US Push to De-Militarize CentAm Policing Poses a Dilemma

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The United States has reiterated its disapproval of militarizing citizen security in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries, a somewhat problematic stance given critical violence levels and weak police institutions in the region. 

On May 3, US Vice President Joe Biden met with presidents Salvador Sánchez Cerén of El Salvador, Jimmy Morales of Guatemala, and Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras — the three countries constituting Central America’s “Northern Triangle” — to discuss security and economic initiatives in the region.

According to a White House press release, discussion focused on the countries’ progress toward meeting benchmarks set forth in the $750 million US aid package approved in December 2015 for the region — The Plan for the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle. 

While acknowledging certain advances had been made in the three countries, Biden emphasized the need to boost the economy, professionalize the police, and reduce the role of the military in internal policing, among other things.

InSight Crime Analysis

The Northern Triangle countries, with some of the highest murder rates in the world for nations not at war, rely heavily on the armed forces for internal security. This militarization of internal security, however, presents a dilemma for both US foreign policy and the three Northern Triangle countries’ domestic policies.

Up to 75 percent of funds included in the Alliance for Prosperity are preconditioned on the Northern Triangle governments “taking effective steps” to address certain issues, including the militarization of policing. That is, funds may be withheld if the three countries do not work to “create a professional, accountable civilian police force and curtail the role of the military in internal policing.”

Nonetheless, military involvement in providing public security in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras is arguably inevitable as police capacity is deficient and has proven inadequate in tackling rampant criminal activity.

For instance, Honduras’ police force is notoriously corrupt and resistant to reform. The National Police were recently excluded from participating in a security initiative targeting the MS13 gang named “Operation Avalanche” due to lack of trust and experience. Moreover, a commission appointed to purge the police has been receiving death threats from an anonymous group. 

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

Yet, as witnessed in Mexico, using the military to provide citizen security heightens the risk of excessive force and human rights abuses against the population. Nor is there reason to believe that, given enough exposure, soldiers are less prone to corruption and involvement in criminal activity than police.

Indeed, US Congresswoman Norma J. Torres (D-CA) told InSight Crime that militarization of law enforcement in Central America “is only a band aid that avoids wider issues and in some cases makes the problem worse.” In order to achieve lasting security, Torres said, “We have to look beyond a singular focus on law enforcement” and address the root causes of crime by strengthening institutions, the rule of law, and expanding economic opportunity. 

Unfortunately, the reality in Central America appears to dictate the further involvement of the military in internal security for the foreseeable future. While the United States is right to be concerned over this, US officials will likely have to generously interpret whether or not the Northern Triangle countries are effectively moving to curtail the military’s role in policing. The alternative is withholding much needed aid for the region.   

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