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Assessing U.S. Efforts in Central America

There are no quick fixes to the problems faced by Central American countries, but progress is being made, according to U.S. Assistant Secretary of State William Brownfield, who spoke at an event hosted by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas. Brownfield was discussing the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), established by the U.S. State Department in 2008 to address security issues in Central America. CARSI’s mission is to provide enhanced security to communities by working bilaterally with the governments of the seven nations of Central America. Since its inception, it has provided $496 million in assistance to the region. The United States has a vested interest in working with Central American countries to help them address their problems, both to stem the tide of drugs heading to the United States and to create more stable neighbors.

The drug problem in Central America has grown since 2006, when Mexico began its crackdown on drug trafficking. The Mexican effort had the unintended consequence of pushing narcotics trafficking to Central America, according to Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment. The report by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) notes that the way that a crackdown in one country affects others in the region highlights the need for coordinated efforts among nations, such as CARSI.

Drug cartels aren’t the only problem. Weapons trafficking, transnational youth gangs, other crimes, and political turmoil all pose a threat to the stability of the region. CARSI is focused not only on countering drug and weapons trafficking but on enhancing institutions like law enforcement and the courts, said Brownfield at the event. CARSI “is designed to build institutions, and it is those institutions that will eventually deliver what the societies and communities and peoples of Central America are demanding in terms of security and safety,” he said.

The bolstering of government institutions, like the judiciary, is critical, says the UNODC report. It notes that “most of the anti-crime efforts in the region have... proven largely ineffective due to weaknesses in the criminal justice system,” including poor investigative processes and judicial corruption, which means that those arrested are rarely convicted.
Brownfield emphasized that Central America’s problems related to drugs and violence can’t be solved overnight. “It takes a long time for systematic security reforms and enhancement of institutions to have an impact,” he said. “We are going at these problems systematically and gradually.”

He also noted that the concept of a “war on drugs,” a common phrase used to describe efforts in the region, fails to address the institutional reform that is needed to solve the entire scope of the problem. “To call it a war on drugs completely misses the point,” he said. “A program that only addresses drugs does not really meet the needs and requirements of 45 million common citizens of Central America whose real concern is violence and criminality in their communities on the streets and outside the doors to their homes.” Brownfield emphasized that education, public health, and economic development should be the focus.

That’s not to say drugs aren’t a serious problem. Brownfield called Central America a “victim of its own geography,” referring to its position between South and North America. He explained that 65 percent of the cocaine making its way from South America to the United States passes through Central America.

He also pointed out that violence and drugs, while related, are separate problems that require a multifaceted solution. “They are connected, but they are different. Not all violent criminals traffic in drugs; not all drug traffickers commit violent crimes,” he said, “but obviously there is a substantial amount of overlap between the two, and the one feeds the other.”
The UNODC study supports Brownfield’s assessment, noting that the relationship between violence and drugs isn’t always a direct one. It notes that while in Guatemala and Honduras, the link between territorial drug fights and the murder rate is clear, that’s not the case in other countries, such as El Salvador, which has suffered the highest sustained murder rates for a variety of reasons, not all related to drugs.

CARSI is on the right track, says Johanna Mendelson Forman, a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Forman, who is also a scholar in residence at American University School of International Service, tells Security Management that by working with people on the ground in Central America, CARSI should experience long-term success.

“[In terms of] dealing with the countries and building up local capacity.... They are training people locally; they’re giving the knowledge to the people who ultimately have to sustain it, which is a model that’s very important,” she says.
One of CARSI’s initiatives is to “Support the development of strong, capable, and accountable Central American governments,” according to the State Department Web site. Forman says that government collaboration in the region has been successful. “The good news is that the governments are working together. They’ve articulated a common set of threats that they have to address,” she says.

But there are areas where CARSI might improve, she notes. For example, the program could make more progress in terms of providing access to justice outside of urban areas. “While most violence now in the world takes place in urban settings, there’s a lot of rural ungoverned land in these places that don’t have police or military presence,” Forman explains, “and that leaves opportunity open for these criminal groups to operate.… That’s the biggest challenge for [CARSI], which is helping to create an environment which is much more enabling of government actors to work with communities.”

She says ending the “public perception of impunity” is one of the most important elements of enhanced security and stability in the region. She points to the current trial of Efrain Rios-Montt, who is accused of terrorizing and murdering hundreds of citizens. The trial is “helping to rebuild confidence that the state can punish wrongdoers,” she says, “and that’s a major part of the message that has to be brought to any citizen, that impunity is not acceptable as a way of doing business.”

According to Forman, another major hurdle for rehabilitating the region is curbing the influence of gangs. She says that Central America is experiencing a “youth bulge,” which is the presence of more youth and young adults in the population than older adults. The growing number of young people, mixed with “an education deficit…is a toxic brew for providing opportunities for people to go into criminal activities,” she explains.

CARSI is focusing more attention on this issue, according to Brownfield. Part of the initiative is to work with local schools and governments to help them train children, especially those at vulnerable ages nine to 15, in a six-week program that teaches them “the dangers of the gang community, and what their alternatives are,” he said.

According to Brownfield, adaptability is the key to the overall initiative, even if it means taking an approach CARSI didn’t originally set out to follow. “We should not be embarrassed or ashamed to say that what we’re doing today is very different from what we thought we were going to be doing four years ago,” he said. “Quite frankly, the bad guys, the criminal organizations, they’re adept at adjusting their strategies. If we don’t adjust ours, we’re probably going to lose.”