Washington, D.C.—After traveling to Mexico this Thursday, President Obama will travel to San José, Costa Rica, on Friday, May 4, to meet with the presidents of the seven Central American countries. The Central American stop on this trip seems intended to showcase positive messages about economic growth and partnership. But Central America has some huge challenges—on dealing with crime and insecurity, and on human rights and democracy—that will inevitably be part of the story, according to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“While many countries will use this opportunity to ask the United States to commit more money to citizen security, the Obama administration will likely point to the fact that the United States has already given millions and plans to give millions more,” said Geoff Thale, WOLA Program Director. “The United States will stress the need for more coordination among the countries in Central America to work together on citizen security,” said Thale.
According to an interactive database created by WOLA and the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) that maps foreign aid to Central America for citizen security, the United States has spent or allocated over US$750 million in citizen security assistance to Central America over the past decade. Around $225 million of this aid has been focused on combatting drug trafficking while about $175 million has been focused on violence prevention, with other money going to institutional strengthening and other activities.
The security cooperation discussion may be difficult. The Obama administration and many other international donors support efforts to strengthen institutions and fight crime in the region, but the situation continues to be very serious and remains a political challenge for the region’s governments. Meanwhile, Honduras is still suffering from political violence after a 2009 coup d’état, and Guatemala is experiencing political tension as the result of the trial of General Efraín Ríos Montt, a former military leader and ex-president, on charges of genocide. Presidential elections are scheduled in Honduras and El Salvador, and both races will feature candidates with sharply different political views.
“Everyone will agree on the goals of economic growth and shared prosperity,” said Thale. “Let’s hope that the administration also expresses its interest in human rights improvements and in the consolidation of democracy,” he continued.
This visit will take place in the context of a broader regional discussion that is shifting priorities away from engaging in combat with drug traffickers and high-level targets toward approaches that focus on violence prevention and harm reduction. Thale added that “many countries in the region are showing signs that they are frustrated with the failure of a drug interdiction-focused strategy and want to try something different. Each country has different views about what this means, but they are all looking for change.”