Central America and the Merida Initiative
Shannon, Thomas A., DISAM Journal
[The following are excerpts from a statement before the House Committee on Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere, Washington, DC, May 8, 2008.]
Thank you for the opportunity to appear before this Subcommittee today to discuss the Central America portion of the Merida Initiative and the opportunity it represents for regional security cooperation among not only the countries of Central America but also with the United States and Mexico.
Drug trafficking, gang violence, crime, and human smuggling, all linked to Central America, now directly afflict many areas of the United States, while arms and cash flows move south across our border and through Mexico to sustain these criminal organizations. The United States has a compelling strategic interest in moving quickly to reinforce our partnership with Central America to check illicit activity in the region. Drug trafficking and criminal organizations in Central America have grown in size and strength over the last decade, suborning and intimidating police and judges, which weakens the states' abilities to maintain public security. The results have been a region-wide surge in crime and violence and the emergence of gangs as major social actors. Central American leaders and public opinion, especially in E1 Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, have characterized this situation as a national emergency requiring an urgent response. Furthermore, the effects of these Central American problems are readily apparent in the United States.
Since 2005, more than 1,800 alleged members of Mara Salvatrucha, or MS-13, have been arrested in cities across the United States. Estimates of the number of gang members in Central America vary considerably, but the United Nations [UN] estimates the number around 70,000. A UN Office on Drugs and Crime report published in May 2007 cites country gang membership at approximately 10,500 in El Salvador, 36,000 in Honduras, and 14,000 in Guatemala. The gang problem is most serious in these "northern three" countries of Central America; but we have indications that gangs are increasingly active in Belize, Costa Rica, and Panama.
Central America has among the highest homicide rates in the world, and the rates are increasing. In 2005, the estimated murder rate was 56 per 100,000 people in E1 Salvador, up from 43 in 2004 and 37 in 2003. Between 2003 and 2006, the murder rate in Guatemala jumped from 32 per 100,000 to 47. Due to lack of standardized data, good numbers are not available for Honduras; but it is estimated that the murder rates are comparable to those in E1 Salvador and Guatemala. For comparison, the U.S. murder rate is 5.6 per 100,000.
The UN Office on Drugs and Crime study reports that more than 70 percent of homicides in the northern three countries are committed with firearms. The same report suggests that there are an estimated 800,000 unregistered firearms in civilian hands in Central America, in addition to the half million legally registered firearms. This means that between half and two-thirds of all the firearms in Central America are illegal--a number that is roughly five times more than the number of weapons held by law enforcement in the region.
The Central American isthmus is a primary transit point for people and drugs destined for the United States. With increased Mexican air and maritime interdiction, traffickers will increasingly look to Central America for over-land movement of contraband and people into Mexico and the United States. Increasing violent crime threatens the internal stability of states, debilitates national economies, undermines public confidence in democracy, and exacerbates illegal migration to the United States. Resource constraints, ineffective criminal justice systems, and uncoordinated national efforts hamper an effective Central American response. However, we believe a growing sense of common political will and urgency among the Central American countries affords the United States a unique opportunity to launch a process to develop common and effective approaches to shared security concerns in the region. …