America / Foreign Policy

Why the US Should Care About Central America’s Deteriorating Security Situation

The countries of Central America currently are facing a security crisis brought on by its economically advantageous geographic position. It is in close proximity to the large consumer markets of North America and has access to the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the former through the Caribbean Sea. Ironically, however, geography also has made Central America “a priceless corridor between the major producers of drugs [in South America] and the biggest consumers [in North America].”[i] Furthermore, counternarcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico have put pressure on the drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) in those countries, and as a result, many DTOs have increased their operations in Central America.

Geography is just one of the factors that has drawn DTOs and other transnational criminal organizations (TCOs) to the region. TCOs traffick drugs, but they also may be involved in arms trafficking, alien smuggling, human trafficking, and money laundering.[ii] TCOs are attracted to states in which they can move freely and operate with impunity. The weak government institutions of Central American countries provide them ample opportunities to do so.  In each of these countries there are “serious concerns about corruption in the police, prisons, and judicial systems and levels of impunity averaging almost 90%.”[iii] If that were not enough, “the social fabric in many Central American countries has been tattered by persistent poverty, inequality, and unemployment, with few opportunities available for growing young populations.”[iv] The region also has consistently been devastated by natural disasters over the past two decades, further straining already limited government resources and delaying efforts for institutional reform and implementation of socio-economic development programs.[v]

A discontented youth population has provided fertile recruiting ground for Central American maras (gangs). “Estimates of the overall number of gang members in Central America vary widely, but the US Southern Command has placed that figure at around 70,000, a statistic also cited by the United Nations.”[vi] Estimates by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime have reported country gang membership totals of 10,500 in El Salvador, 14,000 in Guatemala, and 36,000 in Honduras.[vii] The socially and economically excluded youth and growing gang problem have provided TCOs with a seemingly unlimited number of potential recruits to carry out low-level criminal activities and fight bloody and hyper-violent turf wars with rival organizations.

The increased presence of DTOs, TCOs, and their cooperation with local maras has led to the countries of the Northern Triangle (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras) holding the distinction of being one of the most dangerous areas in the world. The UN Development Program estimated the homicide rate per 100,000 people in 2010 to be 39 in Belize, 66 in El Salvador, 50 in Guatemala, and 77 in Honduras.[viii] Homicide rates and the presence of TCOs are major reasons that the citizens of every Central American country ranked public insecurity as the largest problem facing their countries in a 2010 Latinobarómetro poll.[ix]

The citizens of these countries were not the only ones to take notice of the disturbing trends of criminality, violence, and impunity. Central American governments have increasingly relied on mano dura (firm hand) policies to deal with high rates of crime and violence. The law enforcement agencies in the region are overwhelmed by the severity of the current security situation. Therefore, it is not surprising that in 2009, Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes granted the military a larger crime-fighting role, and, in the last week of November 2011 the Honduran Congress approved a temporary constitutional reinterpretation that will allow the military to take on policing roles in the fight against violent crime.[x] Guatemala’s President-elect Otto Perez Molina has vowed to take a similar mano dura approach and deploy troops in Guatemala’s streets, while increasing the size of the police force.[xi] Such militarized approaches have been criticized by the international community and some Central American citizens because of the militaries’ history of human rights abuses.

The current lack of security in Central America has led to a boom in the private security sector. A 2009 United Nations Development Program report showed that no Central American country has more police than private security officers.[xii] Guatemala is an extreme case, but highlights this disturbing trend. An estimated 120,000 private security guards operate in Guatemala, most without training or permits. (Some companies only train private security guards for three days before sending them to jobs.) This is five times the number of police officers and is the largest disparity of private and state guards among 70 countries listed in Arms World Report, Institute of Development Studies.[xiii] According to the Guatemalan Interior Ministry, 41,000 private security agents operate in 149 authorized companies, and an estimated 80,000 agents work without authorization.[xiv] Due to the economic inequality in the region, only the wealthy are benefiting from the services of private security companies and the already critical security situation has become even more dire for the poorer majority of the Central American population.

