Breaking the Cycle of Violence in Mexico and Central America
Breaking the Cycle of Violence in Mexico and Central America
Crisis Group's EU Watch List: 10 Cases Where the EU can Build Peace in 2021
Crisis Group's EU Watch List: 10 Cases Where the EU can Build Peace in 2021
Commentary / Latin America & Caribbean 8 minutes

Breaking the Cycle of Violence in Mexico and Central America

COVID-19’s economic devastation will likely make Mexico and the Northern Triangle an even more fertile ground for drug cartels and gangs. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2021 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU and its member states to discourage iron fist policies and instead help design local security strategies. 

For the past decade, Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Central America – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have been among the world’s most violent nations. Organised crime and vigilante “self-defence” groups have engaged in bloody battles to control illicit markets, chiefly but not exclusively the drug trade and extortion rackets. Authorities have responded by relying heavily on military force, leading in certain cases to extrajudicial executions and other abuses perpetrated by state security personnel. With the exception of El Salvador, violence across the region continued at high levels in 2020 as criminals quickly adapted to the changes wrought by COVID-19, tightening their grip upon local economies, politics and people. The economic devastation caused by the pandemic and two hurricanes is likely to exacerbate the conditions that make the region’s ground so fertile for drug cartels and gangs: poverty, unemployment and social exclusion, as well as state corruption.

To break the cycle of violence, national and local governments should pivot away from approaches geared toward mano dura (iron fist) policing. While each government will have to tailor its approach based on local needs, broadly speaking they should design plans that seek to mitigate socio-economic problems in areas where the bulk of violence takes place. New plans should recognise the risks posed by connivance between organised crime, politicians and businesspeople in efforts to control illicit resources. They should include social and economic programs targeting vulnerable young people who might otherwise be drawn into armed outfits’ orbit. They should also, when appropriate, look to reach local agreements with criminal groups aiming at an immediate reduction in violence and their members’ eventual demobilisation and reintegration into society. 

To help Mexico and Central American governments move in this direction, the EU and its member states should:

  • Use political dialogues on security and justice regularly scheduled between the EU and the region’s governments to support the design of local security strategies based on thorough diagnoses of violence in each sub-region. These strategies should complement regular law enforcement with socio-economic programs to provide licit alternatives to people vulnerable to criminal recruitment. 
  • Discourage, potentially also through those political dialogues, iron fist policies, and promote rehabilitation programs for criminals –including those currently in jail­ – and job creation initiatives that can provide alternatives for their reintegration. In some places, such as El Salvador and Mexico, these efforts could be the result of agreements reached in talks between governments and criminal groups, together with ceasefire agreements.
  • Work with the Mexican and Northern Triangle governments to ensure that donor funds and emergency multilateral credit lines provided for COVID-19 and hurricane relief are used to help the public through basic service provision, above all in health care and financial aid for the poor. Funds should also boost domestic production of basic goods and food, especially in the rural areas often used for drug trafficking and illicit crop production.
  • Help regional governments provide urgent humanitarian protection to populations at imminent risk of being displaced or otherwise suffering, and back efforts by these governments, multilateral organisations and international civil society to improve emergency responses.
  • Urge Mexican and Central American authorities to support existing mechanisms for curbing state corruption and collusion with illicit groups, and implement robust new initiatives to address this problem.

Criminal Splintering and Violent Growth

Much of Mexico and northern Central America suffers appalling violence, as criminal groups fight for turf and clash with state security forces. 

Over recent years, organised crime in the region has evolved. Governments’ standard response has mostly been a “kingpin strategy”, which aims to take on criminal groups by arresting or killing their leaders, often in tandem with a focus on extraditing to the U.S. major drug traffickers. The primary result has been to splinter the huge and hierarchical drug trafficking cartels for which Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico were once notorious into groups controlling ever smaller patches of territory. In Mexico, the dozen or fewer large criminal organisations that were dominant fifteen years ago have broken up into approximately 200 mostly small and medium-sized groups, engaged in perpetual feuds. Gangs that drive violence in Central America have also fractured, though to a lesser extent than traffickers: they have split into competing factions, like the 18th Street gang’s two spin-offs, the Revolutionaries and the Southerners, or seen divisions widen between historical leaders sitting in prison and gang members still on the outside. 

Both local outfits and larger groups with cross-border operations have diversified economic activities. In Mexico, organised crime has adopted a narrower local focus as groups seek full control over territories where they can profit from rackets like the drug trade, illegal mining or fuel theft, or extort the fruits of legal production, such as minerals or crops. Criminal gangs in Honduras and Guatemala continue to generate most of their income through extortion, but have also started laundering money through legal firms such as restaurants and auto body shops. 

While COVID-19 in early 2020 put a brake on some of these illicit activities, the pause was brief. Initially some gangs “forgave” extortion payments in a bid to win public sympathy. At the same time, movement restrictions appeared to have curtailed illicit trafficking. By the second half of 2020, however, extortion was up, trafficking was on the rebound and violence rates had returned to normal. El Salvador was the exception, with historically low murder rates throughout 2020 that the government attributed to its mano dura policies, but which likely derive from informal negotiations with gangs.

