Crime pushes Central America to the limit

Drug traffickers and violent gangs prey on some of the region's weakest nations

Central America and the Caribbean have a combined homicide rate of 33.3 murders per 100,000 residents. In Europe, the murder rate is 3.5 per 100,000. In Central America, one out of 50 males over the age of 20 will not live to see his 31st birthday, according to statistics released on October 6 in the Global Study on Homicide prepared by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime.

According to the report, Central America and the Caribbean are at a "near-crisis point." Drug-trafficking cartels from Colombia and Mexico have now taken a strong foothold in the region. The Mara Salvatrucha gang, better know as the maras, a notorious juvenile street gang, is also gaining power in several nations. EL PAÍS focuses on the problems some of these countries are facing.

EL SALVADOR Homicide rate matches civil war casualties

In El Salvador, 12 people, mostly young, are killed every day in a whirlwind of social and criminal violence that seems to be unstoppable. The soaring murder rate almost compares to the daily number of casualties during the 1980-92 civil war. According to official figures, there have been around 74,000 murders over the past 19 years. During the 12-year civil war, about 75,000 people were killed.

El Salvador has a murder rate of about 69 homicides per 100,000 - seven times more than the level established by the World Health Organization as an epidemic.

The maras gang has gained so much power that they battle hand-to-hand with the army and police units to retain control of regions under their grip. They have also begun establishing strong links with drug traffickers.

El Salvador spends about 10.8 percent of its GDP on public safety: around $2.1 billion, annually, according to a report prepared by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID).


GUATEMALA Death on the doorstep

With an average of 16 to 17 killings a day, crime is the number-one concern among Guatemalans. A weak government and its institutions make the country a prime breeding ground for the maras and Mexican and Colombian drug cartels.

"The government lacks adequate policies and institutions," says Lorena Escobar, a security analyst at the Association for Research and Social Studies (ASIES), an independent think tank. This had made Guatemala a prime "service station" for the drug cartels, she says. The lack of controls provides these gangs with a perfect infrastructure for arms and drug trafficking. Its geographical location, midway between the producing countries of the Southern Cone and the vast US market, makes it an obligatory transfer point for cocaine cargoes, while also offering ideal opportunities for money laundering.

A little-known aspect, but no less dramatic, is the social cost of violence. Emergency rooms at public hospitals are overwhelmed by people being treated for gunshot wounds. There are reports of many who die at home because of a lack of medical attention.


NICARAGUA The official story masks reality

The recent killing of a young engineering student when he left university and the mysterious murder of a priest in a small town south of Managua have shocked a country, Nicaragua, whose growing population puts the government's motto in question: is this is "the safest country in Central America?"

Official statistics from the National Police show an alarming increase in violence. Crimes against persons (aggravated robberies, rapes and homicides) accounted for 68,447 cases in 2010, while in the year 2000, there were 26,645 such cases. Although the numbers of murders and homicides are low compared to the country's Central American neighbors, the murder rate continues to grow.

Two recent high-profile cases that remain unsolved continue to haunt the government. One of them is that of Omar Ponce Evans, a 20-year-old engineering student who was murdered a few blocks from several major shopping malls and just a few meters from police headquarters. In Managua, six young people, mostly children, approached Ponce and his friends and demanded that they surrender their cellphones. The boy resisted, and one of the attackers stabbed Ponce multiple times. He died minutes later at a hospital in Managua.

The second is the murder of a priest, Marlon Pupiro, whose body was found on August 20 in the small fruit-growing community of La Concepción, south of Managua. The municipality has still not overcome the death of Pupiro: the bizarre story has occupied the crime pages of the press in Nicaragua for weeks and has put the Catholic Church at odds with the government and the National Police. Hundreds of residents of La Concepción have marched on the streets of the small town demanding that the case be solved.

Aggravated robberies have increased, leading people to arm themselves for greater security, says Roberto Orozco, an expert on security issues at the Institute of Strategic Studies and Public Policy (IEEPP). In Nicaragua there are an estimated 385,000 firearms in civilian hands.


COSTA RICA An oasis in the middle of a battlefield

The fear of crime is rife in a country that has less personal security problems than in the rest of Central America. Costa Rica is the only nation in the region where "poor" doesn't apply to labels that typically describe the rest of the nations. Its homicide rate is 11 murders per 100,000 inhabitants - one-eighth of that of Honduras and a sixth of the Salvadoran rate. But Costa Ricans' fear is not unfounded; only 10 years ago, the number of murders was a third of what it is now.

Neighborhoods have been closed off and shops are filled with surveillance cameras, sensors, safes and armed guards.

Because Costa Rica uses dollars as its currency, the country has become more than a transshipment point for drugs. "There is a market here with a capacity to pay," says Mario Zamora, security minister. "We have now become a final drug destination." The drug sales and Costa Rica's dollar-driven economy has also fueled money laundering, public corruption, and gang fights, which have become increasingly more bloody.


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