Monday, April 2, 2018

Securing Central America

In May of 2014, I took a course called "International Law and Organizations." The purpose of the seminar is to attain an understanding of the theories, practices, and processes through which global politics are organized and social, political, and economic outcomes are “governed”. We will discover what global governance is and how it works in various issue areas. The class consisted of both mini-lectures and discussions based on assigned reading. Students are expected to read thoroughly each week's reading and be prepared to discuss the material. The final assignment was a policy paper where I had to identify some problems in world politics and design or redesign a piece of global governance to solve or reduce it.



The Central American region is and has been for many years, a hotbed of political instability. This instability is often the result of violence perpetrated by local and transnational gangs as well as drug cartels that use Central America as a shipping route for their illegal drugs destined to North American states. This violence has affected all aspects of society in the states that comprise Central America; it has caused the downturn of the economies, allowed for corruption to envelope many of the states’ governments, been a source of human rights violations, displaced hundreds of thousands of people, and affected the legitimacy of democratic governments in the region. Much of the criminal activity and violence transcends national borders and is an issue that is more than anyone state can handle on its own. These issues are regional and needed to be treated as such, and we see that while individual states have attempted to combat they have wasted resources in a futile effort that could have been used for economic and social improvements (United General Assembly 2012). While no one proposal can be the “magic bullet”, much of the instability is interconnected with the lack of security in the region, and this paper is focusing on the creation of a regional institution that would focus on regional security issues, restoring order to Central America, and maintaining the peace. Security is a major keystone for any state that wishes to prosper. By security, a government solidifies its legitimacy and primary purpose. By it they can further promote democratic values, citizen involvement, and trust in the criminal justice system. By it they foster a peaceful environment and as Helen Clark, Administrator of the United Nations Development Programme, stated, "…without peace there can be no development, and without development, there can be no lasting peace." (United Nations 2013)

Central America is geographically located on an isthmus, or a narrow strip of land with sea/ocean on either side that forms a link between two larger areas of land. Central America is composed of seven states: Belize, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Panama. Prior to the Columbian era, these states were a part of the Mesoamerican societies of the Mayans and the Aztecs. After the Spanish conquest, these states were controlled under Spanish authority, and some under British rule, until the 19th century when rebellions brought down much of the colonial rule in Latin America. Central America would emerge as its own political identity when the Federal Republic of Central America was established in 1823, but only lasted for 15-years when it was brought down by civil wars. Attempts were made to reunite Central America under one authority, but never succeeded. Belize for centuries has been contested territory, fought over by the Spanish, British, and Guatemalan governments, and didn’t gain independence until 1981; the borderland is still disputed among the Belizean, Honduran, and Guatemalan governments. Panama wasn’t considered a part of Central America until after 1903 when it seceded, with some help from the United States, from Columbia (Mabry 2002). As it is seen, these states have much in common and have the misfortune of being placed between a rock and a hard place, between drug supply and drug demand. A regional institution is best suited to solve the issues the region faces as there are “natural, essential core of economic, security, religious, or cultural links between states and people that define a region.” (Karns and Mingst 2010). A regional institution would give these small states a larger voice to express and advance their interests as well as give them strength in numbers in the Western Hemisphere and on the world stage.

Causes of Insecurity


Most of the states within Central America have extremely high murder rates and often rate among the top in the world. States like El Salvador are plagued so much by crime that vigilantism has risen and often there is little retribution against criminals who openly commit their crimes with impunity (Department of State 2013). Honduras holds the distinction of having the highest murder rate in the world which makes living there more dangerous than living in a war zone (US Congress 2011), and often these heinous crimes cross the borders affecting multiple states within the region. Some states such as Belize have tried to use an “iron-fisted” approach, but this has not had a positive impact on the reduction of crime nor kept any faith in the government (Department of State 2013). In fact, corruption, human smuggling and trafficking, the drug trade, money laundering, and organized gang activity remain significant criminal problems in these states. Due to its proximity to South America where many drugs originate, many of Central America’s problems can trace back to drug trafficking and the cartels who run those operations, but also involves gangs and governments that are trying to fully transition to a democratic system and are on the verge of collapse (Kahn 2013). There is a variety of criminal acts committed that are a persistent plague on these states, some of which include: Drug trafficking, money laundering, human smuggling, organized crime/gangs, terrorism, and corruption.

