Obama in El Salvador: Crime at Top of Agenda

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    President Obama will visit El Salvador today, the third leg of his Latin America tour. It’s a stop that could mark a new U.S. awareness of the growing maelstrom of violence threatening to engulf the nation and its Central American neighbors.

    Obama will arrive to a nation in a crisis. While the world focuses on Mexico‘s dramatic drug wars, El Salvador’s murder rates are five times as high, making it one of the most violent countries in the world.

    Criminal organizations, many of them with roots in the country’s civil war in the 1980s, are hollowing out the state from within, expanding their networks internationally and deepening their territorial hold within the country.

    Some of these groups are street gangs, most notably the Mara Salvatrucha 13 (MS-13) and Barrio 18 (18), which are evolving into higher-level criminal groups, taking up more sophisticated, and lucrative, activities such as money laundering and international narcotics trafficking.

    The country’s recent emergence from conflict has contributed to the growth of these gangs, which can call on pre-existing criminal structures left over from the war, such as trafficking networks, and on large supplies of weapons. This has allowed them to mature into a more formidable threat.

    This hurts El Salvador on many levels. A United Nations Development Programme report from 2005, before the killings had reached their current level, estimated that violence costs the country more than 11 percent of GDP, while more recent estimates put this figure at 25 percent.

    In addition to the spiralling violence, the country now has more drug addiction, a swamped justice system, and rampant corruption.

    The gathering crisis in the region will be the focus of Obama’s visit. El Salvador and its neighbors in Central America have received $248 million since 2008 as part of the Mexico-focused Merida Initiative and the spin-off Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), which aim to funnel funds towards the region to help combat corruption and support the fight against drug trafficking.

    This is more than traditional spending in the region, but it is a very small sum relative to the $6 billion spent on Plan Colombia over the last decade. What’s more, only $100 million has been earmarked for the region for the 2011 financial year.

    Part of this money is focused on building El Salvador’s institutions, such as the country’s weak and overstretched judiciary. This may include trying to create something similar to the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The CICIG has dozens of foreign prosecutors working alongside and training Guatemalan prosecutors and police.

    But the increasingly transnational nature of the region’s gangs, which are developing links to Mexican cartels, means that regional coordination is as important as country-specific efforts. In recent months there has been discussion of a possible “Plan Central America” security initiative to marshal international efforts to fight organized crime in the region.

    InSight has reported on proposals for the Northern Triangle states to work together against Mexican cartel the Zetas, with logistical support from Mexico, the United States and perhaps Colombia.

    Obama and President Funes may also discuss more integrated, holistic programs to combat gangs on a national level, focusing on the social aspects of the problem in terms of trying to stop young people joining gangs in the first place, and helping them leave.

    Training and education schemes as well as tightened gun laws could be a key part of this, as well as programs to reduce poverty.

    This would be in contrast to the hardline ‘Mano Dura’ policies implemented by the previous as well as current El Salvadoran government from 2003, which are widely considered to have exacerbated the problem, driving gangs to regroup and redouble their efforts.

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