In the Crossfire: Police Reform in Central America

In the Crossfire: Police Reform in Central America

Central America has returned as an international battleground, not against communism but against organized crime. With successive crackdowns against drug traffickers in the Caribbean, Colombia and, most recently, in Mexico, the countries of Central America’s northern triangle—Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras—have become a center for illegal narcotics transshipment. Beyond their geographic location and extensive coastlines, the combination of weak institutions, political instability and corrupt police in these countries makes the region an ideal base for traffickers. And with astronomical crime rates—Honduras officially has the world’s highest murder rate, at more than 80 homicides per 100,000 people, with El Salvador close behind with rates greater than 70 per 100,000—the national police are too overwhelmed to take on the cartels.

To address this mounting citizen security crisis, these three countries have adopted a range of responses. Most have been geared toward bolstering police forces and laws. All three countries have adopted “mano dura” (iron fist) approaches, centered on detentions for suspicion of criminal activity, stiff sentences and social control laws that target groups, as well as legal changes such as looser regulations for searches. Such policies are often balanced by other reforms, such as new penal process codes that, as in much of Latin America, fortify due process by replacing written with oral trials and transferring investigative power from the police to prosecutors, among others steps. Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have each also attempted to strengthen accountability by creating or replacing internal affairs and human rights units. They have also instituted better training, more vetting, occasional purges and other measures. In El Salvador, for example, about over 350 officers have been fired for crimes and serious misconduct since mid-2009.

Contrasting with the mano dura approach, the region’s other most common domestic security policy is community-oriented policing (COP). Broadly conceived as a way to incorporate citizens into security policy, COP takes on a range of forms, from neighborhood safety councils to programs for vulnerable populations like youth and women. Resistance by police to COP has been overcome by recognition of the importance of citizen trust and cooperation for preventing and solving crimes. At the same time, community policing has been supported by a concurrent decentralization to shift more autonomy and responsibility from the federal to the local level. In Guatemala, municipalities near the capital city are implementing innovative COP programs, including U.S.-financed “model precincts” that vet officers and train them in COP. In 2002, the country enacted three laws—the Development Councils Law, the Municipal Code and the Decentralization Law—which together have made municipalities the primary nexus of state services. In Honduras, many international agencies have long supported local anti-violence programs, and the government plans to increase the percentage of state spending by municipalities from the current 3 percent to 40 percent by 2038.

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