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Monday, August 6, 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 criminal groups, threaten to overwhelm Central American governments. Counternarcotics efforts in Colombia and Mexico have put pressure on DTOs in those countries, leading many to increase 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 democracy and the rule of law. DTOs are also increasingly becoming poly-criminal organizations, raising millions of dollars through smuggling, extorting, and sometimes kidnapping 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 

Central American governments have attempted to improve security conditions in a variety of ways, and are increasingly experimenting with new policies. Several countries, including Honduras, have taken more of a hard-line approach to organized crime, deploying military forces to carry out policing functions. The Guatemalan government has also embraced a larger role for the military in public security, although it has simultaneously called on countries in the region to consider drug decriminalization and other alternatives. Other Central American governments have emphasized prevention activities, such as programs that focus on strengthening families of at-risk youth, while the governments of Belize and El Salvador have supported efforts to broker truces between criminal gangs. Additionally, Central American nations have sought to improve regional security cooperation, recognizing the transnational nature of the threats they face.

U.S. Assistance 

To address growing security concerns, the Obama Administration has sought to develop collaborative partnerships throughout the hemisphere. In Central America, this has taken the form of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which was 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. 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 and the underlying conditions that contribute to them. Since FY2008, Congress has appropriated nearly $500 million for Central America through Mérida/CARSI. The Obama Administration has requested an additional $107.5 million for CARSI in FY2013. 

Scope of This Report 

This report examines the extent of security problems in Central America, 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: July 26, 2012
Number of Pages: 42
Order Number: R41731
Price: $29.95

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