Economy & Trade, Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

DRUGS: Central America Throws Ball into Consumer Nations’ Court

Danilo Valladares

GUATEMALA CITY, Jun 23 2011 (IPS) - The leaders of Central America, Colombia and Mexico called on the governments of the world’s main drug-consuming countries to play a stronger role in fighting drug trafficking and organised crime by stepping up control of weapons sales and taking effective measures to crack down on consumption.

Discussing a regional security and anti-drug strategy.  Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

Discussing a regional security and anti-drug strategy. Credit: Danilo Valladares/IPS

“Europe, the United States and many other countries pressure Central America to increase our tax base, and they are right. But with the same emphasis, I urge them to reduce drug consumption,” said Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom.

He was responding to comments by officials like U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Arturo Valenzuela, who said that one of the reasons his government should not provide the region with more funds is that “there are countries whose tax revenue is less than 10 percent of GDP.”

Colom was speaking during the First International Conference in Support of the Central America Security Strategy, which ended Thursday in Guatemala City.

The two-day summit was attended by all of the presidents of the region: host Álvaro Colom, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica, Mauricio Funes of El Salvador, Porfirio Lobo of Honduras, and Ricardo Martinelli of Panama.

Other participants were Prime Minister Dean Barrow of Belize, Presidents Felipe Calderón of Mexico and Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia, Dominican Republic Vice President Rafael Albuquerque, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

“While it’s true we have a commitment to improve our finances, they have a moral commitment to reduce consumption and control the flows of weapons, chemicals (used to produce drugs) and money,” Colom added during the gathering organised by the Central American Integration System (SICA – made up of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama).

Colom, whose government has seized 8.7 billion dollars worth of drugs since he took office in 2008, said the region is doing its part in the fight against organised crime, but admitted he felt that “we are reaching the limits of our capacities.”

This region of 43 million people has become one of the world’s most violent areas, as a conduit and transhipment point for drugs moving from South America to the biggest global market for drugs, the United States – a situation that is aggravated by high levels of poverty, deep-rooted corruption, and weak institutions.

More than 18,000 murders were committed in Central America in 2010, nearly 43 per 100,000 people. According to the World Health Organisation, any country with a murder rate above 10 per 100,000 population is suffering an epidemic of violence.

The United Nations Development Programme’s (UNDP) Central American Human Development Report 2009-2010 described the northern triangle of Central America, made up of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, as the most violent area in the world.

The report noted that the three countries have homicide rates five to seven times higher than the global average of nine per 100,000 people: 48 per 100,000 in Guatemala, 52 per 100,000 in El Salvador and 58 per 100,000 in Honduras.

Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama to the south are significantly safer, with murder rates of 11 per 100,000 population, 13 per 100,000 and 19 per 100,000, respectively, the report added.

As a result of the heavily-U.S. financed crackdown on drug cartels in Mexico and Colombia, traffickers have increasingly shifted their operations to Central America, the U.S. State Department reported in 2010.

Against that backdrop, the leaders of the SICA member states came together in this week’s conference to ask for support from the international community to implement a beefed-up regional security strategy based on four components: crime reduction; violence prevention; rehabilitation and reintegration of criminals; and the strengthening of institutions.

However the heads of state not only asked for financial and technical support to bolster security in the region, but also called for measures to be taken in the countries where the drugs trafficked through Central America are consumed.

The high level of drug consumption in the United States allows criminal organisations to earn more and more money, Calderón complained.

“This translates into a greater capacity to corrupt our institutions and more fire power against innocent citizens – a situation that is fuelled by the ambition and voracity of the arms industry,” he added.

As essential measures for tackling this situation, Calderón called for curbing drug consumption, banning sales of assault weapons in the region, boosting international cooperation, and rethinking anti-drug policies.

Chinchilla, Santos and Funes also referred to the responsibility of consumer nations in the fight against drugs.

SICA secretary general Juan Daniel Alemán said “it’s not a question of pointing fingers at anyone, but of increasing awareness that an enormous effort is being made on our part, and we are waging our battle, but we are not producers or major consumers of drugs – our territory has been taken over as a transit point.”

According to a new UNDP study, Public Spending for Security and Justice, the governments of Central America dedicated some four billion dollars to tackling violence and insecurity in 2010 – a 60 percent increase since 2006.

The presidents stressed that in other circumstances, these funds could go towards health, education, efforts to fight poverty and other social programmes.

The international community immediately responded to the demands.

“We know the demand for drugs rests largely in my own country. So for the third straight year, President (Barack) Obama is seeking more than 10 billion dollars to fund demand reduction through education, treatment, and prevention in the United States,” Clinton said.

“At the same time, we are accelerating our law enforcement efforts to root out the U.S. affiliates of transnational criminal organisations and stepping up the targeting of weapons trafficking networks,” she added.

The U.S. secretary of state also offered 300 million dollars to help fight organised crime in Central America – 40 million dollars more than last year.

“So we do have shared responsibility and now we have to see it in action. But I will underscore that the leadership must come from Central America itself, and not only from governments but also private sectors and civil societies. We will all be your ready partners, but we want and need to follow your lead,” Clinton said.

International lenders like the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank also offered support for the regional security initiative, pledging some 1.5 billion dollars in financing over the next few years.

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