By Hannah Stone
Despite hopes that President Obama’s visit to El Salvador could mark a new U.S. commitment to Central America, which is increasingly buffeted by drug violence and is turning into a stronghold for organized crime, the president used his trip to reiterate old promises to the region.
After meeting with President Funes, Obama told the press that he was announcing a “new” Central American Citizen Security Partnership to combat drug traffickers and gangs in the region. He said that the U.S. would give $200 million in funds for the initiative, which would focus on strengthening justice, policing, and the rule of law.
While this rhetoric may signal a renewed interest in Central America, and at the very least acknowledges the scale of the crisis in the region, it does not mean much in terms of new funding commitments. A White House statement says that the citizen security partnership will only build on existing efforts, and will review the spending of $200 million which has already been committed through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).
This refers to funds promised by the U.S. earlier this year, in what has been called a “Plan Central America.” State Department official William Brownfield announced on a visit to Latin America in February that the U.S. would give $200 million dollars to an “umbrella” program to structure security strategy in Central America, with participation from Colombia and Mexico, as part of CARSI.
While this figure represents an increase in funding for Central America, up from only $60 million in FY 2008, it pales beside the $1.5 billion promised to Mexico under the Merida Initiative, or the $6 billion spent on Colombia over the last decade. The U.S. government has planned $310 million in assistance for Mexico in FY 2011, compared to $100 million for Central America. This is despite the fact that Central America is currently being hit by a wave of crime that surpasses even headline-making Mexico. The average murder rate across El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala now stands at more than four times that of their northern neighbor (see graph).
Obama's trip did, however, signal increased U.S. attention to the Northern Triangle. The choice of tiny El Salvador as a destination on his whirlwind tour of Latin America, alongside economic giants Brazil and Chile, is a sign that his administration recognizes the severity of the problems in Central America.
The visit could also signal a shift in emphasis, with the U.S. aiding anti-crime efforts that focus on prevention as opposed to solely law enforcement measures. The two presidents both reported that they had discussed the adoption of more integrated measures to combat gangs, such as education and social programs. Funes told press that he had emphasized in his meeting with Obama that prevention should be the focus of anti-gang efforts, and that investment in social policies was “the best weapon” to reduce crime in the region. This could signal a U.S.-backed move for El Salvador away from the hardline ‘Mano Dura’ policies, involving mass arrests of young people suspected of belonging to gangs, which are widely considered to have backfired and increased rates of violence.
Obama backed Funes and this emphasis on integrated anti-crime policies, saying that the $200 million would be focused on addressing “the social and economic forces that drive young people towards criminality.”
Both presidents in their comments to press emphasized the importance of trans-national efforts to combat crime in Central America. This approach is spurred by the fact that criminal groups in the region are taking on an increasingly international aspect, developing links with Mexican cartels, as InSight has documented.
Funes said that the reach of criminal groups, and their capacity to penetrate institutions of the state, was such that they have to be combated through coordinated international action, using the "successful experience" of Mexico and Colombia.