Building Citizen Security in Central America

By Dialogo
April 01, 2011

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Governments and law enforcement in Central America are taking a new approach to fighting drug traffickers and the billions of dollars in illicit cash that support them. Military, government and regional analysts interviewed by Diálogo say that while interdiction operations are still a priority, resolving the problem also requires regional support for better tracking of illicit funds and strengthening the legal framework to prosecute criminals. These factors, in turn, can help remove illicit cash from the economy and reduce the drug trade and violence that comes with it.
North America’s drug demand has been fed in recent decades by a supply chain from South America. These drugs have traditionally been trafficked through Caribbean and Pacific routes. In the past few years, however, traffickers have shifted their focus to Central American routes. Cocaine trafficking by air, sea and land through Central America increased to startling levels after Colombian and Mexican authorities tightened controls and pressured drug cartels. To demonstrate the impact in Guatemala alone, the volume of cocaine shipments jumped from fewer than 7 tons in 2007 to 300 to 400 tons by 2009, reported intelligence firm Stratfor. The U.N. office on Drugs and Crime 2010 World Drug Report says the global drug industry nets $300 billion to $400 billion in profit annually. With cartels increasingly transporting drugs through Central America, the region is becoming home to tens of billions of dollars in illicit cash.
Rising street-level crimes and higher homicide rates are a byproduct of drug smuggling in Central America. InSight, a Bogota-based organization dedicated to examining organized crime in the Americas, reports that drug-related violence accounts for 60 percent of all crimes in countries from Mexico to Honduras. In Guatemala, where criminal organizations like the Mexican Zetas cartel are staking claim to territory, 40 percent of the murders have been directly linked to narcotrafficking, according to the Brookings Institution, a U.S. think tank.

Illicit cash threatens the region
Central America’s geography of multinational borders, blind passages, dense jungles and extensive coastlines makes it vulnerable to smugglers. For a region accustomed to receiving millions of dollars in remittances each year from family members living and working abroad, the informal economy provides another degree of elusiveness for targeting drug traffickers and their profits.
Cresencio Arcos, a former U.S. ambassador to Honduras and now an advisor at the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, or CHDS, in Washington, D.C., noted that Central America’s informal economy makes it easier to move illicit cash. The nature of such a financial system and the size of remittances to the region make it an easier target for money launderers and corruption.
“The drug trade is not a conventional threat. It is an insidious threat to all of us. Everybody is susceptible to it — the institutions, the individuals, the rich, the poor. Whoever gets in the way either gets out of the way or partakes,” Ambassador Arcos told Diálogo. “You got such an enormous amount of money flowing through there [Central America] by their standards … they’re much more vulnerable.”
Brig. Gen. Roberto Rodríguez Girón of the Guatemalan Air Force, an instructor at the Inter-American Defense College in Washington, D.C., agreed that until money laundering is adequately targeted, drug traffickers will continue to pose a serious threat to the region. “The threats are not to one or the other, they are to all. … Day by day, it is more serious,” he told Diálogo. “We have organizations; but we do not have the resources.”
Brig. Gen. Girón said bilateral and multilateral programs such as Plan Pueblo Panama and the Merida Initiative with the U.S. are helping, but he added that there needs to be broader participation and international funding devoid of political and ideological differences.

SICA: A regional approach
One such initiative on the minds of many is the Central American Integration System, or SICA, a regional group that met in Guatemala City from June 22-23, 2011, to confront shared problems from a transregional approach. SICA Secretary-General Juan Daniel Alemán, speaking in February 2011 at a panel discussion at the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C., said money laundering was a key challenge in confronting drug trafficking.
“This is happening in a horrible way in our societies, our ways of doing business and our style of life,” he said. “Day by day, narco activity is not only taking away the earnings of Central Americans, but it also connects our societies to narco dollars.”
Nicaraguan Roberto Orozco, an investigator for the Institute for the Study of Strategic and Public Policy, or IEPP, explained how drug money enters the economy and influences the populace in communities with few government-supported social and economic development programs.
“When the state is absent, organized crime achieves a social legitimacy. or, when there is not a vision for local development, narcotrafficking uses its principal power, which is not arms nor drugs, but money, ‘the pay for services in cash,’ ” he said at an IEPP conference on organized crime and border security in July 2010. Orozco explained that when drug traffickers play the role of the state or help to fuel economic activity with illicit cash, they become an accepted part of the community. “The economic compensation is one of the principal reasons why the actions of organized crime are legitimized.”
It is for this reason that many stakeholders are looking forward to building on the progress and commitments made at the SICA meeting in Guatemala. Guillermo Pacheco, a Guatemalan instructor at CHDS, believes that as SICA’s rotating president, countries like his must exercise political will to strengthen their own internal institutions while also encouraging non-partner nations like Mexico to play a role before SICA can have an impact. “We cannot talk about a conference, or even a regional security strategy and strengthening SICA, if we do not have strong institutions in Central America,” he told Diálogo. Pacheco explained that countries can build on the credibility and trust that the populace already has for the Armed Forces to strengthen their police forces. In turn, the two groups can work together to address the drug problem.
“There are many municipalities that are requesting a military presence,” he said, pointing to the population’s support for military action instead of local police addressing the security problem. “The problem is that there is no institutional framework that coordinates work between the Armed Forces and the police in Central America, in general.”
Ambassador Arcos agreed that citizen security is a key factor that regional institutions can address with transregional efforts to train and equip the military and police. In turn, with greater citizen safety will come economic development, he explained.
“Citizens don’t believe anymore [in the security apparatus] by and large because of all this corruption, violence, the drugs, the guns coming through,” he said. “Citizen safety is impacting the development of these countries … The general population is scared now.”
Both Brig. Gen. Girón and Pacheco stressed political will as a key factor for the institutional changes that must take place. Pacheco said that political will for stronger internal institutions can help further the regionwide efforts at institution-building discussed at the SICA conference.
“What we are trying to do is coordinate our security initiatives,” Pacheco said. “The role of SICA can raise institution building to a regional level that can impact the national level ... not the power to do so, but it could have an influence.”