WASHINGTON, 23 May 2007 (UNODC) - Violent crime, much of it drug-related, is plaguing Central America and represents a serious obstacle to economic development, says a report released today by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
"The warning signs are evident in this report - gun-related crime, gang violence, kidnapping, the proliferation of private security companies," said UNODC Executive Director Antonio Maria Costa. "But these problems are in no way inherent to the region. They can be overcome."
The report, Crime and Development in Central America: Caught in the Crossfire, highlights the need for greater international support for the region if development efforts are to have any long-term impact. No issue today affects the stability and development of Central America more than crime, it says. The region's many vulnerabilities create conditions conducive to crime, which in turn undercuts growth and hampers social development.
The countries of Central America are diverse, but they have one thing in common - all are affected to some degree by drugs, crime and under-development.
Many countries of the region are vulnerable because of socio-economic factors resulting from income inequality, urbanization, mass poverty, a high proportion of youth, easy access to a large supply of guns and an unstable post-conflict environment.
They are also at risk because of their geographic position, trapped between the world's biggest supplier of coca - Colombia - and the world's biggest consumers of cocaine, the United States.
The Central America study follows a report earlier this month by UNODC and the World Bank on crime and violence in the Caribbean, which contained similar findings - high rates of crime and violence in the Caribbean were undermining growth and impeding social development.
Trafficking routes have carved paths of destruction through Central America. Some 88% of the cocaine destined for the United States transits through the Central America/Mexico corridor. South America produces an estimated 900 tons of cocaine annually - worth some US$60 billion in 2003 - the massive profits from which dwarf the legitimate economies of some transit nations.
Crime and corruption flourish while development lags. "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. As a result, the social contract is in tatters and people take the law into their own hands," said Mr Costa.
High crime wrecks economies. One study in El Salvador put the total national cost of violence at 11.5% of GDP. Tourism, a key source of revenue for several countries in the region, is particularly vulnerable.
Crime is strongly associated with certain social and economic vulnerabilities, all of which are present in Central America. Its countries rank among the world's most unequal in terms of income inequality. Several nations show secondary school enrolment rates below 50% and a large and idle youthful population can become a pool of potential offenders.
Central America is awash with firearms, a legacy of decades of bloody conflict. The region reports some of the highest recorded homicide rates in the world. Gang violence is a major problem in countries such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, but gangs are responsible for a much smaller share of the total crime problem than is generally thought.
"Heavy handed crackdowns on gangs alone will not resolve the underlying problems. Indeed, it may exacerbate them. 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," said Mr Costa.
In order to reverse the trends highlighted in this report, the UNODC Executive Director said it was time to build a programme of action to reduce the impact of drugs and crime on development in Central America. "I urge all States of the region, as well as all those with a stake in its stability and prosperity, to agree on a strategic and operational framework to break the links between drugs, crime, and underdevelopment in this region."
"Many of the region's problems can only be solved from outside, particularly in reducing the supply and demand for drugs. Others require strong domestic political leadership. Cooperation is vital. The problems are too big, too inter-linked and too dangerous to be left to individual States," he added.
Poor countries have poorly resourced criminal justice systems - countries including Honduras, Guatemala and Nicaragua show poor ratios of police to citizens and consequently low conviction rates. This means the deterrent effect of law is minimal. To break the vicious circle, countries need development, justice, good governance and security, Mr Costa said.
"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."
Crime perpetuates underdevelopment by driving away business, eroding human capital and undermining democracy. Years of rampant crime have robbed Central America of private investment.
Development projects in the region should always include a crime prevention component, the report said. Criminal justice reform and democratic community policing are essential.
International technical assistance can help. It is essential to address the roots of the problem through long-term socio-economic development and the rule of law rather than just confronting the symptoms through short-term law enforcement.
" 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. Let us unlock the potential of this region," Mr Costa said.
Full text of report here
Webcast press conference of UNODC Executive Director and report's main author Ted Leggett here