The combination of its geo-strategic location, deep-seated corruption and poor resilience mechanisms has laid the ground for illicit economies to flourish, making Central America one of the world’s prime criminal hotspots. To address these dynamics and tackle the root causes that allow criminal economies to thrive, it is essential to include civil society in counter-crime responses.

Central America is one of the most crime-ridden regions in the world. It is home to countries with some of the highest homicide rates, including El Salvador and Honduras, and has become a popular trans-shipment point for drugs – particularly cocaine – en route from South America to markets in the US and Europe. According to the Global Organized Crime Index 2021, the region has the highest criminality score of all the continental subregions – 6.17 – well above the average global score for criminality (4.88).

The kinds of robust democratic institutions needed to provide a response to this are eroding across the region. The Nicaraguan president, Daniel Ortega, further cemented his grip on power, with Salvadorean leader Nayib Bukele closely following in his footsteps. Corruption runs deep among the region’s political elites and examples of high-level public officials charged with crimes (including facilitating drug trafficking) abound. The region also ranks low in the Organized Crime Index’s resilience assessments, with a score of 4.05 – the lowest for all regions in the Americas – a ranking that is dragged down by its very low score (3.44) on the Index’s ‘judicial system and detention’ indicator.

This high criminality–low resilience environment makes the region especially vulnerable to criminal dynamics becoming further embedded. Some governments have responded to the increasing threat of criminal organizations by deploying military forces, which can have the effect of feeding a cycle of crime and violence, and lead to human rights violations – all of which severely affect a country’s capacity to fight organized crime.

And the future is not looking particularly bright. While the COVID-19 pandemic has provided criminal networks with opportunities to adapt their operations, the rise in cocaine production in South America presents a particularly robust challenge to any attempt to tackle organized crime in Central America. Seven out of the eight countries in the region were assessed as having significantly influential cocaine markets in the Organized Crime Index. Cocaine is not the sole challenge: Central America also scores particularly high for other criminal markets, including human and arms trafficking, people smuggling, flora and fauna crimes, and the cannabis trade.

Alternative strategies

Over the years, a number of academics, social activists and governments have been developing strategies to tackle regional challenges posed by organized crime. Initiatives to address social exclusion by ensuring community access to high-quality education and other opportunities for marginalized individuals have been identified as essential to break the cycle of violence. However, tackling structural corruption and impunity are likely to be key to countering the effects of crime in the long run.

Some countries in the region have already tried this approach. In Guatemala, for example, a UN-backed commission worked for over a decade to dismantle the structures that allowed crime to go unpunished. The Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (international commission against impunity in Guatemala) was successful in empowering its fragile judiciary. While it was active, the commission supported investigations that led to the indictment of a former president and vice president, and the prosecution of dozens of government officials and thousands of police officers. In Honduras, a commission backed by the Organization of American States also went to great lengths to dismantle some of the structures that allow crimes – particularly those at the hands of political elites – to go unpunished.

However, these initiatives were prevented from continuing their important task. In Guatemala, the decision to not renew the international commission’s mandate came after a long smear campaign against its members, pushback from economic and political elites who were being investigated for alleged corruption and dwindling support from the Trump administration. The high levels of public support for the commission and efforts by civil society groups to keep it alive were all but fruitless against this resistance. The anti-impunity commission in Honduras faced similar challenges as soon as it began investigating figures in power.

Despite their demise, these initiatives have provided two essential lessons. First, in even the most trying scenarios, it is possible for credible organizations to be established and for them to achieve important milestones, no matter how marginal. Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, they have at the very least set a precedent for positive change, which, with the right political will, could be replicated across the region.

Strong judiciaries with robust investigative capabilities are among the most essential resilience mechanisms to fight organized crime as well as smart strategies to tackle crime when it does take place, including non-punitive alternatives to current prison systems, which tend to be costly, ineffective and, ironically, serve to fuel crime. The rise in prison expenditure across the region has not made citizens safer. Investing in long-term primary-care services, crime prevention and community policing are some of the strategies that are more likely to yield positive, long-lasting results.

In addition, civil society organizations are important and transformative resilience mechanisms against crime, as identified in the Organized Crime Index. Social activists, youth workers, human rights lawyers and environment campaigners, among others, are at the forefront of the fight against crime but also the ones working side by side with communities, implementing tools and strategies to prevent criminal groups from establishing themselves and expanding throughout the territory. Yet Latin America is one of the most dangerous regions in the world for these actors. In Honduras and Guatemala, campaigning to protect natural resources can be a deadly undertaking, as is confronting the criminal organizations controlling many of the region’s profitable illicit economies.

Instead of working together with these essential actors, supporting their efforts for a common goal, authorities are increasingly targeting them. In Nicaragua, a raft of laws passed over the past two years has made the work of independent civil society organizations increasingly challenging. Things are not very different in El Salvador, where the Legislative Assembly, in which Bukele’s party holds the majority, passed an amendment criminalizing reporting on gang activities, further limiting freedom of speech.

Central America’s future looks challenging. The region’s problems are complex, but complex challenges do not always require intricate solutions. Opening an honest, open dialogue with civil society, where ideas and proposals can be shared without fear of reprisals would be a good start. These organizations and individuals are uniquely placed to provide creative and effective solutions to tackle some of the root causes of the issues afflicting the region, including – most importantly – the impunity that feeds them.

This analysis is part of the GI-TOC’s series of articles delving into the results of the Global Organized Crime Index 2021. The series explores the Index’s findings and their effects on policymaking, anti-organized crime measures and analyses from a thematic or regional perspective.

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