Central American leaders must step up to ensure security
May 3rd, 2013
02:18 PM ET

Central American leaders must step up to ensure security

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.


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Topics: Central Asia • Mexico

soundoff (4 Responses)
  1. rightospeak

    What nonsense article. South America has the largest growth in middle class while we are going down hill fast. The phoney "War On Drugs " not working ? Figure out the reasons and report it , at least try . Report how "free trade" agreements created more poverty and misery , the very cause of unrest.
    Should they be looking for terrorists behind every tree like we do, to eliminate freedoms ?

    May 3, 2013 at 9:38 pm | Reply
  2. Gart Valenc

    There is no doubt in my mind that every single Latin American president since the War on Drugs was declared by Nixon in 1971 has been complicit (willingly or not) with US drugs policies.

    One thing is crystal clear, though: the war on drugs is not the brainchild of drug producing and transit countries. As a matter of fact, if there is a country responsible for the viciousness and fanatical zeal with which the War On Drugs has been pursued, that country is the US.

    It should not be difficult to see that the policy of the US, the largest drug consumer in the world and the most belligerent war on drugs warrior, is to transfer the lion’s share of the costs associated to Prohibition & the War on Drugs policies to drug producing and transit countries.

    Make no mistake, this is not a recent policy: every single US president has pursued the same policy and used the same tools. Why should one expect Obama to be the exception. Despite his rhetorical contortions to deny the very existence of the War on Drugs, Obama continues the US tradition of putting the onus on the supply of, rather than the demand for, drugs—deliberately ignoring that demand creates the supply, not the other way round!

    The fact is that the US likes "exporting" its internal conflicts and “demanding” other countries to fight its fights. It is also the logic of its foreign policy: wage war on foreign lands — be it in the form of low intensity wars like the War on Drugs, or high intensity ones, like the War on Terror (see the pattern?) — in order to isolate the US from the fallout from pursing its economic, political and strategic interests—in this case policies regarding the supply of drugs—whatever the cost…for others.

    And there is where the tragedy for drug producing and transit countries lies, especially for Latin American countries. When it comes to foreign policy, it is irrelevant who is elected US president. Paraphrasing Carlos Fuentes, a prominent Mexican writer, the only way the US can sustain its democratic façade internally is by behaving undemocratically externally.

    It explains why the country that swaggers about lecturing everybody about the rule of law, democracy and human rights, is the same country that ignores international law, practices extraordinary rendition, tortures, wages illegal wars, finances mercenaries, uses unmanned drones to carry out extra-judicial killings, and is the largest beneficiary of the war on drugs proceeds.

    As unfortunate as it is for Latin America, there is nothing paradoxical, unusual or unexpected in the US behaviour: it is what dominant powers are meant to do. The Romans did it, and the British did it, too.

    Gart Valenc
    Tweeter: @gartvalenc

    May 6, 2013 at 5:57 am | Reply
  3. j. von hettlingen

    Obama claimed the war on drugs would not be effectively won unless the economies of Latin American countries were strengthened. Violence generated by the illegal drugs trade has engulfed the region.

    May 6, 2013 at 9:10 am | Reply

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