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Central America Edges Towards Joint Security Strategy

The Central American Integration System's (SICA) annual summits are often heavy on rhetoric and weak when it comes to actual funding or policy commitments. Still, it could be the region's best bet for creating a cohesive response to organized crime.

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On June 28-29, the leaders of the seven nations of Central America and the Dominican Republic gathered for the 39th Leaders’ Summit of the Central American Integration System (SICA). One of the main proposals discussed during the summit so far includes a revised regional border security plan, which would update the technology at 18 separate border crossings. Honduran President Porfirio Lobo, who is hosting the meeting in the capital city of Tegucigalpa, has said that the meeting will amount to a “technical and methodical analysis of regional anti-drug trafficking measures."

Despite this ambitious statement, however, the SICA summit will most likely not result in any major changes to the region’s response to organized crime and drug trafficking. Central American leaders issued similarly optimistic statements leading up to last year’s meeting, and the summit ended with SICA members approving twenty-two potential projects related to improving citizen security and strengthening law enforcement. However, many analysts -- including InSight Crime -- noted that these were heavy on rhetoric on light on actual commitment.

And weak commitment is only one obstacle to a region-wide push against organized crime. Ever since it was created in 1991 with the signing of the Tegucigalpa Protocol, funding has been a major stumbling block for the organization. The 2011 summit resulted in the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank committing a combined $1.5 billion for security programs, but these mostly came in the form of loans and it is unclear how much of this is just a renewal of past pledges. This was the case for an aid package announced by United States Secretary of State Hilary Clinton at the conference. While the Clinton pledged the US to provide the region with 0 million in aid at the SICA meeting, $200 million of this has already been announced by President Barack Obama in a March visit to El Salvador.

In SICA’s defense, however, its achievements have not been completely rhetorical. Support for a more multilateral response to transnational crime has grown significantly in recent years, and the organization has emerged as an important forum for this movement. As the Brooking Institutions’ Kevin Casas-Zamora wrote at the time of the 2011 summit: “If crafting a regional approach against organized crime is a pressing necessity in Central America, then what emerged from Guatemala, with SICA at its helm, is now the only game in town.”

And there is hope that this momentum may be furthered during this year's summit. The Central American Parliament -- the body tasked with furthering SICA’s aim of integrating the region as one of “peace, freedom, democracy and development” -- has announced that it will propose the expansion of the hitherto toothless Central American Court of Justice to include a panel of judges tasked with ruling on criminal law.

This criminal court would be able to investigate, arrest and prosecute criminals, a move which would effectively remove two key advantages for transnational crime in the region: weak border controls and inconsistent law enforcement across countries. As it stands, an individual accused of a crime in one Central American nation often simply has to cross a border to evade capture. This was illustrated recently in the case of two individuals accused of running a precursor chemical smuggling in El Salvador and Guatemala; while the men are wanted by police in El Salvador, there are no current investigations into their activity in Guatemala.

Because of cases like this, the idea of a regional court has been supported by several analysts, including the director of the celebrated International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Francisco Dall'Anese. In May, Dall'Anese told InSight Crime that he believed such a measure would be a major boost to the rule of law in Central America. “Some cases are beyond the capacity of one country, either for economic or structural reasons, due to a lack of institutional power, and for political reasons,” he explained.

A supra-national judicial body could overcome this problem, but only if the region’s countries tighten up their own justice systems. As the mixed success of the CICIG shows, international help is often helpless without accompanying domestic reforms. If Central America’s leaders want to effectively crack down on organized crime and insecurity, a regional court will only be a first step in a process that will have to include confronting the policy inertia, institutional weakness and funding constraints that have plagued the region for decades.

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