The borders of the Central American states can be best described as “porous” (3) as little prevents the drug cartels from moving their drugs through the Central American corridor on their way to North America (UNODC 2014). Columbia is the primary source for cocaine headed to the United States and hundreds of metric tons of cocaine move through Central America each year, roughly 88% of that destined for the US (UNODC 2007). Typically it is shipped over the sea to Central America where it travels on land to its final destination, but drug traffickers have been known to use maritime routes just off of Central American coasts to move their product (UNODC 2014) (Department of State 2013). The states of Central America have shown various levels of willingness to respond to the crime and protect their borders from these criminals and further prove that multilateral efforts are needed to counter the criminal operations.

According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), “money-laundering is the method by which criminals disguise the illegal origins of their wealth and protect their asset bases, so as to avoid the suspicion of law enforcement agencies and prevent leaving a trail of incriminating evidence” (UNODC 2014). Through money laundering can drug cartels, and other transnational criminal organizations, attempt to cover up the financial trail of their crimes as well as bribe government officials to prevent any repercussions put against the criminal elements. Money laundering can also take a toll on a state’s economy by causing high inflation where criminals do business. The success of money laundering has only helped embolden criminal activity as it is actually paying off. The influx of laundered money can also give states a false demand for cash and in most cases, they react with poor economic decisions that negatively impact the state and its economy. Laundered money is often untaxed and thus the criminal element further robs the state of additional revenue (Layton 2006). If left unchecked criminals will be able to further cover up their crimes, their financiers, and rob states of revenue that could be used for legitimate purposes.

Connected with the issue of drug trafficking is human trafficking, considered to be the modern form of slavery. The United States and Canada are often the destinations while states like those found in Central and South America, along with other 3rd world nations, are often the nation of origin. Many local gangs use girls for prostitution by a variety of recruitment and control methods such as force, fraud, or coercion, but some of the larger gangs use women to traffic their drugs and smuggle persons across borders. This crime has become a new method of funding their operations. Most of the victims are tricked into being smuggled illegally into the country, but many victims may still be citizens of the state in which they reside (Lederer 2010). Victims of human smuggling are often forced into prostitution, domestic servitude, farm or factory labor, or other types of forced labor (Keefer 2006). 50% of transnational victims are children, 1-million of them being sold for sex (Human Trafficking Statistics). States being reactionary are falling behind the evolution of gang crimes as gangs are more and more using “sexual exploitation and human trafficking to fund their operation” (Lederer 2010). These trafficking activities along with many other activities of gangs have been linked with terrorist activities. Terrorist organizations such as Al Qaeda have been known to use smugglers and gangs to move operatives around the world as well as fund their operations (Keefer 2006). Along with the factors that explain the expansion of gang activity, human smuggling, can be a result of government tolerance and/or gender or “racial myths that promote sexual exploitation.”

Gang violence has continued to thrive around the world, whether through governmental negligence, ignorance, or inability to combat it. More often than not, states have treated the symptoms and not the causes; thinking they can use authoritarian methods or arrest their way into a solution. The deteriorating security in Central America has made those states breeding grounds for gangs. These gangs are often transnational and are found to be in control of neighborhoods or entire sections of cities (CFR 2012). Even smaller gangs have far-reaching effects and have been tied to larger transnational criminal organizations like the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) or assist the drug cartels in the trafficking and dealing of drugs emanating from South America (Farah 2007). Gangs use violence, murder, fraud, trafficking (drug and human), extortion, theft and robbery, and other criminal activities to fund their operations. These activities undercut the morale of the community and the authority of the government. Gangs are often characterized by being composed primarily of young men and are often the target for blaming the state’s problems, but are in fact a small cog in a much larger machine. Right with these gangs is also organized crime who is more centralized than gangs. Organized crime is often funded better than gangs, but can be tied to some type of crimes listed above. They are well known to have infiltrated state governments or at least bribed the right officials that they perform their crimes often without any fear of consequences. Organized crime and gangs have a negative effect on government efficiency, fueled corruption, hurt the overall morale of the region, and hindered economic development (UNODC 2014). These criminal elements move beyond borders and are often more able to adapt to new schemes and need to be met with a concerted, multilateral effort.

While not a prevalent issue in Central America, terrorism still contributes to the instability of the region. While no cells are actively known to be in Central America, facilitators and funders of radical Islam are known to operate within Central America (Farah 2007). The possibility of a formal alliance being formed between transnational criminal organizations in Central America and Islamic terrorist organizations is still to be considered a threat to the security of the region (Ramsay 2012). Within most of Central America there is little interaction with domestic terrorists, but along southern Panama and some instances in Costa Rica, there are traces of FARC who use drug trafficking as one of their means of funding their operations and whose views pose a direct threat to the democratic governments within Central America (Leff 2010).

