By Cynthia J. Arnson and Eric L. Olson, Special to CNN
Editor’s note: Cynthia Arnson is director and Olson the associate director of the Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson Center, in Washington, D.C. The views expressed are their own.
As President Barack Obama visits Mexico and Costa Rica this weekend, the administration is emphasizing the themes of sustainable economic growth, development, and the cultural ties that bind millions of people in the region to immigrants in the United States. And while the new administration of Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto appears determined to shift the bilateral conversation away from security issues, this topic will frame the meetings in Costa Rica; there, in addition to a bilateral meeting with Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla, President Obama will meet will all seven Central American presidents, plus the Dominican Republic.
The United States was slow to realize the ways that Mexico’s crackdown on drug trafficking cartels would impact the Central American isthmus. Today, some 90 percent of the cocaine entering the United States passes through Central America, where criminal organizations exploit porous borders, weak and often corrupt law enforcement institutions, and a lack of employment opportunities for young people. Mexican criminal organizations such as the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel have expanded their influence, particularly in Guatemala and Honduras, and their violent competition for control of territory has left a trail of death and destruction.
The United States has responded to the growing threat by launching the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which to date has allocated some $600 million to the countries of the region. Indeed, Central America is the only region of the hemisphere where U.S. assistance this year is increasing, while funding for Mexico and Colombia is declining.
Their proximity to the largest drug consuming and illegal arms markets in the world has led many Central American political, civic, and private sector leaders to blame the United States and Mexico for the burgeoning security crisis. It is not hard to see why. Homicides and other violent crime have spiked along drug as well as human trafficking corridors, and the inability of U.S. politicians to agree on reasonable steps to crack down on illegal weapons purchases by the region’s criminal organizations poses an almost insurmountable challenge to regional security forces. The fact that U.S. demand for drugs has steadily declined in recent years is cold comfort to citizens in the region who face daily threats to their physical safety and institutional integrity.
But if shared responsibility is to be a foundation for cooperation and not just a nice sounding slogan, Central Americans themselves must begin to address the profound social and institutional deficits that have made some countries of the region so susceptible to violence and organized crime.
In El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala (the so-called “Northern Triangle”), homicide rates – particularly of young men – have for years been among the highest in the world. Security and judicial sector reforms envisioned in the 1990s peace accords in El Salvador and Guatemala have been quasi-implemented or resisted altogether, and the promise of sweeping institutional transformations in the wake of civil wars has not been realized. The absence of social pacts is such that remittances sent by migrant workers in the United States to their families constitute more than 17 percent of GDP in a country such as El Salvador.
In Guatemala, close to half of children under the age of 5 suffer from malnutrition. Government spending on health and education as a percentage of GDP in the countries of the Northern Triangle is about half of what it is in Costa Rica or Brazil. Tax spending as a percentage of GDP is among the lowest in Latin America, which already has lower rates of direct taxation than Sub-Saharan Africa.
In a region where hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of young people belong to the infamous category known as “ni-ni,” a Spanish acronym for those who are neither work or go to school, is it any wonder that youth are drawn to gangs and other forms of opportunity in the illegal economy? Working to overcome social exclusion and lack of opportunity are indeed shared tasks for the international community, but the main impetus must come from Central American countries themselves.
It is wise to focus on opportunity and not just crisis in the region. Inclusive growth and social progress are integral components of the security agenda, and it is hard if not impossible to have one without the other. The United States must respond forcefully and with resources to the security dilemmas it has helped create in Central America. But political, economic, and civic leaders there must together build the healthy foundation for prosperity and security at home.