Don't Turn Away From the World's Most Violent Region

29 Aug 2011

Violence in Central America Heads of state take part of conference to boost security in Central America (Photo: Héctor Morales / UNDP)

Even though the era of civil conflict in Central America is over, the region has the highest murder rate in the world: 44 per 100,000 people, 11 times the worldwide average of four per 100,000. This means more than 18,000 homicides in 2010 and 79,000 in the past six years.

The late 1990s saw new democratic consolidation and economic growth in Central America, with admittedly mixed results. But the absence of outright war failed to bring peace, and sustained global efforts are now essential if we are to prevent the region’s already grave security crisis from worsening.

Citizens feel unsafe on the streets, and even in their own homes. For their part, governments have to tackle the threat of drug-trafficking, kidnapping, organised crime, gangs, arms-dealing, and human-trafficking.

Direct costs include loss of life, disability, and the illicit trade that results from crimes against property. Huge social inequality and under-employment among younger citizens form the backdrop for this insecurity, which goes beyond the domain of the war against drugs.

Insecurity exacts a grimly quantifiable toll on both GDP and human development, thwarting the capacity both of individuals and of whole societies to fulfil their potential in this ever more global economy.

The most vulnerable people in any country, of course, bear a disproportionate share of this cost, which also directly impacts national budgets. In 2006, violence cost the region roughly 7.7 percent of total economic output, or about US $6.5 billion, according to the World Bank.

And the costs are rising. In 2010, Central American governments spent some $4 billion in security and justice, a 60 percent increase over four years, according to the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), where I serve as Director for Latin America & the Caribbean. For countries with a small income-generation capacity, this represents a considerable proportion of their resources—greater, in fact, than what they receive in international aid.

Spending on security won’t help if it comes at the expense of education or social welfare—quite the opposite, and violence will simply worse. Reducing crime and promoting security requires strengthening the technical and institutional capacities of governments towards “smart” strategies of citizen security. These include preventive and coercive actions, enhancing police services, combating corruption, reforming the justice and correctional systems, and promoting a more inclusive economy and society, especially for young people.

Measures recently adopted by some Central American countries to raise taxes and generate resources, both for social investment and for security, constitute steps in the right direction.

UNDP has been working closely with several Central American countries to advance national policies on security matters with commitments that go beyond a single presidential mandate and involve the participation of all sectors of society as well as neighbouring countries and allies.

The International Conference in Support for the Central America Security Strategy, held in Guatemala late last month, also marked a step forward. Nine heads of state from the region came to the conference with one shared message: While security is, above all, a regional responsibility, international cooperation and support are essential. Also at the conference, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton committed almost $300 million in funding for “Central American-led efforts to address deteriorating citizen security.”

Reducing insecurity in Central America is possible, but it will require political commitment and resources from inside and outside the region. In our increasingly interconnected world, the worsening violence in Central America should alarm us all.

Heraldo Muñoz, a former president of the UN Security Council, serves as UN Assistant Secretary-General and UN Development Programme Director for Latin America and the Caribbean.

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