Right now the U.S. could use a fire hose, not a garden hose, in the region. But the Obama Administration’s response to the crisis in Central America is ill-timed cuts key military and law enforcement capabilities. On the chopping block is a 10 percent reduction for anti-drug and security programs and an almost 4 percent reduction for the U.S. Southern Command.
The prison fire in Honduras was symptomatic of a nation in crisis. Reports quickly noted that perhaps half of those who died in the medium-security facility were waiting trial in the clogged and ineffective judicial system. In Honduras, impunity runs high while justice is served at a glacial pace. The police of the country are increasingly penetrated by organized crime, and the Central American nation of 8 million leads the world in homicides per inhabitant.
Plagued by gangs and drug trafficking, Honduran police respond with arrest and incarceration. Only a small fraction of arrests lead to convictions. And even those tried, convicted, and sentenced go to prisons that don’t function. In many cases, criminals run operations out of the prisons. Rehabilitation programs are largely unsuccessful or non-existent. Prisons end up serving as training and recruiting grounds for gangs and criminal organizations, exacerbating rather than solving problems.
In neighboring Guatemala, gangs and vicious Mexican criminal organizations such as the deadly Zetas flourish in what many fear is becoming a failing state of nearly 15 million. Newly installed President Otto Perez Molina suggested that the only way to escape the downward spiral might be some form of drug legalization. One analyst interprets this as an attention-getting ploy by Perez Molina aimed at reopening the question of U.S. military assistance to Guatemala, which has been embargoed for decades. Others say it highlights growing frustration with the Obama Administration’s inability to curb America’s drug consumption habits.
In less than two months, President Obama will attend the VI Summit of the Americas with the customary panoply of security and protocol at enormous cost to U.S. taxpayers. The President’s message will be upbeat with regard to a region to which the Administration has devoted little attention or effort. In the glitzy, convention-style of the Summit, the high beams will focus on conflictive up-stagers such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Argentina’s Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. They will divert attention from the grim everyday reality of death, violence, and insecurity that is Central America, Mexico, and elsewhere.
The security crisis in Central America is complicated, messy, and difficult to fix, but it is also dangerously close to home. It should be a priority for the Obama Administration and for all of the states of the Americas.