WPR – Regional Cooperation Key for Central American Security

By Jason Marczak, on 17 Jul 2012, Briefing

High levels of crime and violence have given Central America the inauspicious title of having the world’s highest homicide rate — about 10 times the world average. Reversing this trend will require collective, crossborder action and regional partnerships that include the private sector. Unfortunately, for this to be possible, the mechanisms needed to do so must be strengthened significantly.

Statistics paint a grim picture of what lies ahead if meaningful cooperation is not taken soon. Honduras, the most violent country, registered 91.6 homicides per 100,000 people in 2011 — nearly triple the rate observed in 2004, according to the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. In El Salvador, a March 2012 truce between two notorious gangshas reportedly halved the daily death toll, which stood at 69.2 deaths per 100,000 people in 2011. But the fragile accord leaves the door open for a return to high homicide rates should gang leaders decide the truce is not serving their interests. Following its southern neighbors, Guatemala — generally the last stop for illicit drugs before reaching Mexico and then the United States — registered a rate of 38.5 homicides per 100,000 people last year. Even Costa Rica, a bastion of stability and economic development in the region, saw its murder rate climb to 11.3 per 100,000 people by 2010, a 60 percent jump from 2004. By comparison, the U.S. registers 4.2 homicides per 100,000.

There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the violence. In El Salvador, the bulk of the insecurity is the result of criminal gangs that take advantage of high levels of inequality and scarce jobs to recruit youths with few other options. In neighboring Guatemala, the booming narcotics and weapons trade, accompanied by the arrival of notorious Mexican gangs such as the Zetas, led Guatemalans to elect President Otto Pérez Molina on the promise that he would take an iron fist (“mano dura”) approach to the narcotraffickers. In Honduras, the 2009 coup that deposed President Manuel Zelayahas exacerbated the country’s insecurity and weak rule of law.

Still, while country-specific solutions are needed, the region must also find better ways to develop and implement crossborder strategies. Without a comprehensive approach, one country’s success will likely mean greater violence for its neighbors.

The only regional institution currently set up to encourage dialogue and joint action is the Central American Integration System (SICA). The group is often maligned, and its recent presidential summit — which included the heads of state of Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama and the Dominican Republic — shows why.

Despite meeting under the slogan “Everyone’s Fight: The New Security Approach in Central America,” the eight leaders made little progress with regard to the 20-plus citizen security and law enforcement projects agreed to at the July 2011 summit. (They did manage to sign a comprehensive association agreement with the European Union.) Instead, according to El Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes, the leaders agreed to be “more expeditious, more aggressive in acquiring funds in order to succeed in financing the regional strategy” to fight crime.

Funding has been a major challenge for SICA since its creation in 1991. Nevertheless, multilateral institutions, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, and efforts by individual governments, such as the United States’ Central America Regional Security Initiative, stand ready to support regional security plans. Already, a combined $2.5 billion has been offered to help finance the projects agreed to last year. While securing pledged funds is always a challenge, the larger question is how to set up a regional mechanism to manage project implementation. Once that happens, the money will likely be there.

SICA is the logical choice for this role. But its history of inaction and infighting — not to mention its weak organizational structure — casts doubt on whether in its current form SICA has the institutional legitimacy to effectively manage a regional security plan.

That problematic history of infighting was yet again demonstrated following this year’s presidential summit, when Costa Rica announced it would not participate in “some political forums” while Nicaragua holds SICA’s rotating six-month presidency. The decision — made in protest of a border ruling by the Central American Court of Justice  — was the latest volley in the two countries’ still-simmering conflict over the disputed San Juan River region. But Costa Rica’s action further weakens SICA and indirectly undermines the region’s growing — and much-welcome — sentiment that a more multilateral response to crime is needed.

Rather than get sidetracked by intraregional conflicts, the focus should be on developing a stronger regional partnership that harnesses national-level security and violence-prevention efforts. This must involve both political leaders and the growing number of reform-minded, progressive business leaders who are ready and willing to develop public-private partnerships that address some of the root causes of crime: inequality, worker training, unemployment and unstable home environments, among others. Unlike governments, businesses see no borders. But they do recognize that creating a more secure environment is fundamental to foreign investment.

Cooperation won’t be easy. Given SICA’s tainted reputation, stakeholders are understandably wary about working with it. But for Central America to move forward in reducing insecurity, governments can no longer be content with issuing grand regional plans at regional summits and expecting them to move forward through pure inertia.

Instead, the door should be open to the business community — and civil society — to participate at a regional level in developing and implementing business-relevant security plans. Security is of course a public-sector responsibility. But addressing the underlying challenges that give rise to violence means working with business leaders through a formal mechanism during regional meetings. The private sector may not hold SICA in high regard, but for now it is the only game in town, and their participation in its meetings may just produce the concrete results that Central America requires.

Not only will private sector participation add greater transparency and credibility and put more pressure on governments to act, it will facilitate the crossborder solutions the region needs.

Jason Marczak is director of policy at Americas Society and Council of the Americas and senior editor of Americas Quarterly.

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