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 Honduran cities."

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 Colombian cartels.

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' economy.

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.

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