WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
20 Jun 2011 | Commentary | News

The Crisis of Crime and Violence in Central America: More than just Drugs and Gangs

This week Secretary of State Hilary Clinton will attend the “International Conference in Support of the Central American Security Strategy” to take place on June 22 and 23 in Guatemala City. There she will meet with the Presidents of all seven Central American countries, along with the Presidents of Mexico and Colombia, and officials from Canada, Europe, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the World Bank, to discuss how to respond to the growing problems caused by crime and violence in Central America.

If past experience has taught us anything, the discussions will be dominated by talk about drug traffickers and the Machiavellian tactics of gangs; the leaders present will be tempted to argue for more resources for surveillance equipment, SWAT teams, anti-drug police, and military patrols.

Serious leaders though will resist the temptation. They will recognize that the problem is not simply the presence of drug traffickers, or of youth gangs. And they will recognize that declaring war on the Zetas, or the Sinaloa cartel, or MS-13, and bringing in the troops, a la Mexico, won’t succeed in reducing the frighteningly high levels of crime and violence that now plague Central America.

These tough-minded leaders will recognize that Central America’s real crime problems are not being confronted head on by the law enforcement and justice institutions in charge of bringing them down. They will recognize that easily corrupted police who can’t deter crime or effectively investigate it, prosecutors and judges who can be bought off and government agencies that are infiltrated by criminal groups are as big a problem, if not bigger, than the street-level perpetrators of crime. They’ll also note that weakened communities can’t discourage crime or offer alternatives to young people.

Being politicians, the leaders at this week’s meeting will talk about the importance of going after criminals with every figurative and literal “weapon” they have. However, strategic leaders will tout long-term strategies to fix the problems of the police and justice systems, and they will emphasize investment in violence prevention, education, and job creation. They will ask the international donors present at the meeting not for more high-tech equipment, but for help in combating police corruption. While they seek money for drug investigation teams, they will also ask for help with community policing. They will ask more about the lessons of effective neighborhood-based anti-violence programs in Medellin and High Point, North Carolina, and less about the military patrols in Juarez, or the zero-tolerance policing that has led to police abuse in the U.S.

WOLA has worked closely with colleagues in Central America—the Central American Coalition for the Prevention of Youth Violence and other organizations—in monitoring crime and violence in Central America. The problems are serious: homicides rates have risen steadily over the last fifteen years, drug trafficking organizations have expanded routes throughout the region and organized crime has infiltrated government institutions, youth gangs have grown in poor communities, and petty extortion and street violence threaten many neighborhoods.

WOLA and our colleagues in the region know that these problems can’t be solved by high-tech police sweeps or military patrols, or even by better police investigation alone. They require a serious and committed effort by governments, with the support of the international community, to strengthen the institutions of criminal justice—the police, the prosecutors, and the courts—so that they are both less prone to corruption and more effective in investigation, prosecution, and sentencing. The problem of crime and violence in Central America requires a serious effort to strengthen communities by building up local governments and community institutions, improving schools, investing in programs for at-risk youth, and working on job creation.

None of that is easy. Nor will it produce results overnight (though there is no evidence that hardline approaches do either). What’s clear though is that sustained political leadership is necessary to change entrenched cultures of corruption in the criminal justice system, and to shift limited state funding toward community-based education and prevention. But the end result—police who won’t take bribes from corrupt politicians or drug traffickers, prosecutors who will see cases through even when they involve the powerful, and young people who stay in school and are less tempted by the quick money of street gangs or drug sales—is what will lead to real reductions in crime and violence in Central America.

If leaders who are serious about tackling the problem prevail, the meeting that takes place this week will mark a turn toward dealing with the real sources of crime and violence in Central America—weak and ineffective criminal justice institutions, and weakened local communities. We’ll see governments and donors both talking about police and justice reform across the board, and programs to keep youth in school and prevent crime in local communities.

If the traditional logic prevails, the talk will be all about battles with drug cartels and gang crime, and we’ll see more specialized units and highly-sophisticated technology. If that’s what happens, the problems in the region will continue to grow.