El Salvador Security Challenges: Shaky Response So Far

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After five and a half months in office, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén is still groping for ways to address the country’s pressing security concerns.  According to official figures, the homicide rate has rebounded to 11 per day – compared to five or six per day for four months last year during a gang truce sponsored by President Funes and his Security Minister, General  Munguía.  Highly unpopular among Salvadorans and despised by the United States – the key partner in security issues – the truce turned out to be the most effective homicide reduction policy since the end of the Civil War.  For Sánchez Cerén, however, the failure to renew the truce has proven to be politically toxic as violence has once again surged.  Inside sources say that the new government has engaged in a quiet dialogue with gang leaders but refuses to publicly embrace it as a mainstay of its approach to security.  Instead, Public Security Minister Benito Lara is pushing a model of community policing that has yet to prove effective and will be difficult to implement nationally.  Low morale within police ranks, the unwillingness of citizens to cooperate with police in gang-plagued territories and, as always, the lack of meaningful resources to address social investment in poor and violent communities are undermining the policy.

Two main elements of a successful approach – funding and political courage – are lacking.  Truce implementation was supposed to be followed by a comprehensive social investment program called Comunidades libres de violencia (Communities Free of Violence), but it never got funded.  Sánchez Cerén, moreover, has shown reluctance to take on the security issue.  The United States, for its part, has provided millions of dollars in assistance under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for vetted units of special investigators, transnational law enforcement initiatives to combat gangs, police equipment and training, and prison management, but institutional weaknesses remain acute and violence has continued to climb.  Moreover, many critics say the programs are flawed by a failure to condition aid on concrete government steps to end security forces’ impunity, corruption, and secret cooperation with organized crime.

The days in which iron-fist approaches and fanfare-hyping law enforcement activity represented a credible security strategy have passed.  Salvadoran politicians can no longer talk their way out of the security chaos by selling mano dura fantasies.  The truce under President Funes helped gang leaders consolidate their influence and hone their political skills to the point that a solution to reduce homicides without gang leaders’ imprimatur is plainly not possible.  As President, Sánchez Cerén has the opportunity to provide strong leadership, while addressing the public’s concerns, to pursue talks under clear conditions and with credible consequences for gang violations.  In return for a gang promise to reduce homicides, stop recruitment in vulnerable areas, and end gang rapes, the President could credibly offer to allow them greater sway in prisons and to support social programs in affected communities.  He can also commit to find the necessary resources.  The elites will resist paying, but a mini-summit of the three Presidents of Central America’s northern tier and U.S. Vice President Biden hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank this week affords Sánchez Cerén a chance to make a bilateral pitch for help to Biden and a multilateral pitch to the IDB.  He will have to steel himself for the political hits that will ensue, but without strong leadership, security in El Salvador will only continue to deteriorate.   The former guerrilla leader must know that there is no easy solution at hand, but as President – validated by a democratic election – he has the responsibility and holds the power to act.

November 11, 2014

U.S.-China: Competing over Central America and the Caribbean?

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

President Obama and President Chinchilla in Costa Rica | Photo by: The White House | Public domain

The recent visits to Central America, Mexico, and the Caribbean by Chinese President Xi Jinping and U.S. President Obama (and Vice President Biden to Trinidad and Tobago) suggest a handoff from Washington to Beijing of the role as the region’s sugar-daddy, but not a strategic shift in influence.  The presidents’ visits were similar in their innocuous itineraries.  Both got pompous welcomes; met with “real” citizens (Xi ate empanaditas de chiverre with a coffee farmer); and praised the bilateral relationships.  Both held sub-regional summits – Obama in San José and Xi in Port of Spain.  Both repackaged ongoing or recently negotiated projects as new “accords.”  Obama pledged another $150 million a year for funding the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), part of the strategy started under President Bush to counter the drug trade and related threats.  Xi got headlines in Costa Rica for providing more than $1.5 billion for refinery and road projects and to purchase replacement taxis and buses from Chinese manufacturers.  Significantly, China is also building Costa Rica’s new National Police Academy – the sort of project Washington used to thrive on.

