The Spiral of Violence in Central America
by Tim Rogers
Z magazine, September 2000
As the 21st century begins, the new era of peace and economic
integration in Central America is, in reality, neither peaceful
nor inclusive. On the contrary, with the possible exception of
Costa Rica, the newly "democratic" countries of Central
America are plagued with many of the same societal and political
ills that spawned the rebel movements against the dictatorships
of the 1970s and 1980s: a maldistribution of wealth, a lack of
access to public services, corrupt governments that repress the
poor to protect the interests of an elite ruling class, and a
lack of political channels available for popular participation
in the formal democratic process.
One of the most notable differences between the past and the
present is that more Central Americans are now living below the
poverty line than ever before. Thanks in large part to the debt-driven
neoliberal economic policies that have been implemented to varying
degrees throughout the isthmus, not only have more people been
made poor, but the actual levels of poverty in which they live
are more extreme than in years past.
Due to the increases in poverty and a continued lack of social
mobility, levels of violence are growing among all sectors of
society. Aside from the traditional topdown violence employed
by the Central American ruling class, a recent resurgence in levels
of violence and re-armament can also be noted among the poorest
sectors of society.
In mid-May, a Salvadoran rebel group called the Metropolitan
Front planted a bomb in a government office and released a statement
declaring "a no-holds barred struggle against neoliberalism"
in which it was "renewing an armed conflict against a demagogic
government that cruelly oppresses the poor. "
While not always articulated as such, a majority of the regional
resurgence of violence is political in nature because it is in
defiance of unjust economic and political systems that trap people
in poverty. In Honduras, thousands of teenagers who are not included
in the "global village," have joined criminal youth
gangs that haunt the impoverished cities at night. "In Tegucigalpa
alone, there are an estimated 250 youth gangs that incorporate
some 10,000 adolescents that do not have the opportunity to work,"
reported a recent study conducted by a group of sociologists from
the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH). "A
similar phenomena is taking place in San Pedro Sula and other
With criminal youth gangs also reportedly on the rise in Nicaragua
and Panama, a new generation of Central American poor are growing
up in violence.
In Guatemala-a country where 64 percent of the population
live in extreme poverty with a daily income of less than US $2.00,
according to the Inter-American Development Bank-a recent crime
wave has gotten so out of hand that, on June 20, President Alfonso
Portillo sent members of his family to Canada to protect them
from being kidnapped, and ordered the army to aid the overwhelmed
National Civil Police. However, considering the army's recent
history (ranking members are currently under suspicion of multiple
political assassinations and issuing death threats to government
officials) as well as their past history (genocide highlighted
by some 1,045 massacres committed during the 36-year civil war
that ended in 1996), many Guatemalan civilians may not take too
much comfort in the idea of the army policing the streets as it
did during times of war.
"It would seem that we're returning to the years of horrible
[human rights] violations and death squads," stated Guatemalan
Catholic Bishop Gerardo Flores.
In Nicaragua, a re-armed rebel army known as the Carlos Ulloa
Regional Commando, has started to take control of parts of the
economically and politically isolated Caribbean region of the
country where an estimated 70 percent of the population live in
extreme poverty. In what one Nicaraguan government official dubbed
the "Colombianization of the country," residual bands
of ex-Sandinistas and ex-contras left over from the war during
the 1980s are allegedly involved in arms and drug smuggling with
In response to the recent increase in guerrilla activity,
last month the Nicaraguan army deployed 1,400 troops to the region
and declared a "war without limits" against the rebels.
According to local testimonies, the rebels-thought to number
more than 230-are well-armed, expertly trained, equipped with
modern methods of communication, and tied into an enormous intelligence
network that is thought to have infiltrated the government.
The historic demands of re-armed soldiers in Nicaragua have
been the same: land, homes, government credit, and amnesty to
guarantee a safe reintegration into civilian life. However, with
no economy or access to social services in the region, civilian
life may not look too appealing to many career soldiers whose
resumes include war and whose only means of economic survival
is crime and drug trafficking.
The problem of displaced soldiers from the Central American
wars of the 1970s and 1980s in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua
represents a threat to peace and stability throughout the area.
Due largely to a lack of job skills and high unemployment in the
formal economy, a majority of the ex-soldiers have not been able
to put down their guns and re-integrate into civilian life.
In Honduras, an estimated 15,000 ex-soldiers have responded
to the growing levels of crime by forming private "security
agencies"-one of the only thriving businesses in Honduras'
Despite the resurgence of poverty-born violence, not all recent
crime can be attributed to economic need. In the case of the pinched
middle class of society-namely ranking members of the police and
military-organized crime syndicates dedicated to kidnappings,
bank robberies or the trafficking of contraband have become one
of the only means to upward social mobility. By defying the economic
and political rules set by the wealthy class, different army and
police force units have become involved in criminal activities
that are far more lucrative than "serving and protecting"
the general public.
In the case of El Salvador, the National Civil Police (PNC)
has become a source of fear and insecurity for many Salvadorans.
"Within the ranks of the police, there are delinquents and
organized crime," reported a June edition of National Reality,
the weekly newspaper of the Central American University (UCA)
located in San Salvador; " [Some members of the PNC] have
terrorized the population, and have shamed the institution."
According to the annual report released last month by the
Salvadoran Minister of Security, between June 1999 and May 2000,
118 police officers were fired, 221 others were suspended without
pay, and 23 were sanctioned for different disciplinary actions.
In June alone, a massacre of seven soldiers and civilians
by an intoxicated police officer that turned his M-16 on his own
patrol unit, highlighted a month of numerous allegations of police
involvement in muggings, stealing cars, participating in bank
robberies, and kidnapping a businessman in San Salvador.
El Salvador is not the only country that has experienced serious
problems with its "peace keeping" institutions. During
the course of the last year, colonels in the Honduran and Nicaraguan
armies and a captain in the Nicaraguan National Police have been
arrested for their involvement with the Colombian Cali drug cartel.
Caught in the middle of gang violence, rebel groups, and police
corruption, a majority of law-abiding Central Americans are arming
for protection. During the last six months in Guatemala City,
weapons purchases are up 50 percent from numbers that were already
among the highest in Central America, and even conservative estimates
show that guns will outnumber people in the capital by the end
of the summer. In the countryside, residents have begun to form
armed groups, known as "security juntas," aimed at killing
and frightening off criminals.
In neighboring Honduras, there are an estimated 400,000 to
500,000 assault rifles in the hands of civilians, according to
a recent UNAH study. A majority of these arms are AK-47s that
are left over from the Cold War.
Even in historically peaceful Costa Rica-the " Switzerland
of Central America"-the number of people carrying guns for
protection is growing steadily. According to a recent study done
by the Minister of Public Security, 350,000 Costa Ricans (about
10 percent of the population) are now packing heat.
While the recent increase in violence is not limited to a
particular socio-economic class, most of the crime seems to be
in response to unjust political and economic systems that offer
people few opportunities for employment or economic advancement.
Until these systems are changed to prioritize basic human needs
and sustainable human development, the wave of violence in Central
America will continue to grow.
"The bomb of violence is prepared together with the bomb
of extreme poverty," summed up Gregorio Rosa Chavez, San
Salvador auxiliary bishop, on June 18; "and I haven't seen
a single coherent program that indicates a government commitment
to combat it."
Tim Rogers is a journalist for Mesoamerica, the publication
of the Institute for Central American Studies in San Jose.
Policy and Pentagon