Central America: Criminal Violence and Democratic Governance in the “Northern Triangle”

Central America: Criminal Violence and Democratic Governance in the “Northern Triangle”

On June 5, the people of Guatemala mourned the death of Rodolfo Quezada Toruño. The passage of the former Archbishop and chief negotiator of the peace deal which brought to an end the country’s 36-year-old civil war in 1996 strikes Guatemalans at a time when their young project of democratization appears more fragile than ever. Once again, violence undermines the country’s development potential.

While most of the media coverage on the pervasive drug and gang violence in the region concentrates on Mexico, it is in fact Guatemala and the two countries to its South, Honduras and El Salvador – together constituting Central America’s “Northern Triangle” – that have been hit hardest by the shift in US-bound illicit drug trafficking routes since the 1990s. Testimony to this gives the 55% average increase in the countries’ intentional homicide rate between 2001 and 2010, which already then stood at global record levels. While this development is unfortunate and alarming enough, the three countries also provide exceptional examples for the process by which public insecurity impinges upon the quality and legitimacy of democratic governance.

Few topics lend themselves better to populist promises than crime. This was evident in recent elections across the Northern Triangle. Ballots were won by candidates promoting a “mano dura” (iron fist) approach against crime, while proposals concerning the more complicated underlying causes of the problem such as deficient welfare policies and high income inequality took a backseat in the campaigns. In all of the three countries this leads to a growing militarization of the security forces and an overburdening of the judiciary, which is incapable of processing the cases of an exploding prison population. At the same time, the programmatic void that is left behind by politicians’ focus on “law and order”-approaches is increasingly filled by organized criminal groups such as the drug cartels. According to a recent report by the Organization for American States the latter have begun to run their own candidates in local elections.

An overemphasis of mano dura policies thus contributes to a steady decline in the efficiency and legitimacy of political institutions in the Northern Triangle, a trend that experts say will soon hamper the states’ capabilities to develop and implement much needed social development policies.

To avoid this situation, the governments of the countries would be well advised to overhaul their anti-crime strategies and promote policies that focus on prevention and rehabilitation as well as broader citizen participation. Best-practice examples may be found nearby: Nicaragua’s experience with crime prevention programs like community policing and job training for youth indicates that alternative strategies can be more effective at curbing crime. Likewise, recently launched regional initiatives and co-operations with multilateral organizations focusing on the transnational alignment and bolstering of crime prevention agencies raise awareness for the common cause and alternative strategies and should be furthered. Bilateral donors, including the German GIZ, have an important role to play in this regional promotion of best-practice anti-crime policies.

Rodolfo Quezada Toruño’s legacy of helping to end Guatemala’s civil war may be somewhat overshadowed by the disappointed promise of a more democratic development of the Guatemalan society during the past 16 years. This is all the more reason for his unconventional leadership skills to be a powerful inspiration for politicians seeking to devise innovative and effective anti-crime strategies in the Northern Triangle.

Lukas Keller
Regional Director Central & South America at IFAIR

This article is co-published with our partners of Diplomatisches Magazin.