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Development in Central America stymied by crime and drugs, UN warns

Development in Central America stymied by crime and drugs, UN warns

Antonio M. Costa
Central America is beleaguered by violent crime, much of it fuelled by drugs, which is thwarting economic development, according to a new report by the United Nations anti-narcotics agency released today.

“The warning signs are evident in this report – gun-related crime, gang violence, kidnapping, the proliferation of private security companies,” said Antonio Maria Costa, Executive Director of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). “But these problems are in no way inherent to the region. They can be overcome.”

Crime is the single largest issue impeding Central America’s stability, the study, entitled “Crime and Development in Central America: Caught in the Crossfire,” noted. It called attention to the need for increased international assistance for the region to allow development efforts to take root as the area’s numerous vulnerabilities allow crime to thrive, which in turn limits growth and obstructs social development.

Despite the diversity of the Central American countries, they are united by the fact that they are all affected, to varying degrees, by drugs, crime and underdevelopment.

Many face problems resulting from income disparity, urbanization, high levels of poverty and easy access to guns. Key sources of revenue such as tourism are especially susceptible to high crime rates.

These countries are also made vulnerable by their geographic position, as they are sandwiched between Colombia, the world’s largest supplier of coca, and the United States, the world’s largest consumers of cocaine. Almost 90 per cent of cocaine en route to the US is transported through Central America.

“Where crime and corruption reign and drug money perverts the economy, the State no longer has a monopoly on the use of force and citizens no longer trust their leaders and public institutions,” Mr. Costa said, underscoring that development is stunted where crime and corruption thrive. “As a result, the social contract is in tatters and people take the law into their own hands.”

As a result of decades of conflict, the region is mired with the problem of firearms and has some of the highest homicide rates worldwide.

Although gang violence is a significant issue, particularly in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, it does not play as large a role in the total crime problem as commonly believed.

“Heavy-handed crackdowns on gangs alone will not resolve the underlying problem. Indeed, it may exacerbate them,” Mr. Costa noted. “Gang culture is a symptom of a deeper social malaise that cannot be solved by putting all disaffected street kids behind bars. The future of Central America depends on seeing youth as an asset rather than a liability.”

He urged all of the region’s countries, as well as others, to take action to shatter the links among drugs, crime and underdevelopment, emphasizing the importance of collaboration.

“Cooperation is vital,” Mr. Costa said. “The problems are too big, too inter-linked and too dangerous to be left to individual States.”

Also key is bolstering the criminal justice systems of poor countries, he pointed out. Limited resources lead to low ratios of police to civilians and low conviction rates, resulting in law enforcement having a limited deterrent effect.

“As a priority, States should strengthen their justice systems in order to root out corruption and restore public confidence in the rule of law. This would create a fertile environment for economic growth and attract foreign investment, thereby promoting development,” Mr. Costa stated.

International assistance is critical, he said, to address the problem through long-term solutions rather than short-term ones.

“We have a shared responsibility and common interest in helping the countries of Central America to withstand external pressures and to strengthen their internal resistance to the damaging effects of drugs and crime,” Mr. Costa said. “Let us unlock the potential of this region.”