Central America: Troubled, but not Failed States

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As drug trafficking networks deepen their activities in Central America some analysts have expressed concern at the prospect of countries in the region becoming “failed states,” but the term does not really apply.

On October 6, the United Nations (UN) released the 2011 Global Study on Homicide, a comparative analysis of 2010 murder rates. Honduras and El Salvador are listed as having the highest homicide rates in the world. According to the study, the influence of organized crime has led to an explosion of violence in the region, causing Honduras to register a homicide rate of 82.1 murders per 100,000 people, compared with 66 per 100,000 in El Salvador. By contrast, the next most violent countries are Cote d’Ivoire in West Africa at 56.9, followed by Jamaica at 52.1.

A Costa Rican NGO known as the State of the Nation Program (Programa Estado de la Nacion – PEN) has drawn some alarming conclusions about security in the region. Owing to the rise of organized crime, deepening economic insecurity and political crises, the PEN argues, the countries of Central America are at risk of becoming failed states. The report’s authors rank Honduras as the most at-risk, followed by Nicaragua, Guatemala, El Salvador, Panama and finally Costa Rica.

While reports of Central American countries at risk of becoming “failed states” have become fairly common, the facts on the ground generally fail to match up to the rhetoric. Part of this discrepancy stems from the problem with the term itself. Definitions of what constitutes state failure vary widely, and the phrase has been stretched in order to fit differing views on the proper function of the state. The most basic definition, however, is based on the state’s loss of its essential quality: the monopoly on the legitimate use of force. If a government’s ability to enforce the rule of law is lost, then it can be said to be a failed state.

The PEN report, however, relies on a far wider conception of the role of the state, listing not only a deteriorated rule of law as a contributing factor to state failure, but also other broader issues such as social exclusion and climate change. At the report’s presentation in Guatemala, PEN project coordinator Evelyn Villareal told reporters that these issues have created “the most difficult and complex situation of the past 20 years” in the region.

Ultimately, however, the political situation in Central America does not match up the chaotic image conjured up by the term “failed state.” It is true that there are pockets of territory in these countries over which the government has little or no control, but generally these are isolated areas, and do not amount to a direct challenge to state authority. Such is the case in Guatemala’s remote Peten region, where the Zetas have established transport routes for drug shipments along the country’s northern border with Mexico.

But organized criminal groups, the most frequently-cited threat to state power in the region, do not actually seek to destroy the state. Instead they hope to co-opt it, bribing officials in order to safeguard the source of their illicit profits. Indeed, a total state collapse would be an impediment to the drug trade, as it would mean even more insecurity, making drug trafficking organizations more vulnerable to competition.

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