Transnational Organized Crime Continues to Plague Central America

On September 27, 2012, combating transnational organized crime more effectively was the subject of a meeting of the foreign affairs ministers of Central America and the U.S. On the margins of the U.N. General Assembly in New York. n1

n1 U.S. Department of State, Western Hemisphere: Remarks at her Meeting with Central American Foreign Ministers, Sept. 27, 2012.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton observed that since the Groups of Friends at the Third Central American Citizen Security met in June, homicide rates were lower than the first six months of 2011: homicide rates are down 10 percent in Guatemala, 25 percent in Honduras, and 26 percent in El Salvador.

Nevertheless, she said governments must make police more responsive and more effective. For instance, the U.S. has funded model police precinct programs in El Salvador and Guatemala. The program provides training and equipment to get local police more involved in their communities, to build trust between citizens and law enforcement, and to target the zones of impunity where criminals operate.

In these three precincts, homicide rates have declined even more than the national average -- 35 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent. Clinton said that the successful program should be expanded and law enforcement should be strengthened, making it both more professional and more connected and sensitive to the needs of the people in the communities. Second, Clinton said governments should build on the success of violence prevention programs that target those who are the most vulnerable to being recruited by criminal gangs, namely young people and marginalized populations. USAID is working in twelve high crime areas in El Salvador, partnering with civil society, municipal leaders, and businesses to provide education and vocational training for these at-risk groups,

Third, governments hope to keep strengthening partnership and collaboration. Donor countries must continue to coordinate to focus resources where they are needed most without duplicating their efforts. Regional governments must share effective practices and start joint efforts, because crime, of course, does not stop at borders.

Clinton said the Central American Regional Security Initiative of the U.S. is designed to help make streets safer, disrupt criminal networks, support the development of strong government institutions, bring services to at-risk communities, and promote greater collaboration among region's governments, not only within Central America but with Mexico, with Colombia, and beyond.

In 2012, the U.S. is providing 135 million for these efforts, which brings the total in the last four years to nearly half a billion dollars. n2

n2 Id. For additional discussion of CARSI, see William R. Brownfield, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, Gangs, Youth, and Drugs--Breaking the Cycle of Violence and Crime, Remarks at the Institute of the Americas San Diego, CA, October 1, 2012 (available on (discussing, inter alia, FBI management, we support programs in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to address directly the criminal gangs. The program involves training and equipping police to perform anti-gang law enforcement. But we also share intelligence and data bases).

In September 2012, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released a report, Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment. The report was issued to help inform programming in the region. The report found that crime and especially criminal violence is one of the most important issues facing these countries. The violence is due to the increase in cocaine trafficking through the region since 2006 although the causes are more complicated.

Central America has become more of a transit for cocaine in place of Mexico, thereby upsetting the balance of power between local organized crime groups and the regional Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCOs) and causing a spike in murder rates. Cocaine trafficking is the most lucrative organized crime activity in the region. Both territorial groups and territorial street gangs, such as the maras, prey on migrants moving northward. Although the recent economic downturn has reduced the flow of smuggled migrants, those who continue to move north are subject to a range of abuses, including being held for ransom. Some migrants are sexually exploited, especially as they reach Guatemala and southern Mexico. Organized crime groups may also deal in firearms, either stolen or bought from corrupt officials. Military weapons are smuggled both northward and southward. At times the territorial groups act like a state within the state and can easily move into other forms of criminality should their current portfolio of activities become unprofitable.

The long-term goal is to eliminate, through state building and development, the opportunities for these groups to thrive. There are essentially two ways of doing this: dismantling the organized crime groups through law enforcement, including the provision of international assistance (such as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and the United Nations Police; and funding alternative means of disabling the organized crime groups. This will require finding the resources to build state capacity, construct infrastructure, professionalize the civil service, and reduce corruption.

A comprehensive response needs to encompass both law enforcement and alternative means of disabling the substate organized crime groups. There are several ways the international community could support the countries in the region to establish order in the short-term and reduce violence in the long-term: building and directly supplementing local law enforcement capacity; creating national crime prevention strategies; reducing the flow of contraband, especially cocaine; and employing peace-building strategies.

