WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
4 Mar 2010 | News

Media Background on Secretary of State Clinton’s trip to Central America

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is scheduled to end her Latin America tour with a visit to Central America. On Thursday, Secretary Clinton will meet with President Oscar Arias and President-elect Laura Chinchilla and attend the Pathways to Prosperity in the Americas ministerial meeting. She will conclude her trip with a visit to Guatemala on Friday where she will meet with Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom and with several of the other leaders of Central America and the president of the Dominican Republic. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) will follow Secretary Clinton's visit to Central America and will be available to provide analysis on the trip.

Secretary Clinton is expected to address security issues with her counterparts in Central America, including the increasing drug trafficking threat to the region. In addition, it is expected that the Secretary will make clear that the U.S. supports normalizing Honduras' relations with the international community.

Below WOLA provides background information on key issues that will likely emerge during the Secretary's trip, followed by brief comments on those issues.

Background on key issues:

1. Citizen Security in Central America

The Issues:  Central America, particularly Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, has become the region with the highest levels of crime worldwide. According to the United Nations Development Programme's recent report on Human Development in Central America, despite the significant differences among the region's countries, the average murder rate reached 33 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, three times greater than the global average. The surge in violence is notably more worrisome in the area known as the ‘northern triangle' where homicides rates per 100,000 reached 58 in Honduras, 52 in El Salvador, and 48 in Guatemala that same year.

In the early 2000s, focus was given to combating gangs, such as MS-13, as one of the most visible faces of crime in much of Central America. Today, attention has shifted to drug trafficking in response to the growing influence and presence of drug traffickers in the region.  Along with gangs and drug trafficking, there is growing concern about the institutional weakness of Central American police, and about problems of corruption. In Guatemala, for example, the director of the national police and the head of the police drug-intelligence unit were arrested on March 2nd, just before the Secretary's trip, on charges of colluding with drug traffickers. These arrests came two days after the firing of the Guatemalan Minister of the Interior for alleged involvement in corruption, and one day after the dismissal of the Ministry's four vice-ministers.

WOLA's View: Key to the success of any citizen security strategy will be greater attention on broad institutional reform and modernization of the region's law enforcement institutions. A recent WOLA report on the status of police reform in Central America identified serious institutional weaknesses, including in the areas of leadership, training, oversight and control mechanisms, along with problems in investigation and intelligence. Successfully responding to the rising levels of crime and violence cannot happen without comprehensive, long-term, and coordinated national security strategies that identify and address the range of citizen security challenges the countries confront and that include an emphasis on institutional strengthening, reforms of the police and judicial institutions and a balance between prevention and law enforcement measures.

WOLA believes that U.S. security assistance to the region under the Central America Regional Security Initiative should support and complement comprehensive citizen security strategies in coordination with other international donors' assistance programs. Secretary Clinton should discuss with Central American leaders how current U.S. security assistance can best support the long-term reforms and strategies needed to address the current security challenges in the region.

2. U.S. Cooperation with the Guatemalan military  

The Issue: Since 1990, the U.S. Congress has placed restrictions on military assistance to Guatemala as a result of the Guatemalan military's participation in grave human rights violations during the internal armed conflict and their role in maintaining impunity in the country. In 2007, lobbying work by the Guatemalan government and the U.S. Department of Defense achieved the partial lifting of the prohibition of military assistance in order to authorize the purchase of military equipment for the Guatemalan Navy and the Air Force.  Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom recently requested additional U.S. military assistance to help combat drug trafficking.¹

WOLA's View:  The reasons for the partial ban on military assistance remain in place, and the ban should not be lifted; support for Guatemalan anti-drug efforts ought to go through police and civilian agencies.  The Guatemalan government has failed to enact the necessary laws to establish full civilian control of the military and intelligence agencies and it continues to involve the military in law enforcement activities.  In addition, the Guatemalan government has failed to investigate or prosecute almost any human rights violations committed by the military either past or present and the military is currently defying a Constitutional Court order and a presidential decree requiring it to disclose military archives from the internal armed conflicted.

U.S. military cooperation with Guatemala should also not be extended given the involvement of military officers in corruption and organized criminal activities.  There are increasing reports of criminal structures inside and outside of the military that have been able to steal weapons from Guatemalan military to use in organized criminal activities.  A recent investigation conducted by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN-supported body, also revealed the participation of active and retired military officers in the theft of 639 weapons from the Guatemalan military.²  Secretary Clinton should not agree to expanding cooperation with the Guatemalan military until these issues are addressed.

3. Attacks against human rights defenders

The Issue: In 2009, the Guatemalan Human Rights Protection Unit registered a record number of 353 attacks and aggressions against human rights defenders, including 15 cases of murder. In a recent case, between October 2009 and February 2010, three members of an environmental activist group (the Frente de Resistencia en Defensa de los Recursos Naturales y Derechos de los Pueblos [FRENA]) in the San Marcos Department were murdered, yet no progress has been made on investigating the perpetrators of these crimes. Very few cases of attacks against human rights defenders are ever investigated, putting them at risk for carrying out their work.  

WOLA's view:  Secretary Clinton should raise with President Colom the situation regarding human rights defenders in Guatemala and encourage real progress in investigating and sanctioning those responsible for these attacks.

4. Crisis in Honduras

The Issue: While the U.S. Government has recognized the government of recently inaugurated President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, the crisis in Honduras is far from over.  According to both Honduran and international hu
man rights groups, since the June 2009 coup d'état, respect for human rights has deteriorated with a marked increase in assassinations, kidnappings and torture of people opposed to the coup.  President Lobo has been recognized by his immediate neighbors, but other governments continue to hesitate in normalizing relations with Honduras.  Honduras continues to be suspended from the Organization of American States. 

WOLA's view: Before the international community welcomes back Honduras a number of things must happen: the government needs to act aggressively to prevent further human rights violations; there needs to be an adequately funded and working Truth Commission investigating the June 28 coup and the human rights violations, bringing the perpetrators of these crimes to justice; and the government needs to launch a fully participatory and decentralized national dialogue process to address the endemic issues of poverty, inequality, corruption and impunity that lie at the root of the current political crisis.

Secretary Clinton should make it clear to President Lobo that human rights violations must stop immediately and that there needs to be a functioning Truth Commission in order for U.S. aid to be fully restored to Honduras. These are fundamental steps that need to take place for national reconciliation to begin in Honduras

1. Pérez, Mynor Enrique, "Colom pide ayuda militar a EE.UU.", Siglo XXI, February 19, 2010. http://www.sigloxxi.com/nacional.php?id=2848.

2. Orantes, Coralia "Estructura criminal roba armas del Ejército," Prensa Libre, February 5, 2010. http://www.prensalibre.com/pl/2010/febrero/05/373357.html.


For more information, please contact:
Adriana Beltrán, Senior Associate for Citizen Security, abeltran@wola.org
Vicki Gass, Senior Associate for Honduras, vgass@wola.org
Tel: 202-797-2171