Drugs and crime in Central America and the Caribbean

19 June 2008 - Caught in the crossfire between the world's biggest suppliers and consumers of cocaine, countries in Central America and the Caribbean are suffering the consequences of the international drug trade. Crime is stifling their economies, and where violent crime and corruption flourish, socio-economic development lags and democracy is undermined.

The Caribbean, or the dark side of paradise

Drug traffickers looking to feed Europe's unprecedented appetite for cocaine have exploited routes through the Caribbean, lured by their long, unpatrolled coastlines and limited law enforcement capacity.

Annual cocaine use has increased markedly in many European countries in recent years. Combined with the euro's advance against the dollar, this provides yet another incentive for traffickers.

The Caribbean region suffers from the world's highest murder rates, and research by UNODC and the World Bank shows that drug trafficking is to blame for rising rates of homicide and gun proliferation.

Moreover, it is clear that crime hurts business. Without action, tourism, a mainstay of the economy and an industry dependent on positive consumer perceptions, may suffer.

Central America : a cocaine pipeline to the north

Central America faces similar problems, as high rates of crime and violence spurred by drug trafficking undermine growth and impede social development.

Some 88 per cent of the cocaine destined for the United States transits through the Central America and Mexico corridor.

Moreover, Central America is awash in firearms, a legacy of decades of bloody conflict. Gang violence is a major problem in several countries, but the gangs alone cannot be blamed for the drug trafficking and violence.

Crime is strongly associated with certain social and economic vulnerabilities, all of which are present in Central America, where countries rank among the world's most unequal in terms of income. Several nations show secondary school enrolment rates below 50 per cent and a large and idle youthful population can become a pool of potential offenders.

Common problems, common solutions

UNODC research suggests that aggressive policing alone is not the answer to youth crime. Rather, the problems should be addressed at their roots, by providing young people with work and alternatives to violence.

Strategies for preventing crime in Central America should involve all sectors of Government and include education, housing and health issues. Development projects should include a crime prevention component but also recognize that criminal justice reform and democratic community policing are also essential.

However, many problems, such as those related to organized crime, drugs and firearms trafficking, defy crime prevention initiatives. With respect to the Caribbean region specifically, the efficiency of the criminal justice system should be improved by enhancing the way information is shared, tracking the performance of justice, monitoring reform and increasing accountability to the public.

Poor countries in Central America tend to have poorly resourced criminal justice systems, which is why they often have low ratios of police officers to citizens. This leads to  low conviction rates and a minimal deterrent effect of laws. Stronger justice systems would help root out corruption and restore public confidence in the rule of law. This, is turn, would create a fertile environment for economic growth and attract foreign investment, thereby promoting development.