Insecurity in Central America, a little heard story
Posted on 02 June 2011
I just come back from Central America where I was doing a consultancy for a humanitarian organisation and, given that we don’t hear much about the region in the news, I thought you might be interested to know a bit about it.
The organisation has been operating there for decades but has recently questioned its presence given the drastic deterioration of the security there in the last three years. Indeed, statistically, Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (now known as the “Northern Triangle of Death!”) are amongst the most dangerous countries on earth. While in each of these countries, the levels of insecurity vary from one area to another, this means that aid workers (and of course the population) are living in high-risk areas. In light of this, the aid organisation asked me specifically to assess whether they could continue working in these countries, and if so, provide them with guidance to operate safely. I’ll tell you at the end of the post how I answered to these questions.
I had been to the region previously, and violence already existed. Around ten years ago, a friend and I hitchhiked throughout Mexico, Belize and Guatemala and although we personally faced no incidents, we’ve witnessed a number of worrying events (for instance we discovered three people dead, who had been shot at). Yet the generosity of the people was stunning and we felt, overall, fine.
It is however undeniable that insecurity has worsened in the last few years. In 2010 alone, the homicide rate per 100,000 people in El Guatemala stood at 50, in El Salvador at 66 and in Honduras at 77. To give you an idea of how bad that is, let me say that in contrast, the average global homicide rate is 8.8... The Crime Victimization Rates (percentage of people surveyed who reported having been victims of crime in the preceding 12 months) are equally worrying: according to the Latin American Public Opinion Project of Vanderbilt University, the rates are 14% for Honduras, 23.3% for Guatemala and 24.2% for El Salvador.
Insecurity in the region is the result of fragile political and judicial systems; social hardships such as poverty and widespread unemployment; corruption; organised crime; strong economic disparities between the richest and the poorest, etc. It has also developed on an underlying culture of violence which is aggravated by the circulation of arms and drugs following the end of different wars in the region. However organised criminal activity has particularly worsened with the recent decision taken by the US government to send criminals back to their country of origin. This means that a criminal arrested in the US whose family comes from, say, Salvador, is sent back to Salvador even if he has no more family there or doesn’t speak Spanish. It also means that, at best, these ‘deportees’ have little hope or opportunities to be socially integrated and at worst, are bringing with them their criminal experience. This happens in conjunction with a displacement to Central America of drug activities following their crackdown in Mexico and Colombia (for instance 60% of the cocaine that is sold in the US transits through Guatemala). As a result, organised crime has exploded and is affecting all layers of these societies.
I found during this trip that aid workers (and population at large…), whether they are working for international or national NGOs, are facing three types of general threats, and that each has different impact.
Firstly, aid workers are threatened by the daily occurrence of criminal activity, in particular in urban areas. This insecurity consists of a variety of criminal acts, ranging from intimidation and verbal threat, to assault, robbery, sexual violence and assassination. The diffuse nature of this violence is such that virtually all layers of the Central American societies are affected by it.
Secondly, people living in the region face health and safety threats: natural disasters as well as road traffic accidents (RTAs). The likelihood of natural disasters (in particular earthquakes, hurricanes, landslides and floods) is considered as likely, and the gravity of their impact will vary depending on their intensity (as well as the preparation for and response to them). Suffice to remember the devastating impact of the 1998 Hurricane Mitch to say that the region does remain vulnerable to natural disasters.
Thirdly, aid workers and population are at risk of threats from very specific actors, namely organised groups, be them Maras aka Pandillas and/or traffickers of drugs, people, weapons, etc. If anyone is targeted by any of these actors, the negative impact is high and most likely lethal. It however appeared that under the current circumstances, and under the condition that aid organisations’ activities and personnel do not directly and/or significantly affect them, the likelihood of this occurring was assessed as low.
While such an overview is useful for introducing the subject, it ignores the disparities that exist at local levels. As is often the case, the dynamics of insecurity in the three countries varies from one area to another, including in large urban areas, and a more localised analysis is therefore necessary. Concretely, this means that while some areas are incontestably dangerous, others are safer to live in. I’m however not going to provide this localised analysis here as the post would become even more technical, but you have an idea of what’s going on… Suffice to say that behind worrying figures and catchy headlines, life goes on. As such, and despite all of what I wrote here, I do believe that, under the condition that preventative measures are taken, aid workers and visitors alike can go and live in these three countries. This proves particularly relevant given that the level of poverty unfortunately still requires the presence of international aid organisations. But while we foreigners have the means to take preventative measures – or can leave the place altogether if it becomes too dangerous, those who suffer most from insecurity and violence are, as it’s often the case, not foreigners, but local inhabitants.
Indeed, and this is what saddened me most, while some areas are safer than others, the perception of insecurity is so pervasive that I haven’t met a single person for whom security wasn’t an issue at some level. This then means that in addition to whatever hardship the population are confronted to, the inner feeling of insecurity is such that reaching any serenity remains a particularly difficult challenge.