Most Central American states are still transitioning from authoritarian to democratic styles of governments -- still trying to get rid of corruption and grow trust between government and citizenry. Political and judicial corruption is a result of all the well-funded criminal elements operating within the region. Often the police have been infiltrated by criminals and, in the case of Guatemala, criminals wore uniforms and drove vehicles that resemble those of the police, indicating that persons within the police force are involved (Department of State 2013). Often states don’t fund their police, correction, and the judiciary as well as they should which leaves them and susceptible to corruption. As a result of this corruption, the rich citizens end up employing their own private security or support vigilantism as a means to enact what they perceive as justice which only exacerbates the mistrust between the citizens and the government, and deteriorates the state (Meyer and Seelke 2013). These transitioning states have to face the fact that lingering suspicions exist among the people and that they must build that trust between the government and the people (UNODC 2007).

Environmental Factors

Another set of factors that affect security in the region is environmental. Much of Central America is within a seismic and volcanic zone. This region also receives its fair share of hurricanes and the states are often not adequate to respond to the aftermath of natural disasters which again causes instability within the region. The states within Central America have not created adequate critical infrastructure policies or preparedness plans that help the infrastructure, the government, and the people prepare, endure, and bounce back from. Natural disasters can exacerbate pre-existing conditions and further overwhelm the government (Futamura, Hobson, and Turner 2011). States that are more stable and secure are more capable of being prepared for and able to respond to natural disasters.

The Impact

There are several impacts to these issues. The first and most notable instance is that when researching information for this topic, I came upon the crime reports and statistics. Crime data can be problematic even in developed states, but in Central America, it is extremely problematic. The statistics are often just based upon police statistics and those are calculated based on cases that are reported to police by the public. With such a corrupt system and low trust in the government, it is extremely likely that the crime data is much higher than reported, but due to a lack of faith in the judicial system, the citizens of Central America do not report every crime or victimization (UNODC 2007). The second impact is that with an underfunded, ineffective, and often corrupt police force, the citizenry is faced with two choices: take matters into their own hands in the form of either private security or vigilantism, or succumb to the demands of criminals and live within the chaotic environment they control. This distrust also leads criminals to act with impunity and in many examples, criminals will commit crimes in public places at all times of the day (Casas-Zamora 2011). As I mentioned above, states may decide, by their own beliefs or by public outcry, to use authoritarian means to deal with the criminal elements which often doesn’t help fight crime, but does often lead to the destruction of democracy and the reemergence of authoritarian regimes. Money laundering and corruption can erode a state’s economy by reducing the revenue brought in by a state, and misuse or divert the funds of the state to support criminal enterprises which otherwise have been used for social and economic development (UNODC 2014). The violence within these states has been estimated to cause a loss of 8% of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) (Casas-Zamora 2011). The violence that exists within this unstable region also has a severe effect on the workforce of a nation which then affects the economy. Deaths in a family could rob them of their “breadwinner” (UNODC 2007) and often the victims of this violence are young men between the ages of 15 and 29 years of age, who are “at the peak of their productive and reproductive lives” (Casas-Zamora 2011). Another notable impact of this instability is that corporations and other, wealthier states will not want to put any investment into a state where their interests may be jeopardized. Crime raises the cost of doing business and many businesses will find a more suitable environment for their investments when faced with such issues (UNODC 2007).


The states within Central America are overmatched in comparison to the transnational criminal organizations and while there has been an effort to curtail the violence and crime, they have fallen short of their desired results and some of the solutions pose as big a threat as the problems themselves (UNODC 2007). Also due to weak institutions, corrupt officials, and few resources, the Central American states have demonstrated different levels of political will to address the regional issues within their geographic jurisdiction (Meyer and Seelke 2013). To combat these threats to regional stability, I propose the creation of an intergovernmental security alliance among the states of Central America to be known as the Central American Security Alliance. This institution would be established through the passage of a treaty among the Central American states. Without having a treaty among the party states, no institution can enforce the laws and policies of that institution as it runs into the issues of the sovereignty of states as well as resources and ability to enforce such policies.

Central American Security Alliance would create an institution of collective defense whereby the states party to the treaty agrees to mutual defense and establishing order within the region through political, diplomatic, and militaristic means. This institution would aim to promote democratic values, assist and train local law enforcement, build trust between citizens and their respective governments, combat transnational criminal organizations, disrupt the shipping and movement of illegal drugs within the region, and prevent open conflict within the region.