Countries in the region have continued to focus on ever-tougher law enforcement, including bringing in the military. Countries have advanced the role of the military in a variety of ways: several states of emergency were declared in Guatemala, where civil rights were suspended and the military deployed; the Salvadoran and Honduran governments recently replace the entire command staff of their police force with career military officers. The military is being deployed in joint patrols and operations with the police in Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. In Panama and Costa Rica, once consent is be de-militarized, discussion existence about returning the military to address the crime problem.

The criminal justice systems of the worst affected countries cannot meet the challenges of "impunity" on their own. Criminals in some countries in the region know their chances of being arrested and jailed are slim and affect their willingness to offend. Although the number of recorded crimes that result in an arrest is small, the number of arrests that result in a conviction is small, and a small share of those convicted face substantial periods in prison.

Even if convictions were to be secured, no place exists to incarcerate persons. In the correctional context, the lack of capacity literally means there is simply no physical room for expanding enforcement efforts. Aside from Belize, every corrections system in Central America is overcrowded. In some cases, the majority of these inmates are in pre-trial detention. The extended incarceration of people whose guilty has not been established is an often untallied cost of an inefficient justice system. Given the conditions in many of these overcrowded prisons, the conditions represent a source of human rights violations. The U.N. and international standards and norms in crime prevention and criminal justice aim to prevent such violations and should be implemented.

No easy ways exist to quickly correct these problems. Prisons take years to construct. They are actually the easiest-solved aspect of the problem. Rather than waiting years for capacity building efforts to occur, the international community should help guide the countries of the region to make optimum use of the limited available resources to address the sub-state groups. Two sub-state groups in particular need to be targeted creatively: the maras and the territorial organized crime groups.

In the short term the UN has assisted to supplement lack of criminal justice capacity. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) independently gathers evidence about Guatemalan crime problems, including those too sensitive for local authorities to address alone. The Guatemalan government has recently renewed CICIG's mandate, signaling the country's commitment to the process and the value of the work being done. This kind of assistance permits the countries concerned to benefit from the expertise of international investigators and to circumvent corruption. It also creates pressure at a higher level, as corrupt officials know that independent eyes are reviewing the facts.

The U.S. anti-drug program in Guatemala has raised issued as allegations of corruption and killings by the military have occurred. Since the shooting of demonstrators on October 4, 2012 in Totonicap´┐Żn, 100 miles west of Guatemala City, nine soldiers have been charged with "extrajudicial killing. From August until the second week of October, a contingent of U.S. marines operated from a Guatemalan base on the Pacific Coast as part of a 12-nation, U.S.-led anti-drug effort called Operation Martillo, or "Hammer," which is targeting the disruption of the flow of South American cocaine along the Central American coastlines. The marines flew helicopter missions to assist in the tracking of drug planes and boats and conducting training exercises. n3

n3 Randal C. Archibold, Guatemala Shooting Raises Concerns About Military's Expanded Role, N.Y. TIMES, Oct. 21, 2012, at 9, col. 1.

In addition to independent investigators, the U.N. deploys police contributed by Member States to post-conflict countries. The purpose of these deployments varies depending on the circumstances of the host country. International deployment could provide both supplemental capacity and guidance to the countries of the region.

Crime is a product of a range of complex social dynamics. Rapid urbanization, unemployment, the fragmentation of families and communities, population displacement, n4 inter-group tensions, income inequality, evolving gender relations, and many other issues can influence crime rates. Understanding these dynamics and designing interventions to ameliorate their impact on crime should complement the expertise of law enforcement officials.

n4 In terms of population displacement, gang violence in Central America has led to an enormous increase in the number of children who make the dangerous journey across the Mexican border in search of asylum in the U.S. See, e.g., Cindy Change, 'Surge' reported in children entering the U.S. illegally, WASH. POST, Oct. 17, 2012, at A17, col. 2.

In the end the main organized crime problem to Central America -- cocaine trafficking --originates outside: it is produced in South America and consumed in the countries in the north. The framework to solving the regional organized crime problem lies in the UN Convention against Transnational Organized Crime and its Protocols and the UN Convention against Corruption. These treaties provide the basis for international cooperation and are critical to addressing transnational trafficking. The countries concerned must fully implement these international agreements so that cooperation on these issues can advance. n5

n5 United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Transnational Organized Crime in Central America and the Caribbean: A Threat Assessment (September 2012).