guatemala is facing a wave of murders of women, with 563 cases registered last year. And in Honduras, 198 women were murdered in the same period, and 79 so far this year, according to the non-governmental Visitación Padilla Movement of Women for Peace.

The women murdered in Honduras were generally between the ages of 20 and 30, and most were killed by firearms. Their bodies were often dumped in remote, mountainous areas.

Gomáriz said the murders of women in the countries of the northern triangle are mainly the work of organised crime, primarily drug traffickers. “Most of these women in the northern triangle have been killed in a particularly brutal manner, as a symbolic retaliation by drug traffickers aimed at sending a message,” he said.

Costa Rican Vice President Laura Chinchilla concurs. Chinchilla, who is also minister of justice, told IPS that the high rates of violent crime in the region are due to the “strong presence of organised crime, drug trafficking and transnational crime.”

“But these countries, instead of opting for public security policies focusing on prevention and rehabilitation and based on broad citizen participation, decided instead to take a ‘mano dura’ or ‘every man for himself’ approach: hire private security, buy guns, etc.,” said Chinchilla.

The ‘mano dura’ policies have mainly focused on those suspected of having ties with youth gangs. The Observatory of Violence report stated that in 2005, 204 members of maras were arrested in Honduras in 2005, and 321 in the first quarter of this year alone, under a special law that allows people to be arrested merely on suspicion of belonging to gangs (under the charge of “illicit association”), whether or not they are suspected of committing a crime.

A new book titled “Maras and Gangs in Central America”, presented this month by the El Salvador-based José Simeón Cañas Central American University, says some 50,000 young people belong to gangs in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Other estimates go as high as 300,000 gang members in all of Central America and Mexico.

The main gangs, Mara Salvatrucha and Mara 18, originated in California in the 1980s, after nearly one million Salvadorans fled to the United States during El Salvador’s civil war and settled in impoverished neighbourhoods in Los Angeles where gang violence was rife.

As El Salvador began to recover from the 12-year civil war that ended with a peace accord in 1992, U.S. authorities began to deport thousands of gang members to the country, where the explosion of gang violence during the late 1990s lifted El Salvador’s homicide rates above those seen during the armed conflict.

The maras also spread to Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua, and more recently to Mexico.

However, according to “Maras and Gangs in Central America”, youth gangs were already a problem in Guatemala in the mid-1980s.

In 2002, the Salvadoran government launched an all-out war on gangs, which included sting operations, the use of indiscriminate firepower, and lengthier prison terms. The policy came in response to public alarm, as reflected by surveys which showed that 75 out of every 100 respondents mentioned public insecurity as a pressing concern.

In Honduras there is a similar perception of insecurity, with one out of 10 respondents saying they had been robbed or attacked by gang members.

Honduras also launched special anti-mara operations in 2002, under a zero-tolerance strategy that included the passage of stiffer laws.

But activists argue that these strong-arm policies, in Honduras as well as El Salvador, have led to persecution of young people merely because they bear tattoos (often an identifying feature for gang members) or wear baggy hip hop style clothing.

The Honduran government has even been accused before the Inter-American Court on Human Rights for massacres in prisons full of young gang members, which were allegedly planned as “purges.”

One of the cases in question occurred in April 2003 in the El Porvenir prison in the Atlantic city of La Ceiba, where 69 prisoners, including 61 young mara members, were killed.

Salvadoran President Antonio Saca and his Honduran counterpart Manuel Zelaya announced that a summit meeting would be held to discuss the issue of violent crime, which has worsened in the first half of the year.

The Catholic Church in El Salvador has publicly called on Saca to “immediately curb” the country’s violent crime rates, while criticising his ‘super mano dura’ policy, in which suspects are only offered three alternatives: prison, the hospital – or the cemetery. No rehabilitation.

In Honduras, the government carried out a broad police and military crackdown dubbed Operation Thunder – the first in seven months since Zelaya took office on Jan. 27, after the number of kidnappings surged, and the nephew of the speaker of Congress, Roberto Micheletti, was killed.

According to the World Health Organisation “World Report on Violence and Health”, the average global homicide rate in 2000 was 8.8 per 100,000 population a year, and 19 per 100,000 in the Americas.

By comparison, Honduras already registered a rate of 10.9 per 100,000 in the first quarter of 2006, reported the Observatory on Violence.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, meanwhile, reported last year that Guatemala had the highest murder rate in all of Latin America, with 70 homicides per 100,000 population.

However, other sources say El Salvador continues to outrank other countries in the region, with respect to homicides.

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