Heavy-Handed Policies Will Not Stop Rising Crime and Youth Violence in Central America

I was shocked to learn that Central America has the highest rate of non-political crime in the world, according to the United Nations Development Programme's Human Development Report. Increasingly, the drug trade has been pinched into the "Northern Triangle," states of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras causing violence to escalate in recent years. In fact, violence has become so severe that the Peace Corps recently pulled out of Honduras, and cut back in Guatemala and El Salvador due to growing danger for volunteers. It is understandable that citizens of these increasingly distressed countries would turn to presidents that offer a mano dura (heavy hand) against crime and violence.

These policies put individual rights on the backburner in favor of sweeping crime initiatives that jail small time crooks (often associated with youth gangs) to avert them from becoming big time criminals within organized narco-groups. In November, Guatemalans elected president a former army general Otto Pérez Molina, whose campaign promised a heavy hand against crime. Unfortunately, the hope of safety and security does not align with the reality of the consequences of these policies in other Central American countries.

At first glance, it is easy to assume that since there is a lack of economic opportunities, young men are forced to turn to gangs and the drug trade. When poverty and marginalization are the principal causes of gang formation and violence, an open economy is the first medicine prescribed to countries that suffer from the ailment. But what if these macroeconomic measures have already been achieved? Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador are all signers to the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the U.S.

In addition, all three countries have low overall unemployment. However, when focusing on youth, the unemployment rate doubles in all three cases (peaking at 11.7% in El Salvador). Despite this, it does not add up to nearly as much as is suffered by most of the developed world at present. Even within Central America, more stable and secure countries like Costa Rica, Panama, and the Dominican Republic have higher youth unemployment. While unemployment per se is not alarming, the quality of unemployment and high poverty are factors that continue to hold youth back.

As opposed to attacking the breeding ground for violence through improved education, health care, and other softer programs, law enforcement is given reign to arrest and detain suspected gang members and associates. Consequently, they reinforce the systemized violence that ultimately produces the same results, supporting and bolstering the cycle of violence, especially among vulnerable youth.

Not to mention that these policies show no evidence of working. A report on El Salvador by the Council on Hemispheric Affairs indicates that while police can detain juveniles that have tattoos and therefore look like gang-members, fewer than 40 out of 4,000 had sufficient evidence for a conviction. In the short term, it gets them off the street, but in the long run it only diverts resources from policies that are not simple patchwork solutions. Despite the evidence, the election in Guatemala demonstrates that heated rhetoric and promises of being tough on crime are what constituents want.

While there may be no quick-fix for ending violence, all three countries prove that the mano dura is not the answer. A step in the right direction would be to increase coordination by the Security Commission of the Central American Integration System beyond empty speeches to well-designed strategy and action. Also, room should be made to greater investment in prevention and improved employment opportunities for youth. Overall, the greatest push for a reduction in violence should come from below: Communities and citizens affected should stop demanding mano dura and start participating in prevention along with their local government, church, civil institutions, and school.

Photo Credit: Jessica Rudder