The Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) is a multi-million dollar effort by the United States Department of State to combat the effects of organized crime and strengthen the rule of law in Central America. Between fiscal years 2008 and 2011, the United States provided Central America with $361.5 million through the Merida Initiative and CARSI. Congress has approved an additional $105 million for CARSI in fiscal year 2012.
With the crackdown on criminal groups in Mexico and Colombia, drug traffickers have stepped up their criminal operations in Central America. As a result, every country in the region except for Nicaragua has witnessed an significant increase in the homicide rate since 2005. The spread of organized crime has been especially notable in the so-called “Northern Triangle,” which consists of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. According to United Nations statistics, in 2010 these three nations all registered murder rates at or above 50 per 100,000 inhabitants. By comparison, that year Mexico saw a murder rate of 18 per 100,000 people, and Colombia had 32 murders per 100,000.
Perhaps not surprisingly, this rise in homicide has taken a toll on public perceptions of security in Central America. In a 2010 poll conducted by public opinion firm Latinobarometro, citizens in six of the seven Central American nations most commonly chose “crime/public security” as the most pressing issue facing their country. This phenomenon is not due solely to large-scale organized crime. The countries of Central America are also home to extremely powerful street gangs such as Barrio 18 and MS-13, which have expanded their influence throughout the region and are even known to operate in major US cities like Los Angeles and Washington, DC.
This recent surge in criminal activity in the region has caused some in Washington to express concern about the implications for US interests. High homicide rates, combined with the weakness of democratic institutions in the region and worries about prospect of “spillover violence” from Mexico over the US border, have convinced lawmakers of the need to fund security efforts in Central America. Although Central America had previously been guaranteed a portion of the security aid in the Mexico-focused Merida Initiative, in 2009 Congress created the Central America Regional Security Initiative, greatly expanding the scope of its regional efforts.
According to the State Department, CARSI has five main goals:
1. Create safe streets for the citizens in the region
2. Disrupt the movement of criminals and contraband within and between the nations of Central America
3. Support the development of strong, capable and accountable Central American governments
4. Re-establish effective state presence and security in communities at risk
5. Foster enhanced levels of security and rule of law coordination and cooperation between the nations of the region
CARSI was originally billed as a combination of “hard” and “soft” anti-crime measures, in that it would both provide equipment and training to law enforcement apparatuses throughout the region, as well as supporting development programs designed to lessen the grip of crime on communities. However, as is the case with the Merida Initiative, the majority of money in the program is allocated for security forces and not to social programs. Of the $361.5 million spent thus far, only $95 million, or 27 percent, has been used to fund such initiatives. The rest has been used to provide Central American nations with military equipment, technical support, and training in law enforcement and counter-narcotics operations.
The likely long-run effects of CARSI are difficult to judge. The powerful drug trafficking organizations operating in the region have a wealth of resources, and the poor state of the rule of law offers little in the way of a deterrent. Still, the countries of Central America have demonstrated a considerable amount of political will to tackle the problem, presenting a common front against organized crime. It remains to be seen, however, if the seven nations of the isthmus will be able to fund their own security initiatives in the future. Elite resistance to tax hikes as well as the domestic unpopularity of security make this unlikely, suggesting that Central America’s reliance on international assistance programs like CARSI is likely to continue.
- “Central America Regional Security Initiative: Background and Policy Issues for Congress,” Congressional Research Service, 30 August 2011.
- “Gangs in Central America,” Congressional Research Service, 3 January 2011
- “Informe 2010,” Corporacion Latinobarometro, December 2010
- “The Central America Regional Security Initiative: A Shared Partnership,” U.S. State Department, 5 August 2010
- “2011 Global Study on Homicide,” United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, 6 October 2011