Politically and diplomatically, the Central American Security Alliance strives to peacefully settle disputes among the party states. Militaristically, this institution would establish agencies with specific focuses to combat the crime and violence that has permeated the region along with a central administrative agency. Within this institution would consist of an intelligence agency, criminal finance agency, a security force, an environmental security agency, a domestic affairs agency, a regional court system, a correctional agency, an administrative agency, and a representative parliament. The Alliance would be headed by someone nominated by the heads of the state and approved by the Parliament with the rank of General. Each agency would be led by a Commander appointed by the General and approved by the Parliament. The court would exist strictly to preside over criminal court cases and the adjudication process.

The intelligence agency is responsible for collecting, analyzing, and exploiting information; pattern analysis of criminal activity; management of the criminal entity database; provide warning for new modes of criminal operations; profile and target high-value targets; share necessary intelligence with national and municipal governments; and conduct counterintelligence operations against external intelligence agencies and threats.

The criminal finance agency would be responsible for identifying and combatting the financial network of criminal organizations throughout the region. This agency would also work with the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication that operates a worldwide messaging system used to transmit financial transaction information. This organization is already in place and would serve as a valuable resource in combatting the transnational criminal organizations that exist with Central America as it would “greatly enhances our ability to map out terrorist networks, often filling in missing links in an investigative chain” (Department of the Treasury 2014).

The security force would be responsible for leading the investigations and apprehension of criminals; the main force behind the combatting of transnational gangs. This agency would be divided between marine forces and land forces, with each one possessing aviation assets to assist in detection and apprehension operations. Units of this agency would be located within each state according to the need with emphasis along with states that border North and South America. Underneath this agency would also exist a counter-narcotics sub-agency who would work in tandem with the intelligence agency and be the subject matter experts on the drug trade and their smuggling routes.

The environmental security agency would be responsible for coordinating the response to natural disasters that occur in the region which has overwhelmed the state and municipal governments. This agency would also work with training the state governments in proper response procedures and planning (to include critical infrastructure protection) as well as working with educating the public. While not directly tied with the transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking, environmental security is key as natural disasters often affect more than one state in Central America, destroy the infrastructure needed for the law enforcement to properly respond, and can displace large amounts of the public which can cause instability in the area.

The domestic affairs agency would focus heavily upon combatting corruption within the government which has the potential to undermine any effort proposed in the region. It would also work with standardizing law enforcement procedures by funding and performing training for the state law enforcement agencies. This agency is one of the key factors to the existence and legitimacy of the Central American Security Alliance as it will give the public more ability to throw off corrupt officials who are plaguing and destroying the state government and further exacerbating the instability of the region.

The regional court system would serve as the venue where those arrested, by the security agency, on charges would face trial and, for those convicted, receive their sentences. Judges would preside and oversee the proceedings and ensure that the law is followed. This agency would also be in charge of issuing warrants for search, seizure, and arrest.

The correctional agency would be in charge of those convicted of a crime and sentenced to jail time. This agency would have the difficult job of overseeing the day-to-day custody of inmates, combatting crime within the system, ensuring safety, and maintaining order. This agency would also work to re-educate and rehabilitate prisoners that when they are released they can be reintroduced and resume life as productive members of society. They also oversee the release processes for inmates and sometimes notify victims of changes in the offender's status.

The administrative agency would be the central hub for the institution and provide oversight, direction, and leadership of the other agencies. This agency would provide the parliament with the annual budget to be approved. This agency would ensure that the other agencies were operating under the authority given to them by party states via the treaty and laws and ensure that the decisions made by parliament are being enacted.

To represent the party states and to set goals of the institution, a parliament composed of delegates from the party states would convene each year to discuss the policies and issues that the institution would face and has faced. The head of each state would be an ‘ex oficio’ member, but would appoint 3-members to the parliament to represent the state. This body would approve all nominations.

Funding for this organization would come from the GDP of each party state who would contribute 2% of their GDP as well as grants received from international organizations and policies such as the Central American Regional Security Initiative. The Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) is a policy established by the United States (Seelke et al. 2011). Through CARSI, the Central American Security Alliance would be able to purchase equipment and resources necessary for them to perform their duties within the region. This institution would work with other international organizations and non-governmental organizations to receive training and create norms conducive to the new security regime.

