The region of Central America is aflutter with political instability this November as a series of diplomatically precarious events are rapidly unfolding. On 6 November, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights accused Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega of systematic suppression of press, activism, and political opposition. Earlier in the week, the US ambassador to Nicaragua, Robert Callahan, accused Ortega of orchestrating a demonstration that resulted in an assault on the US embassy on 29 October. Nicaragua’s ambassador to the Organisation of American States, Denis Moncada, has publicly refuted both accusations.

In Honduras, presidential elections scheduled for 29 November are shrouded in controversy following the June military ousting of President Manuel Zelaya. With backing by the Honduran Supreme Court and the National Congress, Roberto Micheletti was sworn in as acting president on 28 June. Both Micheletti and Zelaya have appealed to the international community for support while violent demonstrations on behalf of both have arisen across Honduras during the past several months.

In a particularly insightful envisagement, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released a 20 October report on civil instability in Central America, citing a sustained increase in murder rates and violence as a major obstacle to regional development. According to the 2009-2010 UNDP Human Development Report to Central America, the murder rate throughout Central America in 2008 was 33 out of 100,000 inhabitants, nearly four times the global average.

When the United Nations General Assembly convened in May 1999 to discuss the framework for future Millennium Development Goals, it expressed the United Nations’ commitment to “promoting peace and sustainable development of mankind in the conditions of globalisation.” The UNDP’s recent report drives to the heart of this matter with its exclusive focus on the relationship between violence, social instability, and human development initiatives in Central America. Human development is a measure of progress in reducing poverty, illiteracy, gender disparities, social divisions, and mortality rates. The report, while a somber account of the social challenges facing the region, espoused a detailed proposal to tackle violence and insecurity and nurture equality, inclusion, transparent governance, and economic improvement.

According to the UNDP’s Regional Director for Latin America and the Caribbean, Rebeca Grynspan, “Apart from its economic costs, which are concrete and indisputable, one of the main reasons why this is a crucial issue is that violence and crime are affecting the day-to-day decisions of the population, making insecurity a clear hindrance to human development.”

Data included in the report indicates that approximately 79,000 murders occurred in Central America between 2003 and 2008. Among a population of approximately 42 million inhabitants residing in seven countries – Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama – the rampant prevalence of homicide is a troubling component for a region struggling with economic, social, and political reforms. The report added that non-political violence has escalated steadily over the last decade in each of the seven Central American countries, including Honduras, which reported 58 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008, the most reported by any country in the world that year.

Symptoms of the past

Though trends in violence have reached precarious levels throughout the region, the current social instability in Central America is not an aberration, but a direct consequence of unresolved conflicts during the 1980s, according to Bernardo Arevalo de León, Director of the UNDP Interpeace Joint Programme Unit for Participatory Strategies in Peacebuilding and Development.

In 1987 the governments of Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua signed an accord, Esquipulas II, in which they pledged to bring about an end to the three major armed conflicts in the region. These conflicts – a guerilla war in El Salvador, an indigenous uprising in Guatemala, and the US-backed “Contra” rebellion in Nicaragua – took years to officially resolve and fostered economic stagnation and decline long after their conclusions.

In El Salvador, guerilla militias, primarily the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, combated the El Salvadorian military junta during a 12-year civil war that reached a formal resolution in 1992. However, a special monitoring mission by the United Nations remained in the country until 1997, and disparities in land ownership and wealth continue to fuel civil discord.

After 36 years of conflict and nearly 200,000 deaths, Guatemala finally achieved peace in 1996. However, deep social divides have yet to be assuaged after decades of conflict between the indigenous Mayan Indian majority and the Guatemalan military. In terms of poverty and social inequality, “little has changed” since Esquipulas II, according to economist Miguel Arturo Gutiérrez.

Following the Sandinista National Liberation Front’s overthrow of the Somoza government in Nicaragua, Contra rebels waged an 11-year civil war against the newly formed Sandinista regime, a conflict that claimed the lives of 43,000 and dislocated 500,000. Though peace accords were reached in 1990, the economic toll of the conflict has continued for nearly two decades. As the second-most impoverished country in all of Latin America, Nicaragua’s poverty rate remains two times above the UN Millennium Development Goal’s poverty reduction objective for 2015.

In 2007, concurrent with the 20th anniversary of the Esquipulas II accord, the UN Office for Disarmament Affairs hosted a joint-conference on Central American security issues, during which panel experts analysed the violent volatility of the region. Drug trafficking, gang violence, and class and ethnic tensions were all cited as serious security concerns that state governments have been unable to cope with thus far.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 88 per cent of global cocaine transportation passes through Central America at some point. The centrality of the region to the illicit drug trade has led to a widespread emergence of violent crime. Mara Salvatrucha, also known as MS-13, the international criminal organisation originally comprised of former El Salvadorian guerillas, has spread throughout Central America, as well as Mexico, Canada, and the United States, and is involved in illicit drug trading, arms smuggling, and human trafficking. Local street gangs, or maras as they are referred to within the region, are in a near-constant violent struggle with one another, as well as paramilitaries and law-enforcement.

