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U.S. Should Double Aid to Curb Violence in Central America: Report

WASHINGTON, May 3 2012 (IPS) - The United States should double aid to Central America and focus it more on programmes designed to strengthen the region’s criminal justice institutions to help curb the skyrocketing violence in the region, according to a new report published by an influential foreign policy group.

That would mean increasing the approximately 300 million dollars currently provided annually under the State Department’s Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and other U.S. government agencies to 600 million dollars.

It would place much greater emphasis on such measures as law enforcement training, protection programmes for witnesses, prosecutors, and judges, and reform of the region’s overcrowded prisons, according to “Countering Criminal Violence in Central America” released by the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR).

“Support for reducing violence in Central America should be the top U.S. priority for the region, because it poses a real threat to the rule of law and governance, which is already very weak,” declared Michael Shifter, the report’s author.

“Our interests in promoting trade and investment and in fighting drug trafficking are very hard to pursue effectively without bringing down the levels of violence in the region,” Shifter, who also heads the Inter-American Dialogue (IAD), told IPS.

The U.S. can also do more at home to reduce the mayhem in Central America, according to the 43-page report.

That includes more vigorous efforts to reduce demand for illicit drugs here, exerting tighter control over the export of dangerous weapons at both the federal and state levels, and sharing more information with the region’s governments about the thousands of convicted criminals deported by the U.S. to their jurisdictions each year.

In addition, Washington should grant Temporary Protective Status (TPS) to undocumented Guatemalan migrants in the U.S. and extend TPS for Salvadorans and Hondurans here beyond 2013. That would enable tens of thousands of Central Americans to continue working here, thus providing relief to governments struggling to cope with natural disasters and insecurity, according to the report.

The 43-page report comes amidst growing alarm over skyrocketing homicide rates in the region, particularly in the “northern triangle” of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. At more than 82 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Honduras is believed to have had the world’s highest homicide rate in 2010, while El Salvador, at 66 homicides per 100,000 – more than three times Mexico’s rate – was not far behind.

In addition to the human loss and trauma it inflicts on these societies, the violence has takes a heavy economic toll.

“The direct costs of crime exceeds nine percent of GDP in several Central American countries,” noted Assistant Secretary of State for Economic and Business Affairs Jose Fernandez, who told a CFR forum this week that the administration of President Barack Obama hoped to increase aid to CARSI, in particular, in 2013.

Much of the violence has been blamed on gangs, the most prominent of which, Mara Salvatruchas (MS-13) and 18th Street Gang (M-18), originated in immigrant communities in the U.S.

Gang members who were deported en masse by U.S. immigration authorities found a region still struggling to emerge from bloody civil wars with a “large pool of demobilised and unemployed men with easy access to weapons”, according to the report.

More recently, the entrance of Mexican cartels, particularly the Zetas, to secure their control over key drug trafficking routes between South and North America, increased already-high levels of violence in the region.

Given the U.S. role in the Central American wars of the 1980s, the presence here of an estimated three million people from the region, and its own indirect contributions to the violence through its demand for illicit drugs, its deportation policies, and its lax gun-control laws, the U.S., according to the report, bears a “special responsibility” to help Central America deal with the crisis.

Colombia, whose ties to the U.S. aren’t nearly as deep, received well over seven billion dollars from Washington under “Plan Colombia” between 2000 and 2011.

Washington currently provides about 300 million dollars a year in total bilateral aid to Central America, about one third of which is provided through the Pentagon.

With the rise in violence, the region’s governments, particularly those in the northern triangle, are turning to the military for help, according to Shifter. He noted that Guatemala’s new president, Gen. Otto Perez Molina (ret.), is particularly eager despite a 33-year-old ban on direct U.S. aid to Guatemala’s army.

“As things get worse, the pressure will grow to increase military aid,” Shifter said.

But the administration should resist that pressure, he said, a view strongly echoed by Adriana Beltran, a Central America specialist at the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), who said the report was “right on target in emphasising the need for a balanced approach to the problem …and not on beefing up the region’s military forces.”

To the extent military assistance is deemed necessary, the report said, “It should be granted only under the strictest conditions.”

In Guatemala’s case, any consideration of overturning the military aid ban should be conditioned on the government’s full cooperation with the U.N.-created International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), justice for serious abuses committed during the civil war, judicial reform, and support for the public prosecutor’s office, according to the report. It also suggests that the CICIG model could be usefully applied to Honduras and El Salvador as well.

Other recommendations in the report include scaling up local crime prevention initiatives across the region and sharing best practices between regional governments and Colombia and Mexico.

“The principal lesson” learned from Plan Colombia and the Merida Initiative in Mexico, according to the report, is that it is “wiser to direct scarce resources toward serious institutional reform” than to spend more money on drug interdiction efforts that have generally failed to fundamentally affect the supply of drugs.

In addition to professionalising the police and other criminal justice institutions, reform should also include measures to make the judicial system both more accessible and more efficient.

Washington should also provide more incentives for national governments to implement tax reforms that would generate more revenue to fight criminal violence and corruption, as well as provide basic social services. Average tax revenues in the region currently represent only about 17 percent of GDP, lower than the average, a lower burden than in Sub-Saharan Africa.

“We have states that don’t have resources and private sectors that are not willing,” Carlos Dada, the founder of El Salvador’s El Faro news website, noted in a discussion of the report here last week.

David Holiday, a veteran Central America expert at the Open Society Policy Center here, praised the report’s emphasis on institutional reform in dealing with violence but questioned whether key institutions were themselves “amenable”.

He noted, for example, that the Salvadorean police has “effectively gutted its inspector-general’s office” and that a number of officers who it was investigating have since been promoted.

“The problem is that, as always, the U.S. has more important interests – business, migration, drugs-– with these governments,” he said. “El Salvador is our closest partner in the region, but when something important like police accountability goes awry there, it’s not clear that we do anything much about it.”

But Shifter insisted that was not a reason for withholding assistance.

“That’s what everyone said about Colombia, but more Colombians enjoy security than 12 years ago, and I think the U.S. contributed to that,” he told IPS.

“I agree that the U.S. has to push harder to make sure that police are professional and respect human rights. The whole point of this report is that institution building should be a higher priority. The objective is not to turn Central America into Sweden; it’s to get the violence under control.”

*Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

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