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

President Chinchilla and President Xi Jinping | Photo credit: Presidencia de la República de Costa Rica / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Despite the similarities, the visits had different orientations and feel.  Xi’s principal task appeared to be to open his checkbook, while Obama’s main deliverable was a policy shift – the welcome word that Washington was pulling back from making its top regional priority the interdiction of narcotics produced in South America and transiting the isthmus on their way to consumers in the United States.  According to press reports, despite the continued CARSI funding, Obama had absorbed Costa Rican President Chinchilla’s complaint last year at a summit with Biden that it was unfair that Central Americans were dying in efforts to stop narcotics that Americans use.  The media tried to give the two presidents equal coverage, but the disparity became obvious.  The Chinese distributed copies of the China Daily (in English) even into the San José suburbs, whereas Obama didn’t need to do his own publicity.  Despite whiffs of resentment about airport and street closures, the papers covered all of Obama’s events with affectionate quotes from government and common folk alike – and showed people, including a kid dressed as Spider-Man, waving to his motorcade.  La Nación, on the other hand, reported that school children cheering a Chinese speaker couldn’t understand a word he was saying.

The goodies each president brought created little excitement – and no small amount of skepticism.  Important details about China’s offer to help repair the Costa Rican gasoline refinery remain unknown, and Chinese cars already have a bad reputation.  China’s handouts aren’t going to be turned down, of course, and Xi’s pledge to buy more Costa Rican coffee (now about 5 percent of what Japan buys) and to encourage Chinese tourists to travel to the country (now a micro-percentage of visitors) are welcome.  Obama’s CARSI funding looks like bureaucracy on autopilot.  Few Central Americans can cite concrete benefits from the seven-year-old Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) with the United States either, and the general impression – reinforced by Secretary Kerry’s recent reference to the region as the U.S. “backyard” – is that Washington is yielding the playing field to China.  But the natural ties and strategic mutual interests between Central America and the United States remain strong and give the United States, should it wish to fill it, ample space to play a positive role in the region’s future beyond programs on autopilot.

Belize: An Outlier in the Middle of the Mess

Belize - Boy carrying water. Photo credit: Blue Skyz Media / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Belize – Boy carrying water. Photo credit: Blue Skyz Media / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Though off the radar of most analysts, Belize appears to be the latest casualty of the drug trade and criminal violence.  It debuted on the Obama Administration’s annual blacklist of major drug-transit and -producing countries back in September 2011, alongside El Salvador, filling out the roster of Central American countries.  That U.S. government spotlight, however, has done little to halt the Mexican drug cartels’ expansion into Belize.  The U.S. State Department now estimates that about 10 metric tons of cocaine are smuggled each year along Belize’s Caribbean coast – partly the work of local contacts established by the Zetas and the Sinaloa cartel.

Like its neighbors’ security challenges, Belize’s problems are not limited to drug trafficking.  Urban gangs and the rivalries among them are the main driver of the escalating violence, which is rooted in the same causes as in neighboring countries – institutional weakness, rampant corruption, impunity, and unemployment.  The government-sponsored gang truce negotiated in 2011, which featured “salary” payments to members who ceased violent activities, collapsed last December when funds dried up.  (Click here for details documented by our colleagues at InSight Crime.)  Belizean authorities tallied a record number of homicides last year, edging out neighboring Guatemala for the sixth place slot in global per capita homicide rankings.  Porous borders make Belize attractive to transnational gangs, particularly El Salvador’s MS-13 and Barrio 18, both of which have established a significant presence in the capital city, Belmopan, and elsewhere.  About one-fifth of the country’s 325,000 people are Salvadoran citizens, making it difficult to track criminal elements.

The deteriorating conditions in Belize raise questions about the effectiveness of U.S. counternarcotics and “citizen security” programs in the region.  The patchwork of U.S. initiatives under the umbrella of the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) has not reversed regional trends even in tiny Belize.  While the country’s law enforcement agencies welcomed the heavy equipment, training, and technical assistance that make up the bulk of CARSI funding, the tactical gains have been obscured by a worsening strategic outlook.  The U.S. Government Accountability Office has voiced its concern that the State Department is confusing efforts with results.  Moreover, neither the Belizean nor U.S. government has mapped out a preventative strategy.  The most recent data show that less than half of the funds allocated to Belize from CARSI’s Economic Support Fund, used for programs to help at-risk youth, has been spent, and after handing out 1 million Belizean taxpayer dollars to gang members during the truce, for example, there is little to show for it.  In the run-up to President Obama’s summit with Central American presidents next week, Belizean Prime Minister Dean Barrow’s statement that “Obama hasn’t done anything for Belize” was subsequently qualified, but the fact remains that U.S. partnership with Belize, like with its neighbors, has not begun to work yet.

**An earlier version of this post inadvertently omitted the word “Belizean” before “taxpayer dollars” in the concluding paragraph, giving the false impression that State Department funds had been used to subsidize Belize’s gang truce.