Contending with Conflict: Managing Crime in Central America

By Doggett, Martha | Harvard International Review, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

Contending with Conflict: Managing Crime in Central America


Doggett, Martha, Harvard International Review


Central America is now recognized as the most violent area in the world--more so than war zones such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Murder rates in all Central American nations except Costa Rica exceed 10 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants, the World Health Organization's benchmark for violence of epidemic proportions. While such horrific statistics can be traced in part to civil conflicts in the region in the l980s and 1990s, the driving forces of extreme violence today are organized crime and drug trafficking.

Outgunned and ill-equipped to confront the onslaught, countries in the region have turned to the United Nations for help. In response, the organization has been challenged to expand its repertoire of aid and confront difficult questions regarding internal architecture, policy and doctrine, and the appropriate role for the United Nations in dealing with domestic cases of criminal violence.

Organized crime has fostered a new alliance between the human rights community and what is called the "drugs and thugs crowd," who dedicate themselves to the investigation and prosecution of international criminal networks. Understanding between these two communities has grown as human rights defenders have identified criminal mafias as a major threat to human rights and, in Central America, an obstacle to achieving the peaceful, equitable development expected of the post-conflict era.

As the Security Council has come to recognize human rights violations as a threat to international peace and security, it has launched investigations or instructed the Secretary-General to do so, as in the cases of the former Yugoslavia (1992), Liberia (1993), Burundi (1995), Darfur (2004), Ivory Coast (2004), and Lebanon (2005). Yet the challenges posed by organized crime and drug trafficking in Central America have forced the United Nations to break previous molds even more dramatically.

In 2003, Guatemalan human rights activists working with international counterparts approached the UN Department of Political Affairs in response to a wave of attacks on defenders and justice sector personnel. The activists cited an unimplemented clause in the Global Human Rights Agreement obliging the government to "combat any manifestation" of "illegal security forces" or "clandestine security machinery." While a general post-war crime wave was expected in Guatemala, no one anticipated the onslaught of international criminals engaged in trafficking drugs, persons, and contraband, or the ease and impunity with which traffickers would take advantage of weak governance and corrupted institutions.

From the activists' initial request came a four-year campaign involving a unique partnership among civil society groups in Guatemala and the United States, Guatemalan government officials, and the UN Secretariat. …

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