By Lorena Baires and Kay Valle / ISH
June 17th, 2014 (ISH) The increase in violent deaths in Central America, especially in the countries of the Northern Tier, is largely the result of the rivalries between organized crimeand drug-trafficking groups, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).
“The increase in the homicide rate in recent years is, in large part, a result of the violence related to the control of drug-trafficking routes, clashes between criminal groups and confrontations between organized criminal groups and the state,” according to the 2013 Global Study on Homicide, released in May by the UNODC.
The report, based on 2012 statistics, identified Honduras as the region’s most violent country, due to its rate of 90.4 homicides per 100,000 residents. It’s followed by El Salvador with 41.2 and Guatemala with 39.9.
Gang members and drug traffickers use murder to create terror and control territories, according to Rodrigo Ávila, a Salvadoran international security expert.
“In the Northern Tier, gang members and drug traffickers aim to control areas, carry out extortion, recruit new members and coerce society in order to intimidate the inhabitants who feel defenseless,” Ávila said.
Central America has been a conduit for drug trafficking for decades, but this increased after 2007 due to an increase in violence by drug traffickers and organized crime to control narco-trafficking routes in the region and clashes between these groups and security forces.
“The gangs evolved until they started dedicating themselves to crimes such as extortion, narco-trafficking, and even arms trafficking,” Center for Research and Promotion of Human Rights (CIPRODEH) of Honduras Director Wilfredo Méndez said. “The connection is such that in Honduras, the line is blurred between common delinquency and organized crime.”
This situation has become especially critical since 2012, according to the director of the Honduran Observatory of Violence, Migdonia Ayestas.
“Because of the context in which the murders occurred, we can see that in the last two years the murders due to organized crime and related to gangs have increased, which are a result of territorial clashes between cartels and criminal groups,” she said.
From a total of 7,172 homicides committed in Honduras in 2012, 1,114 were related to organized crime and gangs. While of the 6,757 that occurred in 2013, 1,192 were linked to gangs and organized crime.
An overloaded justice system
One of the problems facing the region’s justice systems is the overload of work due to the high number of crimes, according to the UNODC.
In El Salvador, the Ministry of Justice and Public Safety received a budget of US$356 million in 2013, investing US$136.6 million to improve the court system. In 2012, the Ministry received US$315.8 million and spent US$133.3 on the court system.
In 2012, the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) issued 1,465 sentences for the crimes of simple homicide and aggravated homicide – in a year during which 2,576 murders were reported, according to the statistics of the National Civil Police (PNC).
As of March, El Salvador had a 550-case backlog.
To speed up the processing of cases, the CJS started digitizing files in May, allowing it to access information more rapidly, according to Magistrate Doris Luz Rivas Galindo, the president of the Criminal Court of El Salvador’s CSJ.
“We have installed a computer program to manage all of the processes of open cases and it will issue alerts when a case is about to expire,” Rivas Galindo said.
In Guatemala, 79% of the 5,155 recorded homicides in 2012 were concentrated in 10 departments – half of them in border departments – according to a report from the consulting firm Central American Business Intelligence (CABI).
“Essentially, the violence is centered on the struggle to control drug-trafficking routes and other unlawful acts that accompany this criminal activity, such as human trafficking, smuggling of cultural goods and [above all] illegal possession of weapons,” said Carmen Rosa de León, the director of the Training Institute for Sustainable Development (IEPADES), a Guatemalan NGO focused on security matters. “All the power of organized crime is based on force and that force is based on the illegal possession of weapons.”
Sub-commissioner Julián Hernández, a spokesperson for the Honduran National Police, said authorities should be concerned with the connections between gangs and criminal groups.
“We should not rule out the possibility that international organized crime is the source of the weapons used by Central American gangs [Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18], since they use the gangs to defend the territory in which they traffic drugs, weapons, and persons,” Hernández said.
To confront this situation, the region aims to harmonize their legislation on organized crime through the “Project for the Harmonization of Penal Legislation to Efficiently Combat Organized Crime in Central America,” coordinated among the Conference of Ministers of Justice of Ibero-American Countries (COMJIB) and the Central American Integration System (SICA).
Since October 2013, Guatemala, Costa Rica, Panamá and the Dominican Republic have approved the Law for Harmonization of Penal Legislation to Combat Organized Crime in Central America and in the Dominican Republic. However, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua have yet to ratify it.
The region also is working to homogenize criteria on legal procedures, which is why the region’s judges attended the Regional Conference on Judicial Independence and the Phenomenon of Impunity in Central America, organized by the Democratic Judges Forum of El Salvador, in late May.
“Costa Rica has shared its experiences in the administration of judicial offices and we think its mechanisms are a good example to follow to reduce delay and corruption,” Rivas Galindo said.
Additionally, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez said in April that along with Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras, a joint task force would be created to patrol border areas vulnerable to illegal trafficking and transnational organized crime.
The Central American Force will focus on the Northern Tier and should begin operations in October.
Another successful initiative was the blocking of cellphone calls in February in Honduran prisons, which reduced cases of extortion by 75%, according to Director of the National Anti-Extortion Force (FNA) Gen. Julián Pacheco Tinoco.
Since March 2013, FNA prevented the payment of US$2.7 million in extortion and dismantled 32 groups and arrested 900 suspects for this crime, Pacheco said.
*Ricardo Larín in El Salvador and René Novoa in Honduras contributed to this report.