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Combating Crime Critical to Securing Central America’s Fragile Democracies, Says CFR Report

April 9, 2012
Council on Foreign Relations


With the highest homicide rates in the world, Central America—particularly in the "northern triangle" of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—is increasingly beset by spreading criminal violence, with an estimated seventy thousand active gang members.

"Flanked by the coca-producing countries of the Andes and the world's leading consumer of illegal drugs—the United States—Central America is a strategic choke point for illicit trade," writes Michael Shifter, president of Inter-American Dialogue, in a Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) Special Report, Countering Criminal Violence in Central America.

However, this violence can potentially be reversed, argues Shifter, by strengthening regional cooperation and addressing longstanding domestic issues within the United States that aggravate criminal activity. He calls on the U.S. government to

—develop a policy that balances intervention and encouragement of national and regional leadership of partner governments.

—focus on strengthening institutions—particularly police forces and judicial systems.

—support the creation of bodies to strengthen the rule of law, such as the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, which works with the public prosecutor's office and law enforcement institutions to investigate parallel criminal organizations and bring cases to trial.

—facilitate scaling up of successful local crime prevention initiatives by sharing knowledge and experiences.

—encourage national governments and private-sector leaders to implement tax reforms that would generate greater revenue to fight criminal violence.

Domestically, Shifter writes that the United States should

—devote greater attention to domestic demand reduction and drug rehabilitation programs.

—develop and implement greater controls and better diagnostics for dangerous arms moving south, especially through state and local legislation in border states.

—enhance information sharing on criminal deportees and support Central American reintegration programs for returned migrants.

As such crime continues to metastasize throughout the isthmus, Shifter concludes that "without a long-term U.S. commitment to strengthen institutions and coordinate regional action, the eventuality of conquering increasingly sophisticated and transnational criminal violence and safeguarding Central America's fragile democracies could be well in jeopardy."

This report is published by the Center for Preventive Action. For the complete document, visit

Michael Shifter is president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based policy forum on Western Hemisphere affairs. Since 1993 he has served as an adjunct professor of Latin American politics at Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service. Before joining the Inter-American Dialogue, Shifter directed the Latin American and Caribbean program at the National Endowment for Democracy and the Ford Foundation's governance and human rights program in the Andean region and the Southern Cone, where he was based in Lima, Peru, and then Santiago, Chile. He is coeditor, along with Jorge Dominguez, of Constructing Democratic Governance in Latin America, and a contributing editor to Current History. Shifter graduated from Oberlin College and received an MA in sociology from Harvard University.

Council Special Reports (CSRs) are concise policy briefs that provide timely responses to developing crises or contribute to debates on current policy dilemmas. CSRs are written by individual authors in consultation with an advisory committee. The content of the reports is the sole responsibility of the authors.

CFR's Center for Preventive Action (CPA) seeks to help prevent, defuse, or resolve deadly conflicts around the world and to expand the body of knowledge on conflict prevention.

The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) is an independent, nonpartisan membership organization, think tank, and publisher dedicated to being a resource for its members, government officials, business executives, journalists, educators and students, civic and religious leaders, and other interested citizens in order to help them better understand the world and the foreign policy choices facing the United States and other countries.

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