WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
25 Jun 2007 | News

WOLA Testifies on Violence in Central America

Guatemala’s ambassador to the United States, U.S. congressmen and WOLA’s chief researcher on security issues agreed at a hearing in the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday that the Guatemalan Congress needs to move quickly to ratify a stalled United Nations-sponsored commission to probe organized crime.

The commission, known as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, was announced jointly by the Guatemalan government and the United Nations in December but has been held up in the Guatemalan Congress. The commission needs legislative approval before it can begin working.

“It is in the best interest of everyone that the commission be approved,” said Guatemala’s ambassador in Washington, José Guillermo Castillo Villacorta. “CICIG is a key stepping stone in combating illicit activity” in Guatemala.

With an initial lifespan of two years, the U.N.-led commission would determine the size and reach of illegal violent groups and the extent of their links to state security organizations. CICIG will also promote the dismantling of these networks and prosecution of people involved in them.

“Clandestine groups in Guatemala, often made up of former military and intelligence officials, have moved into organized crime and, because of their influence inside government, are a real threat to democratic functioning,” said Geoff Thale, WOLA’s director of programs and senior associate for Central America and gangs, in testimony at the hearing. “CICIG will contribute to the consolidation of the rule of law by assisting the relevant state institutions in the prosecution and punishment of clandestine groups,”

Discussion of the CICIG was part of a wide-ranging hearing on violence in Central America by the Western Hemisphere Subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee. Rep. Eliot Engel, Democrat of New York, chairman of the subcommittee, called the CICIG “a truly innovative measure.”

When asked by Rep. William Delahunt, Democrat of Massachusetts, to name those who are impeding passage of CICIG in Guatemala, Castillo responded that he would prefer to discuss the matter privately. But the main problem, he said, was that “they have not been able to translate political-party support for CICIG into votes in Congress.”

Speakers at the hearing distinguished between different types of violence, ranging from organized crime to gangs to drug trafficking, all of which require different policy responses, as WOLA has long maintained. Thale stressed that organized crime and the drug trade are  more of a threat than gangs to democratic governance in Central America because they corrode institutions and impede the rule of law.

“The regions with the highest murder rates are those with the greatest drug trafficking activity, not the most gang involvement, ”as Engel noted in his remarks.

Thale noted how WOLA’s research has shown that youth gangs, although an extremely serious challenge to public security in much of Central America, are mainly a local and national threat, not a transnational one. Research has shown that relatively few convicted gang members in Central America have any regular ties with gangs in the United States, contrary to the impression given in news accounts.

He was critical of Central American governments’ use of harshly repressive “mano dura” tactics against gangs, such as mass roundups of young men with tattoos or gang-like clothing. Punitive approaches can make the problem worse by driving a wedge between at-risk youths and the institutions that could offer them alternatives, he said.

Castillo and the ambassador from Honduras, Roberto Flores Bermúdez, recognized the need for governments to focus more on prevention and rehabilitation programs to fight gangs effectively. Flores said “policing is not the only part” of the Honduran government’s approach and that “President [Manuel] Zelaya is trying to build up prevention and rehabilitation programs,” although Flores recognized that those programs remain underfunded.

Thale stressed that the international community, including the United States, needs to offer much more cooperation to help Central American governments cope with gangs.

“The U.S. should go beyond police or FBI cooperation and … encourage Central American governments and civil society themselves to adopt comprehensive, civilian-led youth violence programs that include effective policing, community-based violence prevention and re-insertion and rehabilitation programs,,” said Thale.

Other speakers were Lainie Reisman, director of the Inter Americana Coalition for the Prevention of Violence at the Pan American Health Organization, and Roy Godson, president of the National Strategy Information Center and a professor at Georgetown University.

Mr. Thale’s complete written remarks can be accessed here.

Ms. Reisman’s complete written remarks can be accessed here.