The recent decision made by the Trump Administration to end the Temporary Protection Status enjoyed by approximately 200,000 Salvadorans residing in the United States in 2019, thus leaving them at imminent risk of being deported, has once again brought the plight of Central America to the attention of U.S. citizens. Over the past two decades, over three million Central American migrants have reached U.S. shores, often after a harrowing journey that could belong in the pages of Dante’s Inferno. It is not hard to fathom why. Outside of Costa Rica, the region remains mired in a toxic cocktail of poor governance, reduced economic prospects, and criminal violence. The last challenge, in particular, deserves urgent attention.
Murder and violence are a plague in Central America. The region’s homicide rate (33 murders per 100,000 people in 2016) is over five times the global rate, with recent figures in Honduras and El Salvador reaching unprecedented levels in Latin America, if not the world. More than 130,000 Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans have perished in the past ten years as a result of crime, half of them young men between the ages of 15 and 29. Last year, Honduras alone had more murders than the 28 member states of the European Union combined.
At the root of Central America’s violence levels is a complex array of factors. Most prominent among them is the pervasive presence of organized crime. Close to 90% of the cocaine destined for the U.S. goes through the Central America-Mexico corridor. Still, it is crucial to understand that the scourge of organized crime is not simply an accident of geography. Organized crime preys on weak states, large contingents of alienated young people, and rotten law enforcement institutions.
At 16% of GDP on average, tax revenues in Central America’s Northern Triangle are lower than in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa, and stand at less than half the proportion of GDP the average revenue collected by the industrialized countries of the OECD. It is hardly surprising that Guatemala, a country that collects barely above 10% of GDP in taxes (one of the world’s lowest figures), faces a peculiarly acute challenge of organized crime. Such a paltry level of tax collection means, in practice, that state institutions do not travel much beyond urban areas. Moreover, those resource-starved institutions are incapable of making the investments required to enhance economic dynamism and enlarge the opportunities of young people to live a long, healthy and productive life. They are unable to prevent one of the calamities that lie at the core of the region’s travails: 23% of young people (15 to 24) are neither studying nor working, have no stake in their societies, and find it difficult to resist the pull of gangs and other criminal organizations.
Arguably the clearest and most dangerous manifestation of state weakness in Central America is the parlous state of law enforcement. Law enforcement institutions in much of the region are not merely incapable of dealing with the acute challenges of crime; in fact, to the extent that they are easily penetrated by organized crime, they compound the problem. According to Latinobarometro, a regional survey, in 2015 81% of Salvadorans had little or no trust in the judiciary, while 71% said the same about the police. Predictably, only 11% of crime victims report offenses to the police. Impunity is the name of the game.
Redressing these structural weaknesses is a generational challenge that can only be dealt with by the Central American countries themselves. Given the magnitude of the challenges, however, none of this can be corrected without international assistance. This is especially true with regards to rebuilding law enforcement institutions. On this front, assistance from the United States, as well as from Mexico, Colombia and other regional partners that have had their own successes in recent decades, can play a key role. International assistance in this field should focus on a few urgent programs that may exert a catalytic effect on the transformation of the image and efficacy of law enforcement bodies in the region. Urgent tasks on which international aid could have an impact include improving internal control and anti-corruption units within law enforcement institutions; adopting modern information technologies (from regular victimization surveys to CompStat-like crime data gathering systems) as part of the policy making process; creating vetted units to handle complex multinational investigations; and improving investigation and prosecutorial capacities with regards to complex financial crimes.
Some of these changes are already under way as part of the U.S.-funded Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a well-designed assistance program that deserves continued political support. It may already be making a dent on violence levels. While still extraordinarily high, homicides rates in Guatemala and Honduras have consistently fallen over the past few years, and even El Salvador is showing progress since 2015. This is encouraging.
None of this will help, however, if the United States does not abide by the simplest of rules—do no harm to Central America. Sending back 200,000 Salvadorans to an already strained region flies in the face of the objectives of the Alliance for Prosperity, and is a surefire way to worsen the social ills that lie at the root of the massive exodus to the United States. A chaotic Central America is a story with no winners except criminal syndicates.
Kevin Casas-Zamora is Senior Fellow at the Inter-American Dialogue, Washington D.C., and former Vice President of Costa Rica.