The UNDP also asserted that violence against women is “the most invisible face” of instability in Central America. The report found that two-thirds of women killed in the region are targeted due to their gender. The femicides, as they are commonly referred, are often a result of domestic quarrels. Violence and abuse against women are rarely reported, added the report, rendering the rule of law an inadequate response to such phenomena.

These trends are sustained by the continued economic hardship resulting from decades of ethnic strife, civil war, and foreign intervention in Central America. The UNDP’s report acknowledged this sober reality, having concluded that “civic safety has become one of the main worries of the population in Latin America and the Caribbean and constitutes an objective obstacle for sustainable human development.”

However, the report is not merely an account of what continues to transpire throughout the region; it is a guardedly optimistic proclamation that a reversal of this violent malaise can be attained. According to the report overview, “The central message of the report is that the problem of civic insecurity has a solution and that solution is viable.”

Transcending a culture of violence

While the UNDP’s report recognised the turbulent nature of Central America, its purpose was primarily resolution-oriented, as evident in the report subtitle: Opening Spaces for Citizen Security and Human Development. The report contended that previous unilateral government efforts to curb violence, both heavy-handed law enforcement operations and feckless appeasement, have proven ineffective.

A May 2009 report published by the Norwegian Latin American Research Network cited research by Elin Cecilie Ranum, a Program Coordinator with the Norwegian non-governmental organisation The Development Fund, which suggested that oppressive law enforcement initiatives have been a significant factor in instability, having actually exacerbated social violence through the involvement of military forces in internal security issues. Ms Ranum asserted that local street gangs are largely a product of pervasive violence between drug cartels and authorities, rather than a cause.

According to the UNDP report, “The partial strategies that are based exclusively on coercive or preventative notions that do not consider consistency with the justice system and values structure have failed.” The report therefore stressed the necessity of the rule of law and democracy, and argued that only within such a framework could a combination of both coercive and preventative measures sustain civil security. However, the report added, essential to this goal is the absolute need for political will, strong leadership, and government transparency.

Mauricio Funes, the President of El Salvador, who presided over the report, suggested that, “This report compels us to look more closely at how we formulate regional strategies. Success in the fight against crime will not be achieved without the full exercise of democracy.”

To this end the report recommends “smart authority” – that is, intelligent governance and management of violence prevention through cooperation between national and local authorities, as well as the citizenry. Violence and crime are, primarily, local issues, therefore it is important to decentralise the government response, according to the report.

In response to queries by Record, Hernando Gómez Buendía, the Director of the UNDP’s Human Development Report for Central America and the Caribbean, elaborated on the concept of “smart authority.” He explained that internal security issues have historically been under law-enforcement or military mandates in Central America, and more recently government ministries for public security have been established, though with limited discretion. Therefore, he recommended that civil security ministries be authorised to “manage the strategic direction.” He said, “By ‘manage the strategic direction’ we mean defining the policy priorities, coordinating the civil security forces, monitoring and evaluating the impact of policies and accountability.”

Security, liberty, and human development

The report described civil security as a right held by all people, and it directly linked the existence of stability to social cohesion and economic vitality. Mr Buendía, who oversaw the compilation of the report, told Record, “Citizen security is directly related to freedom. Without security there is no liberty. So the insecurity is a blatant denial of human development because it prevents a better and fuller life of the people.”

He explained that the report recommends no single solution, but rather a combination of measures which have the potential to form a coherent strategy to offset insecurity within the region. First, a preventative system must be implemented that is not based on political ideologies, but rather on an understanding of the underlying cause of crime and violence. To this end, intelligence and information analysis are essential to “smart authority” because “the ‘mano dura’ (strong hand) or the ‘mano blanda’ (soft hand) didn’t work. The citizen security system is overloaded in Central America.”

Secondly, according to Mr Buendia, the system must constantly be improved. He explained: “To improve the system it is necessary to understand that citizen security is a state problem and not just a problem of cops and judges; citizen security policies need continuity between government and government; and the municipality, the community, the NGO’s, the enterprises, the international community, and the mass media have some specific roles to play.”

Implementation of the system must rely upon an understanding of what is the most effective security policy, which, according to Mr Buendia, is prevention rather than treatment.

The report emphasised that human development and security are essential to one another. By fostering human development through social programs, equality, education, and transparent governance, insecurity can be quelled. In addition, informed measures aimed at curbing violence, organised crime, and the illicit drug trade directly influence human development initiatives.

Mr Buendia concluded, “To assure an equitable and enduring security is essential to have more social cohesion and an intelligent system of citizen security and justice. The new citizen security policies for Central America should be inspired by human development because without development there is no security and without security there is no environment that enables human development.”