Tough love for Central America

During Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's trip to Guatemala this week, the governments of Central America will unveil their strategy for fighting entrenched organized crime in the region. The meeting is meant to raise the profile of the isthmus' severely deteriorated security situation and marshal international resources to the task of improving it.

The stakes are high. Central America's drug-related security plight is as grave as Mexico's. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have violence rates second only to those of active war zones. Honduras' murder rate (77 per 100,000 people in 2010) is 15 times that of the United States and more than four times that of Mexico. Moreover, in the last decade, murder rates have gone up in every country in the region, in some cases dramatically.

The narcotics maelstrom engulfing Central America is a big part of the problem. Whereas in 2006 close to one-fourth of U.S.-bound cocaine shipments traveled through the region, in 2010 the figure was higher than two-thirds, according to radar tracking from the U.S. government. Organized crime has flourished in Central America alongside the drug trade, in part because of structural conditions that have long doomed the isthmus to violence and underdevelopment, and that can be addressed only by Central Americans themselves. The region is plagued by weak states, poor law enforcement institutions and a lack of opportunities for the region's youth.

Central America's police and judicial institutions are underfunded and under-equipped. Training is poor and corruption is rampant. Unsurprisingly, they command little support from the population. According to regional opinion polls, only a minority of the population trusts the police or the judiciary in any Central American country. At the same time, one-quarter of the young in Central America are neither at school nor at work, thus becoming a reserve army for criminal organizations.

The policies needed to confront Central America's crime epidemic are complex and expensive. There are many reasons the United States should assist in this endeavor, including its obvious responsibility in the drug-trafficking problem. Indeed, Washington is helping through the Central America Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. Yet even the best counter-narcotics assistance program is no substitute for the difficult undertakings that may ultimately deliver Central America from the perils of crime.

If Central American countries are to bring about more cohesive societies and modern law enforcement bodies, they have to start by profoundly reforming their taxation systems. Taxes must be paid, lest the states' ability to exercise effective territorial control is weakened further. In Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, tax revenues do not exceed 16% of gross domestic product, well below the norm for Latin America — or even for sub-Saharan Africa. It is hardly mystifying that the Guatemalan state has tenuous control over its territory when its tax collection in 2010 was a paltry 10% of GDP. "Bonsai" states do not make for fair or safe societies.

Undoubtedly there is room for the United States to increase the resources allocated to the fight against organized crime in Central America. Since 2008, the funds allotted to the seven members of CARSI amount to about $250 million — less than one-fifth of Mexico's share of U.S. counter-narcotics assistance. This is an unjustifiable disproportion. However, any decision by the United States, and indeed the broader international community, to increase security cooperation with Central America ought to be made conditional on Central America's governments raising a matching sum from domestic sources. The region's elites, which have seldom paid taxes, should not be given a free pass on this one.

Here the example of Colombia comes to mind. Faced with the abyss of a failing state a decade ago, Colombian well-to-do sectors swallowed the bitter pill of a significant tax hike to fund President Alvaro Uribe's democratic security policy. Today, the benefits of that decision are all too apparent. This has not been lost on some of the region's leaders. Against strong opposition, President Mauricio Funes of El Salvador is trying to levy taxes on the wealthiest of the wealthy to fund the revamping of crime prevention and law enforcement strategies. He should be commended for that.

Central America requires assistance from the international community in its struggle against organized crime, but it also needs a dose of tough love. Central Americans must accept that, just as only they could put an end to the region's civil wars two decades ago, they must also take responsibility for building modern states, overhauling law enforcement institutions and providing opportunities for young people. For Central America, merely asking the international community for support is not enough, nor is it acceptable.

Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former vice president and minister of national planning in Costa Rica and a senior fellow in the Latin America Initiative at the Brookings Institution.

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