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Friday, January 27, 2012

Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress

Peter J. Meyer
Analyst in Latin American Affairs

Clare Ribando Seelke
Specialist in Latin American Affairs

Central America faces significant security challenges. Criminal threats, fragile political and judicial systems, and social hardships such as poverty and unemployment contribute to widespread insecurity in the region. Consequently, improving security conditions in these countries is a difficult, multifaceted endeavor. Because U.S. drug demand contributes to regional security challenges and the consequences of citizen insecurity in Central America are potentially far-reaching, the United States is collaborating with countries in the region to implement and refine security efforts. 

Criminal Threats 

Well-financed drug trafficking organizations (DTOs), along with transnational gangs and other organized criminal groups, threaten to overwhelm Central American governments. Counternarcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico have put pressure on DTOs in those countries. As a result, many DTOs have increased their operations in Central America, a region with fewer resources and weaker institutions with which to combat drug trafficking and related criminality. Increasing flows of narcotics through Central America are contributing to rising levels of violence and the corruption of government officials, both of which are weakening citizens’ support for democratic governance and the rule of law. DTOs are also increasingly becoming poly-criminal organizations, raising millions of dollars through smuggling, extorting, and sometimes kidnapping Central American migrants. Given the transnational character of criminal organizations and their abilities to exploit ungoverned spaces, some analysts assert that insecurity in Central America poses a potential threat to the United States. 

Social and Political Factors 

Throughout Central America, underlying social conditions and structural weaknesses in governance inhibit efforts to improve security. Persistent poverty, inequality, and unemployment leave large portions of the population susceptible to crime. Given the limited opportunities other than emigration available to the expanding youth populations in Central America, young people are particularly vulnerable. At the same time, underfunded security forces and the failure to fully implement post-conflict institutional reforms initiated in several countries in the 1990s have left police, prisons, and judicial systems weak and susceptible to corruption. 

Approaches to Central American Security 

Despite these challenges, Central American governments have attempted to improve security conditions in a variety of ways. Governments in the “northern triangle” countries of Central America have tended to adopt more aggressive approaches, including deploying military forces to help police with public security functions and enacting tough anti-gang laws. Governments in other countries have emphasized prevention activities, such as intervention programs that focus on strengthening families of at-risk youth. Central American nations have also sought to improve regional cooperation, given the increasingly transnational nature of the threats they face.

U.S. Assistance To address growing security concerns, the Obama Administration has sought to develop collaborative partnerships with countries throughout the Western Hemisphere. In Central America, this has taken the form of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). Originally created in FY2008 as part of the Mexico-focused counterdrug and anticrime assistance package known as the Mérida Initiative, CARSI takes a broad approach to the issue of security, funding various activities designed to support U.S. and Central American security objectives. In addition to providing the seven nations of Central America with equipment, training, and technical assistance to support immediate law enforcement and interdiction operations, CARSI seeks to strengthen the capacities of governmental institutions to address security challenges as well as the underlying economic and social conditions that contribute to them. Between FY2008 and FY2011, the United States provided Central America with $361.5 million through Mérida/CARSI. Central America will likely receive an additional $100 million through CARSI in FY2012 as Congress noted its support for the Obama Administration’s budget request for the initiative in the report (H.Rept. 112-331) accompanying the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2012 (P.L. 112-74). 

Scope of This Report 

This report examines the extent of the security problems in Central America, the current efforts being undertaken by Central American governments to address them, and U.S. support for Central American efforts through the Central America Regional Security Initiative. It also raises potential policy issues for congressional consideration such as funding levels, human rights concerns, and how CARSI relates to other U.S. government policies.

Date of Report: January 13, 2012
Number of Pages:
Order Number: R417
Price: $29.95

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