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Central America: a time-bomb of poverty and crime

Impunity and corruption feed day-to-day violence. With socio-economic statistics similar to those of Sub-Saharan Africa, structural problems have turned nearly all of the countries of the region (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua) into a time-bomb.

Marcelo Colussi


High levels of malnutrition, illiteracy, lack of job opportunities, starvation-wages, states that are in deficit and corrupt, a lack of basic services – on top of a series of historical factors – are making this a zone of particular insecurity.

Some Central American cities (San Pedro Sula, San Salvador, Guatemala City, Tegucigalpa) are among the most dangerous in the world for their alarming levels of criminality. The average numbers of homicides at national level of 15, 20, 25 per day, make you think of countries at war. In 2020 these figures dropped drastically, due to the obligatory confinement that the Covid-19 pandemic brought with it.

But the violence has not disappeared; even though it dropped last year, it continues being very high in comparison with other parts of the world, even with countries that are openly in a state of war.

In reality, these are not declared wars, but actually these societies are living in perpetual ‘war’.

Extreme poverty and crime

Extreme poverty functions as a fertile breeding ground for crime. And to this are added huge migratory movements from the countryside to the cities. It is estimated that at least 30 people per day make this internal migration in each country.

This creates unmanageable pressures in the large urban concentrations – capital cities with two or three million inhabitants – disrupting the productive capacities of the communities they left and creating uncontrolled processes that are [typical in] the marginal neighbourhoods.

At the present time, a quarter of the urban population in Central America is living in areas described as “marginal”, lacking basic services, dangerous, not at all neighbourly, in most cases in conditions of trespass on public lands. And the worst of all: without sight of a solution in the short term, and with a health crisis which at present is making the situation even more difficult.

In the large urban centres of the region, it is common to see a striking separation between precarious neighbourhoods, generally considered “red zones” (due to the level of danger, where “no one goes, not even the police”). While on the other hand there are ultra-protected luxury areas that are difficult or impossible for the ordinary citizen to enter (places where there are mansions with swimming pools and heli-pads that are comparable to the best palaces of the badly named ‘First World’.

Walking in the street or using public transport is dangerous. And rural areas are equally unsafe and violent: where any place can be the scene of a robbery, a rape, or an assault. In fact, rapes of women have not been uncommon on buses. Criminal violence has become so common that it no longer surprises people: on the contrary it has become trivialized to an extent, accepted as a normal fact of daily life. People are murdered during to rob a cell phone, a wristwatch or a ring.

Daily violence

Nowadays, day-to-day violence has become a serious problem in all these countries. Before the pandemic, the level of homicides reached an average of 40 per 100,000 inhabitants. A very high level in comparison with international figures.

This violence has an overall cost globally of between 5 to 15% of gross domestic product (GDP), while the cost of private security ranges between 8 – 15% of GDP (it is noticeable that private security agencies are one of the areas of commerce that has grown the most in recent decades, and it is a business that continues to grow).

Both victims and perpetrators of violence tend to be young people between the ages of 15 and 25.

Lynchings of thieves (small-time crooks and pickpockets) are frequent, which shows the extent of the crisis that is happening. And curiously they are widely accepted by the public. Such violence is born from a combination of structural poverty, the legacy of the recent wars that people have suffered, and uncontrollable migrations; the history of impunity and the profound inefficiency of the justice system (‘taking justice into one’s own hands’, or ‘peoples’ justice’).

 The history of war

The 1980s left their mark on Central America, characterized by raging internal armed conflicts. In the context of the Cold War (cold for the two super-powers who were facing off, very hot for those countries who actually put their bodies in the firing line), from the logic of insurgency and counterinsurgency that was established, the area became completely militarized.

The immediate effects of these polarizations were terrible: murders, woundings, mutilations, material losses, and in addition all the psychological consequences that they brought along with them, without any attempt to deal with them through effective public policies.

Escaping through alcohol is the simplest expedient to ‘put a lid on’ the problems. “In Guatemala, only being drunk can you live”, said the Guatemalan winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, Miguel Angel Asturias.

The ‘90s gave way to peace processes in all these countries, putting an end to the actual war situation, but the culture of violence that had established itself throughout the area persisted along with its consequences.

In any central American republic today, you can buy an assault weapon and ammunition on the black market for US$ 100, and the habit of using firearms is very widespread (it is calculated that among the civil population the number of illegal arms is equal to the number held legally).

In general, the young people are the most affected by all these processes, those who have the least room for development. Social prejudices – fed by a deeply rooted patriarchal ideology – see the youth as a social problem in itself, without taking into account the complex problems that lead to the proliferation of youth gangs, which is, more than anything else, a social symptom that speaks – violently and crudely – of the failure of the dominant [social] models in the region.

Illegal immigrants and gangs

One of the most frequently used escape routes for young people in Central America, in both rural and urban environments, with few resources – who are the majority – is to fill the ranks of the illegal migrants heading to the United States: and if not this, then [to join] the gangs (the ‘maras’ as they are known in the region).

‘Easy money’, selling drugs on the street, and offensive behaviour are always a temptation.

An ingredient which strongly facilitates the climate of daily violence is the general impunity which exists: widespread governmental corruption, obsolete and dysfunctional judicial systems, discredited police forces, prison systems in a state of collapse, none of which helps to lower the incidence of crime, but rather functions as positive feedback.

Organized crime

In many cases, various functions of the State are captured by the mafias of organized crime, which have a big share of political influence. They openly manage their businesses under the cover of this legal permissiveness: drug trafficking, smuggling, trafficking of undocumented migrants, powerful gangs of bank-robbers, carjackers operating at a regional level, and the illegal sale of timber. For these groups the regime of criminality is not just functional but necessary.

And faced with all this, the private security agencies appear to be the solution – although in reality, apart from the excellent business for their owners, they don’t act in anyone’s interests.

This wave of criminality, which is afflicting the region, depends in turn on a historic culture of violence marked by authoritarianism, patriarchal machismo, the lack of democratic and consensual mechanisms, and an almost feudal attitude in some cases (in remote rural areas a virtual ‘droit de seigneur’ of the landlord over his female servants, is not uncommon).

Popular standards

In popular opinion, public insecurity is one of the biggest problems to deal with, as much as or more than the historic poverty that exists. The continuous media bombardment contributes to reinforcing this stereotype, feeding a climate of generalized paranoia, where the ‘iron fist’ appears to be the choice for salvation.

It is in this logic – deliberately manipulated by groups who benefit from this climate of violence – that the militarization of everyday culture never lets up, and the growth of private security agencies is overtaking state police forces by a factor of five to one: which does not guarantee the security of the citizen.PL

(Translated by Graham Douglas Email: – Photos: Pixabay

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