Central American governments were already struggling with the legacy of poverty, inequality, civil warfare and dictatorships when drug runners, with their corrupting cash, came roaring through the region in the late 2000s, seeking to avoid a robust U.S.-led interdiction program in the Caribbean.
In response, the U.S. military's Southern Command, or Southcom, stepped up the policing of trafficking routes. In the first 10 months of this year, Southcom says the program disrupted the flow of 120 tons of cocaine and 25,250 pounds of marijuana.
In recent years, the U.S. has also showered Central American governments with hardware to help stem the flow of drugs: aircraft, boats, X-ray cargo scanners, ballistic vests and wiretapping centers. Villa Nueva's video surveillance system is one of several projects meant to help fight the explosion in violent crime that has destabilized local governments and prompted some residents to head north toward the U.S., often illegally, in search of peace.
But the crime-fighting initiative goes far beyond surveillance cameras. The U.S. is also investing in civic projects under the theory that the drug war here cannot be won without more skilled and trustworthy police and prosecutors, along with an engaged citizenry that has reason to hope.
On a recent visit to the neighborhood of Bucaro — a dusty, concrete warren of poverty beset with drug and gang problems — officials detailed plans for a partially American-funded public school campus, basketball court and commercial plaza. At a community center across town, U.S. "security initiative" tax dollars provide poor children with alternatives to crime such as break-dancing performances and clown and juggling programs.
Here, as in Mexico, security funds are also being used to impart both basic and advanced skills to police. Specialized "vetted" law enforcement units, subjected to background checks and polygraph tests, work with American immigration and policing agencies.
But the United States' list of potential security partners is not encouraging.
In El Salvador, politicians and police are believed to be tied to the criminal groups with roots in the military and paramilitary forces that sprang up during the country's civil war.
Guatemala's military, which is increasingly being called upon to keep the peace here, had a notorious human rights record during its own civil war, and nonmilitary security forces are also a cause for concern: In March, Guatemala's former national police chief Marlene Blanco was arrested on suspicion of contributing to the extrajudicial slaying of gang members.
In Honduras, meanwhile, senior government officials participated in or supported the 2009 coup that overthrew a democratically elected president. Security forces are notoriously corrupt; the judiciary, largely incapable of administering justice. Some members of Congress are said to be working with cartels.
The Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla, has been connected to death squads that allegedly went after gang members and kidnappers in a "social cleansing" campaign, according to investigators from the U.S. Congress, which in August restricted aid to the Honduran police. Click here
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