Central America's Moment

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A gang member flashes a gang sign as police parade suspected gang members they arrested in an overnight raid in San Salvador (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

A gang member flashes a gang sign as police parade suspected gang members they arrested in an overnight raid in San Salvador (Stringer/Courtesy Reuters).

While Brazil and Mexico (in good and bad ways) tend to fill U.S. headlines regarding Latin America, other nations matter as well for the United States. Among them are the Central American countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. Though combined their populations total less than thirty million people, these small nations arguably have an outsized effect on the United States, due to a long history of migration and a now growing role in the hemispheric drug pipeline.

A new Council Special Report, “Countering Criminal Violence in Central America,” looks at the challenges facing these countries today, and offers up recommendations for the United States to help its southern neighbors. It argues that the spike in violence in the past decade comes from both organized and common crime, which has taken advantage of the lack of resources and often will of overburdened police and judicial authorities. The author, Michael Shifter, argues that without outside assistance the situation will continue to worsen.

The report lays blame at homeon unresponsive economic elites and the countries’ shockingly low tax revenue collection. But it also challenges the limited funding provided by the United States and international organizations as these nations confront well funded and sophisticated international organized crime networks. It highlights the perverse effects of the current U.S. deportation policy, which has sent over a million people back to communities ravaged by poverty, weak governments, and few opportunities outside of organized crimein effect supplying criminal groups with fresh recruits.

The report recommends that the United States focus its security assistance on strengthening these countries’ judicial systems and law enforcement agencies, and by providing support for broader regional and international cooperation and sharing of best practices. It calls for the United States to work to lower drug demand, restrict gun sales, and share more information about deportees’ criminal histories with Central American governments.

Unlike Mexico, where U.S. funds will remain a small percentage of the resources dedicated to security, a few hundred million dollars in Central America could make a considerable difference. And these three governments today are willing to work closely with the United States, desperate to ebb the violence. With both the need and the will working together, the report concludes, this is an opportunity the United States shouldn’t waste.

Published in conjunction with Latin America’s Moment at the Council on Foreign Relations.