Columbia International Affairs Online: Working Papers

CIAO DATE: 05/2012

Countering Criminal Violence in Central America

Michael Shifter

April 2012

Council on Foreign Relations


Violent crime in Central America—particularly in the "northern triangle" of Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala—is reaching breathtaking levels. Murder rates in the region are among the highest in the world. To a certain extent, Central America's predicament is one of geography—it is sandwiched between some of the world's largest drug producers in South America and the world's largest consumer of illegal drugs, the United States. The region is awash in weapons and gunmen, and high rates of poverty ensure substantial numbers of willing recruits for organized crime syndicates. Weak, underfunded, and sometimes corrupt governments struggle to keep up with the challenge. Though the United States has offered substantial aid to Central American efforts to address criminal violence, it also contributes to the problem through its high levels of drug consumption, relatively relaxed gun control laws, and deportation policies that have sent home more than a million illegal migrants with violent records. In this Council Special Report, sponsored by the Center for Preventive Action, Michael Shifter assesses the causes and consequences of the violence faced by several Central American countries and examines the national, regional, and international efforts intended to curb its worst effects. Guatemala, for example, is still healing from a thirty-six-year civil war; guns and armed groups remain common. El Salvador's ironfisted response to widespread gang violence has transformed its prisons into overcrowded gang-recruiting centers while doing little to reduce crime. Even relatively wealthy countries like Costa Rica and Panama are threatened by poor police capacity and significant problems with smuggling and money laundering. Virtually all countries are further plagued by at least some level of public corruption.