No longer can policymakers ignore the grim reality of the level of violence in the seven countries that comprise the Central American isthmus. The situation today evoke comparisons of the homicide rates that many countries experienced at the height of their armed conflicts—a time of violence that all had hoped would remain in the past.
The numbers are staggering. According to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), Central America’s homicide rate tops 33 murders per 100,000 people, making it the most violent area of not just Latin America, but also the world. In fact, the region’s homicide rate is more than four times the global average. The situation is particularly troubling when it comes to the region’s youth; 39 of every 100,000 young people age 15 to 24 years old will fall victim to murder each year.
Increasing international attention and assistance to the region is certainly a very welcome development. Last week, Central America’s heads of state along with the presidents of Mexico and Colombia and other international observers decamped to Guatemala City for the International Conference in Support of the Central American Security Strategy organized by the Central American Integration System (SICA). In a region where divisions often bubble to the surface, the leaders’ resolve to jointly tackle insecurity was perhaps one of the conference’s biggest achievements.
Also important, more international money was pledged to the cause. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed almost $300 million in funding for “Central American-led efforts to address deteriorating citizen security”—a $100 million increase from what President Obama promised in March when visiting El Salvador. These funds build on the $1 billion promised by the World Bank and the $500 million that the Inter-American Development Bank has committed over the next two years. The grand total of pledged support: $1.8 billion.
Money will be allocated to region-wide priorities for addressing crime. The regional approach is particularly important; narcotics traffickers and gangs operate without regard to state-defined borders—and so must the region’s solutions.
What is also clear is that the root causes of crime must be addressed. According to the World Bank, an estimated 900 gangs or maras with roughly 70,000 members operate in Central America.
Young people enter these gangs often because they are left with no other possibilities. Education completion, particularly for the bottom income quintile, is quite low and unemployment is high. Among other things, these inequities feed into particularly high poverty rates; two of the four countries with Latin America’s highest such rates are in the Northern Triangle region of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Figures from the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) show that Honduras’ poverty rate (69 percent of the population) was the region’s highest and that Guatemala’s poverty rate (55 percent) ranked as the fourth highest.
Poverty and unemployment help to illustrate why improving the security situation must go beyond law-and-order approaches—including rule of law reforms, intelligence sharing and new policing strategies—and include education and worker training at the top of the list for addressing Central America’s long-term security challenges. This goes beyond the schools, and involves partnerships with the private sector to create opportunities for at-risk youth. In an optimal scenario, the public sector or nongovernmental organizations work together with business to create a pipeline where young people can put to use their newly-acquired skills through internships or entry-level jobs in industries that are in need of skilled workers.
One model of this is YouthBuild International, which integrates schooling, leadership development and crime prevention in programs that team up with local construction companies so that program beneficiaries can put their professional training to use on the job. In presenting at a conference organized by USAID on youth development and crime prevention yesterday in Washington DC, Tim Cross, the organization’s president, highlighted how their programs in Central America accomplish the twin goals of engaging those on the margins of society while also building much needed infrastructure. YouthBuild has been able to convince businesses in Central America to look beyond the often questionable past of program participants; if former gang members can cover up their tattoos, then employers will have much to gain by giving them a second chance.
Beyond YouthBuild, regional leaders like Arturo Sagrera, vice president of Grupo Hilasal and director of Programa Empresarial Supérate, are showing how businesses can work with marginalized youth to create new opportunities. Also speaking at the crime prevention conference, Sagrera’s work combines English-language skills, computing and teaching values for underprivileged high school students in the region. Supérate, Sagrera emphasized, is successful because program development and decision making is carried out in conjunction with community leaders—ensuring that local initiatives respond to local needs.
Central America’s political leaders have taken a welcome step to address escalating crime by further showing their resolve to work together. The next step is creating long-term programs that offer formal labor market opportunities for at-risk youth; policymakers would be well advised to look at how initiatives like YouthBuild and Supérate are doing just that.
*Jason Marczak is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. He is senior editor of Americas Quarterly, managing editor of AQ Online and director of policy at the Americas Society and Council of the Americas.