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The origins of violence in Central America

High rates of malnutrition, illiteracy, unemployment, miserable wages, failing and corrupt states, lack of basic public services, violence and mafia in several countries of the region make Central America a very unsafe place.


Marcelo Colussi


With socio-economic indices similar to those of Sub-Saharan Africa, structural problems are turning almost all of the regions countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua) into a time bomb. Some Central American cities (San Pedro Sula, San Salvador, Guatemala, Tegucigalpa) are among the most dangerous cities in the world due to increasing crime levels. The average number of homicides daily perpetrated at the national level: 15, 20, 25, makes one think of territories at war. In 2020, these rates dropped drastically, due to the forced confinement brought about by the Covid-19 pandemic. But violence has not disappeared; while it declined last year, it remained very high compared to other parts of the world, including countries openly at war.

These are not actually declared conflicts of war but are in fact societies living in a state of war.

Poverty fuels crime

It is no news that extreme poverty works as a fertile breeding ground for crime. This backdrop of chronic poverty is compounded by huge migratory movements from the countryside to the cities (it is estimated that no less than 30 people in each country migrate internally every day).

This creates massive and overwhelming pressures in large urban concentrations – capitals of between two and three million inhabitants – disrupting the productive capacity of the communities of origin and producing out-of-control processes such as slum development.

For example, a quarter of Central America’s urban population lives in so-called “marginal” areas, which are dangerous, very unwelcoming, and lacking in basic services. In principle, people there are living as squatters on state-owned land. Worst of all, with no immediate solution in sight, they suffer from an ongoing health crisis that makes the situation even more complex. In the large urban centres of the region’s countries, it is common to see a clear dividing line between these precarious areas, generally considered “red zones” (because they are dangerous, where “nobody enters, not even the police”), and the luxurious, well-protected sectors that are very difficult or impossible for ordinary citizens to access (places where there are mansions with swimming pools and heliports, which can be compared to the best mansions in the badly-named First World).

Walking the streets or travelling on public transport has become dangerous. And the rural areas are equally unsafe and violent: any spot can be the scene of robbery, rape and assault. As a tragic example, rapes of women on buses have not been unusual.

Criminal violence has become so commonplace that it is no longer surprising; on the contrary, it has become trivialised in a certain sense, accepted as a normal part of the everyday social panorama. Murder for the theft of a mobile phone, a watch or a ring is frequent. Today, everyday violence has become a very serious problem in all these countries. In fact, the homicide rate before the pandemic averaged 40 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is considered very high by international standards.

This violence has a global cost as a percentage of GDP of between five and 15 per cent, while the cost of private security ranges from eight to 15 per cent (a significant fact: security agencies are one of the fastest-growing commercial sectors in recent decades, and the business continues to expand).It is important to note that victims and perpetrators are usually young people between the ages of 15 and 25.

On the other hand, lynchings of thieves (petty thieves, petty burglars) are not uncommon, which is evidence of the social crisis at play. These lynchings, by the way, are widely accepted by the population.

The origins of violence

So much violence stems from a combination of causes: structural poverty, the legacy of recent wars and out-of-control migration. This is compounded by historical impunity and the profound inefficiency of the justice systems (hence lynchings, so-called “justice by one’s own hand”, or “popular justice”).

The 1980s marked an era of furious internal armed confrontations in Central America.

Within the context of the Cold War, from the insurgent and counter-insurgent logic that was established, the area became completely militarised. The immediate effects of these polarisations were appalling: deaths, injuries, mutilations, destruction of property, plus all the psychological consequences that this entailed, generally without any effective public policy approach.

The 1990s gave way to peace processes in each country, ending the war situation de facto, but the culture of violence took root in the entire region whose consequences still persist.

In any Central American republic today, an assault rifle with ammunition can be obtained on the black market for 100 dollars, and the practice of using firearms is widespread (it is estimated that among the civilian population there are as many registered weapons as illegal ones). In general, it is the youth sectors that are the hardest hit by all these processes and the ones that find the least opportunities to progress.

Social prejudices

Social prejudices – fuelled by a deeply rooted patriarchal ideology – see youth as a social problem in itself, without addressing the complicated problems that lead to the proliferation of youth gangs, which is, above all, a social symptom that reveals – violently, crudely – the failure of the prevailing models in the region.

Often, when the authorities think of “violence prevention” in the “red zones”, they dedicate themselves to putting street lighting in the darkest areas and providing football or basketball facilities, as if that in itself were a solution, while the root causes of the situation are not understood.

One of the most frequent ways out for poor Central American youth, both urban and rural – who, by the way, are in the majority – is to join the ranks of illegal immigrants on their way to the United States; or else, the gangs (the “maras”, as they are known in the region). Easy money”, street drug distribution and other criminal behaviours are always a temptation.

An additional factor contributing to the climate of daily violence is the general impunity that prevails: widespread government corruption, obsolete and inoperative judicial systems, discredited police forces, collapsed prison systems, all of which do not contribute to lowering crime rates, but rather, in the end, feed them back into the equation. In many cases, various state structures are hijacked by organised crime mafias with large quotas of political power, who openly manage their business under this legal cover: drug trafficking, smuggling, trafficking of undocumented migrants, powerful gangs of bank robbers or car thieves at the regional level, illegal sale of timber resources.

For these groups, the prevailing criminality is not only functional but necessary. And in the face of all this, private security agencies appear as the solution (although, in reality, outside of big business for their owners, they represent no solution at all). (PL)

(Translated by Rene Phelvin – Email: – Photos: Pixabay

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