U.S. domestic policies have significant consequences for criminal violence in Central America. The United States is the top consumer of illegal drugs in the world, yet focuses much of its attention and resources on the supply side of the equation through eradication and interdiction programs.
Although federal funding for prevention and treatment has steadily increased, such measures still account for only 40% of the total drug control budget for 2012. Senior officials have acknowledged shared responsibility for rising levels of violence fueled by American drug consumption, but the U.S. government has yet to significantly invest in demand reduction measures.
Lax gun regulations permit the flow of dangerous assault weapons southward, which may also undermine Central American security. In 2009, a Government Accountability Office report found that an estimated 87% of traceable arms seized in Mexico had originated in the United States. The extent that U.S. arms flow contributes to Central American violence is unclear, given that arms are widely available in the aftermath of civil wars. For Central Americans, however, the statistic is politically and symbolically significant because it illustrates that the United States is not doing its part.
U.S. inaction on comprehensive immigration reform and a surge in deportations have the unintended consequences of adding strains to already weak Central American institutions, aggravating criminal violence and insecurity. Progress on comprehensive reform in the near term is not likely, however. Even modest changes have been rejected in the U.S. Congress.
Deportations from the United States, which have exceeded one million overall since cooperation between Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and local law enforcement under the Secure Communities program expanded at the beginning of the Obama administration, have undermined the Central American security situation. More specifically, the administration’s increased focus on undocumented migrants with a history of violent crime has aggravated insecurity.
Deportees, some of whom already have criminal records, find few alternatives to illicit activity when they return to their home countries. Central American institutions are simply incapable of managing and mitigating the consequences of mass influxes of deportees. The ability to address these problems is constrained by a sluggish U.S. economy. A tough fiscal climate weakens the economic performance of Central America and dims the prospects for greater U.S. financial assistance.
In addition, a sustained reduction or reprioritization of U.S. foreign aid budgets could affect support for Central America. Despite these unfavorable conditions, the United States can and should do its part to manage limited resources to Central America in a way that both strengthens regional coordination and addresses long-standing domestic issues with far- reaching effects on its neighbors.
Central America has become the locus of the drug trade and international criminal networks, and the effects on the social, political, and economic frameworks of the countries are significant and deleterious.
The outlook is bleak: current trends suggest that criminal violence in the region will escalate. And even if Central America does significantly crack down on criminal violence, it would likely only displace the problem, as have most successful antidrug efforts in Latin America over the past few decades. Although U.S. officials are beginning to label criminal violence in Central America as the greatest threat facing the hemisphere today, some predict a shift back to the Caribbean, where the first major drug trafficking routes were established.
If the regional governments remain unable to cope with the pressures and strains of spreading organized crime and violence, then the United States should be prepared to deal with the consequences. The Obama administration should implement sustained and nuanced policy initiatives that provide high-level guidance and financial and technical assistance, yet also recognize Central American strategic ownership.
The need is enormous, but so is the opportunity: Central American governments are eager for greater cooperation with the United States. In the future, forging such partnerships in the region may be more difficult.
Without a long-term U.S. commitment to strengthen institutions and coordinate regional action, the eventuality of conquering increasingly sophisticated and transnational criminal violence and safeguarding Central America’s fragile democracies could well be in jeopardy.
As Colombia demonstrated, success is possible where regional governments are open to collaboration and the United States sustains resources and attention to the problem.
A full versions of this article, titled Countering Criminal Violence in Central America, was published in the April 2012 issue of Council on Foreign Relations.
Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue in Washington, D.C.