Central America is becoming known as one of the world’s most dangerous regions. Murder rates are at an all-time high, prisons are exceedingly overcrowded and the drug-trade is threatening to transform the region into the primary drug corridor in the world.
According to the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, an estimated 60 percent of the cocaine smuggled into the U.S. was routed through Central America in 2010, up from 42 percent in 2008. In 2009, the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) reported that the seven Central American countries registered the highest levels of non-political murders in the world, estimating that more than 79,000 people in the region died violent deaths between 2003 and 2008.
The fight to curb regional violence and the drug trade has fallen behind. Due to limited funds, equipment, personnel and regional security plans, putting a stop to organized crime, drug smuggling and violence has become a monumental task.
On Sunday, President Laura Chinchilla welcomed to San José Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom, who is in the final months of his term. For several hours, the two leaders discussed the idea of creating a regional strategy to combat organized crime, money laundering and drug and arms trafficking.
“Organized crime and drug trafficking are attacking all of us in Central America. Because of that, a collective effort should be established to confront it,” Chinchilla said. “We know that we live in a region that presents a variety of distinct characteristics, and that we need to be able to count on a strategy that adapts to these conditions. To do so, in place of doubting one another, we need international cooperation.”
The push for international assistance, particularly funding, is considered the effort’s top priority. In May for example, the Inter-American Development Bank pledged $132 million to Costa Rica to boost public security tactics.
But while the region’s governments seek more funds and foreign assistance, it will be the strategies countries implement that will ultimately determine the fate of the war on drugs.
Two days after Colom’s visit, the daily La Nación hosted a panel of speakers at San José’s La Aduana to discuss the nation’s most pressing security concerns. Headlined by Public Security Minister Mario Zamora and Francisco Dall’Anese, former Costa Rican chief prosecutor and head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, the panel was assembled to discuss the biggest issues facing national security and the most effective way to address them.
Douglas Durán, coordinator of the criminology master’s program at the State University at a Distance, focused his presentation on the escalation of national crime and the surging growth of prison populations.
According to Durán, in the last four years, the number of homicides per 100,000 residents in Costa Rica has risen from 5.4 in 1994 to 11 in 2011. In 1994, Costa Rica passed a law to double the sentences of prisoners convicted of homicide. Durán then noted that the number of prisoners in Costa Rican jails has risen more than 27 percent in the last two years.
“Currently, two-fifths of the homicides in the country are a result of organized and drug-related crimes. Homicides caused by robbery and assault represent 25 percent of total murders,” Durán said. “This information indicates that more emphasis and policies should be directed at creating preventive police measures to address issues earlier and enforce stricter punishment on lesser crimes. There should also be stricter policies created for restrictions on access to firearms.”
Zamora, who stepped into the role of public security minister in late April, said that he considered the multi-tiered police and security system as a central weakness of national security. According to Zamora, the 1949 Constitution created several separate branches of the national security structure, which more than 60 years later are yet to be unified.
“[The Constitution] outlined that the police forces would be divided and that every ministry that belongs to the Executive Branch has their own police organization,” Zamora said. “Security in Costa Rica is fractured and divided.”
Zamora explained that the fracturing of the various police forces, such as transportation police, tourism police and police dedicated to financial crimes, has resulted in an uncoordinated web of national security that has been exploited.
“The growth of crime in the 1980s and 90’s revealed the various failures in our national security model,” Zamora said.
Dall’Anese was frank and unforgiving in his criticisms of the national security structure, focusing much of his presentation on Costa Rica’s inability to collect taxes to augment its own funding to fight crime. He said that the most secure countries in the world are the best at collecting taxes, and that there is a direct correlation between tax collection and crime reduction. According to Francisco Villalobos, general director of Costa Rica’s Tax Administration, more than 60 percent of Ticos fail to pay taxes.
“Costa Rica and Central America will continue to be third-world countries if they can’t generate their own revenues through tax collection,” Dall’Anese said.
At the conclusion of the panel, which also included three presenters on the subject of organized crime, it was evident that there are dozens of national and regional security issues that need to be addressed and coordinated.
The longer it takes to do so, the worse Central America’s crime problems will become.