Central America, Hotbed For Organized Crime

By Dialogo
March 22, 2010

Central America is a “very vulnerable region” for organized crime due to
factors ranging from the lack of development and the flow of arms to the high
percentage of young people in the population, the chief United Nations anti-drug and
anti-crime official affirmed.

“Organized crime takes root where there is a society or demographic profile
with a strong presence of young people. Half of the population in the Central
American countries is between twenty-five and thirty years old. There’s also the
availability of arms in all the countries in the region,” Antonio María Costa,
director of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), told

These factors are supplemented by the inequity in the distribution of wealth
in the nations of the isthmus and the weak systems of justice, the expert

“It’s a very dangerous relationship, young people with arms and a situation
of income imbalance, as well as strong urbanization. Crime is an urban problem above
all, (and if there is) a flow of arms among young people, it’s very dangerous,” he

With around 40 million inhabitants, Central America is facing the problem of
youth gangs. In Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, between 90,000 and 100,000
gang members are active, the majority of them marginalized youths, according to
official estimates.

Organized crime and other criminal activity have resulted in an average of 36
murders for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to a recent report by the
Salvadoran National Public Safety Council.

Costa maintained that his leadership of the UNODC is focused on strengthening
the region’s judicial systems, basically with regard to investigative capabilities
and the capacity to collect and analyze information.

The office has “centers of excellence” for training judicial and security
personnel in Panama and El Salvador, while a similar body is expected to be set up
in the next few months in Guatemala.

“It’s necessary to strengthen the countries to counteract organized-crime
activities. We need to give this struggle a regional focus, especially using
development tools for security and establishing the basic outlines of a fight
against organized crime,” Costa indicated.

Costa also highlighted the efforts made by the governments of Guatemala, El
Salvador, and Honduras to strengthen joint operations in the area known as the
Northern Triangle, an initiative in which it is hoped that Nicaragua, Costa Rica,
and Panama will also join.

“There is political will in the region, but above all, people are now
realizing that there’s no other way to achieve positive results in the fight against
organized crime,” he explained.

UNODC figures indicate that an ever-increasing percentage of the two hundred
tons of cocaine headed for North America each year passes through Central America, a
route also used for the illegal passage of migrants and firearms.