This institution would be more suited to combat the regional issues as the states’ militaries are not built to handle law enforcement activities. Some states have used them to aid police, but in some instances, this has led to a degradation of democracy and the emergence of authoritarianism in the state (Garamone 2011). The police are incapable of performing investigations that cross borders and into territory outside of their jurisdictional authority. The Central American Security Alliance would be interdependent of the party states in regards to funding and decision making, but in performance of their actions would be neutral as they are not just doing the bidding of any one state, and would gain legitimacy by reducing the crime and increasing the security of the region without taking away from the democratic values, which is something that the state could not accomplish on a decentralized basis (Abbot and Snidal 1998). This is a great advantage to the creation of a regional institution as the party states have the ability to gain and achieve their security goals through pooling, joint production, and cooperative relationships. Where assets and resources couldn’t be pooled or gathered unilaterally they could accomplish multilaterally. Particularly with weak states, joint production could benefit as the benefits would outweigh the costs; produce more than they could have alone, and reward all parties. Strong, invested alliances can be produced through cooperative relationships and the agreements that accompany them. This multilateral action also gives the institution credibility as it will be under the scrutiny, direction of, and accountable to more than one state.

Key Policies

The Central American Security Alliance would have many smaller goals, but the primary focus, policies, and goals of disrupting, dismantling, and combatting the transnational criminal organizations can be broken down into these five:
Policy #1: Security forces would target known routes and known personnel of drug cartels. They would attempt to seize and destroy all illegal illicit drugs. While not all crime would stop, there is a correlation between the increase in drug seizure and the decrease in violent crime (Department of State 2013).
Policy #2: The security agency receiving information from the intelligence and criminal finance agencies would target key personnel to disrupt criminal activity within the region. This would be accomplished through the use of a White, Grey, and Black High-Value Target (HVT) List. These operations would remove key influential and experienced criminal personnel.
Policy #3: The domestic affairs agency, receiving information from criminal finance agency, would investigate reports of corruption, and arrest those officials found to be in violation of anti-corruption laws. The removal of corrupt officials would further disrupt transnational criminal activity by removing those officials that enable and allow criminal activities to occur within their authority.
Policy #4: The alliance would focus on identifying and targeting criminal financial networks, seizing funds or property within the legal jurisdiction of Central America, and work with other states or international organizations with financial disruption operations that have presence in Central America, but are outside the physical bounds of the region and authority of the Central American Security Alliance.
Policy #5: With the establishment of a regional prison system, the correctional agency would establish a tier system that would focus on keeping criminals from creating criminal bonds and executing criminal operations within the prison itself, and would seek to maintain safety and security. Tier 1 would be reserved for high ranking officers in the drug cartels as well as those officials convicted for being corrupt. Tier 2 prisoners are those who are affiliated or members of drug cartels or transnational criminal organizations. Also found here would be those convicted of committing heinous crimes such as murder that spans multiple state borders. Tier 3 would be reserved for those convicted of drug trafficking, money-laundering, fraud, theft, and other smaller crimes, but who do not meet the requirements for Tier 1 or Tier 2. Tier 4 would be reserved for those convicted of petty crimes connected with international gangs, and who do not meet the requirements for the other tiers. Tier 5 would be reserved for juveniles who have been convicted of a crime and affiliated with gangs, but have not turned 16-years of age.

Obstacles to the Proposal

There are many obstacles though facing the creation of such an organization. States may worry about violations of their national sovereignty and resist signing on to any treaty that would bind them to other nations that would not necessarily benefit them. States may not see any reason to bear the high costs of providing funds, resources, and manpower to providing services for other states. States may believe that investing in the creation of this institution may be too much for their economy and would cause a decline in their economy. The violence and corruption that is inherent to Central America can be one factor that prevents states from being party to a regional organization as those states would be a destabilizing force. Possibly not a negative attribute, but issues are constantly changing, new vulnerabilities and hazards continually emerge, and the solutions of today’s problems will become tomorrow’s vulnerabilities for which reasons the issues that the regional institution has authority over may become irrelevant and thus the reason for the existence of an institution may cause states to leave and abandon it.


To conclude, the current unilateral security policies performed by the individual states within Central America are inadequate to solve the issues caused by transnational criminal organizations and drug trafficking. This demonstrates that a concerted multilateral effort must be emplaced in the form of a security agency. This security agency would conduct operations to detect, disrupt, deter, and destroy transnational criminal organizations and their operations by targeting and disrupting their financial networks, seizing their illegal products along their supply routes through Central America, apprehending key criminal figures, removing corrupt officials within Central American states, imprisoning those convicted of crimes, and rehabilitating the criminals while in the prison system. This institution would pool together resources, funds, and personnel which would be more cost-effective and transparent than the current system which is in place and which has demonstrated to be inadequate for combatting transnational criminal organizations.


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