To protect all of their citizens more effectively, the governments of the countries of Central America and the Dominican Republic formed the Central American Integration System (SICA) to foster regional development and cooperation among member countries. As early as 2007, SICA had developed a regional security strategy that identified eight threats to regional security: organized crime, drug trafficking, deportees with criminal records, gangs, homicide, small arms trafficking, terrorism, and corruption.”[xv] In 2008, SICA estimated that “the costs to implement its regional security plan could exceed $953 million.”[xvi]

An already resource-constrained region, Central America more recently appealed to the international community for financial assistance for its Central American Security Strategy (CASS), approved by SICA in June 2011. The general objective of CASS is “to establish the components and activities needed to strengthen public security for property and life in the Central American region, to allow [its] people to achieve the objectives of human development.”[xvii] Specific objectives include: “to integrate the various efforts of the region related to security, to harmonize them and achieve better results,” and “to facilitate coordination, exchange of information and experiences among the different entities and operative agencies in the region to fight regional criminal activity more effectively,” and “identify and manage the financial needs, on resources and training demanded by the institutions responsible for security.”[xviii]

To obtain the necessary funds to implement CASS, SICA organized the First International Conference in Support of the Central American Security Strategy held in Guatemala, June 22-23, 2011. A “Group of Friends” has pledged its support for CASS. Its members include the Inter-American Development Bank, the World Bank, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, the Organization of American States, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United Nations, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, the European Union, Finland, Germany, Israel, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Spain, Mexico, and the United States.[xix] The United Kingdom joined in September 2011.[xx] After the conference in June, the Group of Friends has pledged a total of $3 billion in support of SICA’s security strategy.

In these uncertain financial times, $3 billion is a large amount and many of the proposed donors have more pressing concerns of their own, at least in their opinion. The current US domestic focus on its presidential election and the European financial crisis have moved Central America down most of the priority lists of its Group of Friends, where Central American security was already in a low ranking position due to the global economic recession. In my opinion, this is an extremely unfortunate development on many levels, but there are two main reasons the US should care: first, the ongoing conflict is a direct threat to US national security and that of one its closest neighbors and allies, Mexico, and second, the US ought to seriously reevaluate its standing with all of its neighbors in the Western Hemisphere. Increased violence and the additional stress that Central American insecurity puts on Mexico, which is struggling with its own hyper-violent conflict, poses a serious threat to the United States’ southwest border. It is possible that if the US does not act swiftly and decisively to support Central American governments that the whole hemisphere could be negatively impacted. However, foreign policy seems to be an afterthought in this year’s hotly contested US presidential race—with the focus being on domestic issues like the economy and job creation. In a previous post I highlighted the importance of the outcomes of this year’s presidential elections in Mexico and Venezuela, but Central America’s disintegrating security situation might be even more worrisome to the American public, if they were more aware of it.

– Max Rava


[i] General Secretariat of Central American Integration System, Framework for the First International Conference in Support of the Central American Security Strategy (Guatemala, 22 and 23 June 2011), 2.

[ii] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 11.

[iii] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 7.

[iv] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 5.

[v] General Secretariat of Central American Integration System, Framework for the First International Conference in Support of the Central American Security Strategy (Guatemala, 22 and 23 June, 2011), 2.

[vi] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 10.

[vii] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 10.

[viii] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 4.

[ix] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 1.

[x] Adam Isacson, “Soldiers as Police,” Just the Facts Blog, 5 December 2011, (7 December 2011).

[xi] Elinor Comlay and Mike McDonald, “Retired general sweeps to power in Guatemala election,” Reuters, 7 November 2011, http://ww.reuters.com/assets/print?aid=USTRE7A518Y20111107.

[xii] Michael Shifter, “Central America’s Security Predicament,” Current History, Inter-American Dialogue, 1 February 2011, http://www.thedialogue.org/page.cfm?pageID=32&pubID=2558&mode=print.

[xiii] “Guatemala has 120,000 Private Guards, Five Times More than Policemen,” Radio Nederland Internacional, 15 November 2011, Open Source Center, US Government.

[xiv] “Guatemala has 120,000 Private Guards, Five Times More than Policemen,” Radio Nederland Internacional, 15 November 2011, Open Source Center, US Government.

[xv] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 17.

[xvi] Congressional Research Service, Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress (Washington, DC: 30 August 2011), 17.

[xvii] General Secretariat of Central American Integration System, Framework for the First International Conference in Support of the Central American Security Strategy (Guatemala, 22 and 23 June, 2011), 5.

[xviii] General Secretariat of Central American Integration System, Framework for the First International Conference in Support of the Central American Security Strategy (Guatemala, 22 and 23 June, 2011), 5.

[xix] “SICA presents Central American citizen security strategy to the international community,” Inter-American Development Bank, 14 April 2011, http://www.iadb.org/mobile/news/detail.cfm?lang=en&id=9345.

[xx] “UK to Support New Security Initiatives in Central America,” Foreign & Commonwealth Office, 10 November 2011, Open Source Center, US Government.

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