Intimidation and extortion are regular ordeals for millions of citizens, while thousands fall victim to disappearance or murder.

Mutating and on occasion worsening violence has magnified threats people face in daily life. Intimidation and extortion are regular ordeals for millions of citizens, while thousands fall victim to disappearance or murder. Governments are at times reluctant to recognise the extent of these threats or collaborate with international bodies to provide assistance and protection. The number of people who flee their homes to escape criminal violence signals the scale of the problem: Honduras and El Salvador have an estimated total of 833,600 displaced persons, of whom over half a million have migrated abroad. Mexico’s government has said there are 345,000 internally displaced persons, but experts assume the true count is far higher: in 2019 alone, 474,476 households changed their place of residence due to insecurity, and the overall number of displaced persons over the past fifteen years could surpass nine million. Although there is scant concrete data, women are particularly affected: 55 per cent of those who change residency for security reasons in Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras are women, a percentage that will likely keep rising. 

The trails of destruction left by hurricanes Eta and Iota in November 2020 have compounded the region’s humanitarian crisis. This is especially true in Honduras – where four million people were affected – and Guatemala, where 1.3 million people fell victim to the natural disasters. Criminal groups could seek to take advantage of the huge economic damage to vulnerable communities, including possibly recruiting new members at a time when state resources are stretched thin. 

Failing Security Policies

State responses lag behind these burgeoning crises, largely remaining anchored in the conviction that tough law enforcement is the sole effective remedy. In both Mexico and the Northern Triangle, mano dura policies, even beyond the kingpin approach, have for some time been backfiring. While hitherto larger criminal structures have fractured, criminal power over communities and parts of the legal economy remains unchecked, allowing illegal outfits to develop greater resilience. Governments’ failure to follow campaigns against crime bosses with tailored efforts to address diverse local socio-economic grievances and institutional failings enabled splinter groups to bounce back and find new recruits.

A general neglect of corruption and collusion also makes the lines separating state officials from criminal operatives porous. Too often, state and security institutions serve criminal rather than public interests and fail in their primary duty to protect citizens. Two international initiatives to counteract pervasive state corruption in Central America – the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras – ended prematurely in 2019-2020 after governments in both countries terminated the missions. El Salvador’s International Commission against Impunity is taking shape slowly and with uncertainty as to its remit.

In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador has put efforts to build accountable civilian institutions on the back burner in favour of a more personalised and discretionary approach against corruption. He has stated that the best way to curb corruption is leading by example, and that his party’s moral authority and integrity will instigate a broad change in practices. At the same time, he has concentrated oversight powers at the presidential level and vowed to eliminate 100 autonomous federal oversight bodies, including the National Institute for Access to Information and Data Protection (INAI), in charge of processing public information requests. Moreover, his government continues to empower the armed forces in public security matters, while protecting them from public oversight and granting impunity for alleged crimes, including grave human rights violations and high-level criminal collusion.

Recommendations for the EU and its Member States 

In the short term, the EU, as a key humanitarian donor in the region, could highlight the need for protection of populations at risk of displacement or other grave harm, while helping create greater visibility for these victims. With civilian populations becoming strategic targets in armed groups’ territorial disputes, the EU can use high-level forums, such as ministerial meetings with counterparts from the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States (CELAC) or presidential summits, to press these states to design security strategies that protect these communities and aid those who are forcibly displaced. 

Emergency action could reduce harm done by the pandemic. European funds aimed at alleviating the consequences of COVID-19 are provided by “Team Europe” (a tag which is being used by the Commission to project the combined support of the EU, its member states and European financial institutions such as the European Investment Bank). Those funds, as well as financial support pledged in response to the hurricanes, should provide immediate aid to the poor and help the long-term development and security of communities by boosting domestic industries and agricultural programs. 

Emergency action could reduce harm done by the pandemic.

Brussels can use channels provided by existing political cooperation agreements to encourage governments to fully deliver on their stated commitment to tackle inequality and other ills that foster violence. López Obrador’s Youngsters Building the Future initiative, for example, aims to offer Mexican youth licit alternatives to crime. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele promises to reintegrate into civilian life young people ensnared in gang activities as well as jailed criminals. The EU should encourage the governments of Mexico and the Northern Triangle to pursue similar initiatives, with a particular focus on rehabilitation for those in prison, and support dialogue between gangs or other criminal organisations and governments aimed at permanently lowering violence levels, so long as there is clear evidence of good faith on both sides.

Building on the existing Europe Latin America Technical Assistance Programme against Transnational Organized Crime, the EU should also encourage the region’s governments to move from prioritising coercive law enforcement toward more comprehensive efforts at curbing insecurity. It should identify and lend support to sub-national initiatives aimed at designing tailored local strategies and rolling them out. The EU, through the human rights component of its new global external cooperation instrument, should put women’s collectives, as well as groups helping young people exit lives of crime, at the top of its list for support. It should also encourage regional governments to embrace efforts to combat corruption through legislation and new institutional mechanisms. The creation of independent, civilian-led law enforcement bodies with independent oversight bodies inevitably takes time, but the EU should do what it can to push governments in that direction.

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