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CENTRAL AMERICA: The World’s Most Violent Region

José Adán Silva

MANAGUA, Oct 23 2009 (IPS) - Although the UNDP’s Report on Human Development in Central America 2009-2010 says the region has the highest rates of non-political crime in the world, there are nevertheless plenty of opportunities to improve public security, analysts and experts say.

The report, titled “Abrir espacio a la seguridad ciudadana y el desarrollo humano” (Opening Spaces for Citizen Security and Human Development), was released in Managua Thursday and provides an in-depth analysis of the impact of violence and crime on the quality of life of people in the region.

According to the report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), 79,000 people in the region died violent deaths between 2003 and 2008. Other estimates, like that of Francisco Javier Bautista, a Nicaraguan consultant for the study, put the number of fatal victims at 120,000 between 2000 and 2009.

Economic damages due to violence and the state’s expenditure in combating it totalled approximately 6.5 billion dollars in 2006, equivalent to 7.7 percent of regional GDP, which could have been invested in social development, the report says.

With the exceptions of Costa Rica and Panama, human and economic under-development and poverty are the rule in Central America, it adds.

The region has the greatest degree of economic inequality in Latin America, as well as ingrained gender inequality, marginalisation and segregation of ethnic minorities and discrimination on the grounds of language, religion and sexual preference.

Migrants from the poorest countries, like Nicaragua and Honduras, are stigmatised as criminals in neighbouring countries with higher human development indices, where they go in search of a better life.

Organised crime is responsible for kidnapping and sexually exploiting migrants on their way to the United States, and for recruiting – and arming – poor youngsters as gang members.

The average murder rate in Central America was 33 per 100,000 population in 2008, while in Latin America as a whole it was 25 per 100,000, and the global average was nine per 100,000. The report says Central America has become the region with the highest levels of non-political violent crime in the world.

Bautista, a former chief of police, says organised crime is the main cause of violence in the region, and is related to socioeconomic vulnerability.

Central America, a tapering, narrow land bridge between North and South America, is made up (from south to north) of Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala and Belize. It has a total combined population of 43 million people, 40 percent of whom are poor.

To the south it borders on Colombia, the world’s top cocaine producer, and to the north with Mexico, where the world’s most violent drug cartels operate, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).

Over 90 percent of the drugs produced in South America are smuggled into the United States through Central America and Mexico.

In 2001, 15.8 tonnes of drugs were seized in the region, while in 2006 cocaine seizures reached 71.8 tonnes.

Bautista told IPS that drug trafficking incites, organises, strengthens and increases the technological sophistication of other forms of institutionalised crime.

The UNDP report identifies 24 illicit activities, ranging from armed robbery to more complex crimes like the arms trade and trafficking in persons.

The criminal organisations that are the most complex, sophisticated and harmful to public security in Central America are transnational, and drug trafficking organisations stand out as the form of organised crime that does the most harm in the region today, the report says.

According to the study’s authors, drug trafficking brings in its wake five serious threats to security: killings and other acts of violence in turf wars over territories and drug routes; dominance over local consumer cartels, which leads to further crime; encouragement of other forms of organised crime, like hired killers; corruption of members of the security forces; and the diversion of large amounts of state funding to combat the problem.

Researcher Roberto Orozco of the non-governmental Institute for Strategic Studies and Public Policies told IPS that the most violent part of the region is the north (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador).

“Organised crime is more embedded there than in the southern part of Central America, because Mexico is so close, as well as the cartels that control the passage of illegal immigrants and the cocaine routes,” he said.

According to Orozco, the geographical triangle of Nicaragua, Costa Rica and Panama is subject to less open violence from organised crime.

Murder rates in these countries in 2008 were between 11 per 100,000 population in Costa Rica and 19 in Panama, while in the north the lowest rate was 48 per 100,000 in Guatemala, and the highest was 58 in Honduras.

Nearly three million firearms circulate in Central America, two million of them illegally.

According to sociologist Javier Meléndez, who was also a consultant for the report, major crimes like murder, robbery and rape are identified in the study, but it also examines less obvious crimes, such as corruption, domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In his view, rather than a litany of crimes and statistics, the Human Development Report aims to be an essential tool to get these countries to take the problem of violence seriously and to use it in planning a strategy to overcome insecurity.

“While the report reflects a harsh reality, it does offer specific tools and proposals for integrated regional planning to mitigate insecurity, through civic campaigns, stronger laws, proper enforcement of justice, coordination among institutions, greater social equity and meeting the needs of young people,” Meléndez told IPS.

The report recommends that states in the region should help raise the civic and ethical values of the population, professionalise the police, strengthen institutions and implement special strategies to discourage young people from joining organised crime, by creating opportunities for development and access to jobs, education and sports.

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