Last year’s ouster of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and the recent installation of an Organization of American States (OAS) anti-corruption mission in Honduras have focused attention on the political corruption that undermines democratic governance in Central America. While anti-impunity crusades in the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have begun to challenge inept and dishonest political leadership, the entrenched criminality of the region’s other significant power brokers—the police and military forces—must not be overlooked.
Security forces in Central America are haunted by a troubling past. U.S.-backed military campaigns against Marxist guerrilla agitation implicated the armed forces and police across the region in hundreds of massacres, tens of thousands of extrajudicial murders, and countless forced disappearances throughout the 1970s and 1980s.
After decades of fighting, peace accords put an end to bloody civil wars in El Salvador and Guatemala, and the 1990s saw significant reductions in troop numbers and military budgets. But even as Central America ushered in a wave of democratization, the security forces of the Northern Triangle evaded comprehensive institutional reform. Consequently, in the post-conflict period, organized crime, which had already penetrated elements of regional militaries, was quick to infiltrate newly created and haphazardly recruited police forces; these forces have since lacked the resources and oversight to be agents of trust for their citizenries.
In 2010, the head of the Guatemalan police was discharged for collusion with the Mexican Los Zetas cartel. In October, a senior officer from El Salvador’s army was arrested for selling weapons to members of the MS-13 gang—an incident that follows on a thwarted 2014 probe into the illegal sale of military arms by scores of high-ranking suspects. And early last year, members of the U.S.-vetted Honduran special forces looted and then hid $1.3 million during a raid on a drug kingpin’s property. Notwithstanding these high-profile cases that only stubbornly came to light, successful convictions of members of the security forces across the region remain rare.
In December, the U.S. Congress approved a $750 million aid package for Central America, aimed at tackling poverty, crime, and violence and enhancing rule of law. Over the past five years, the Northern Triangle countries have repeatedly made the top five of the world’s most murderous countries. Before partnering with local security forces to meet these challenges, however, U.S. policymakers would be wise to condition aid on the willingness of regional governments to investigate and prosecute corrupt officers and then enact long-needed institutional reforms.
First, U.S. policymakers should support efforts to purge security forces of corrupt elements. In Honduras, a poorly managed police purge has entered its third year, but despite the administration of tens of thousands of background checks, authorities have only dismissed a few hundred low-level police in a force of more than 12,000. Efforts in Guatemala to clean up the police have also stalled: arrests for small-scale extortion and drug pushing provide a convenient smokescreen for senior officers suspected of links with organized crime. U.S. investigative assistance would embolden ongoing processes to target top officials and thereafter ensure that U.S. resources not fall into the hands of uniformed criminals.
Second, the U.S. government should structure aid to reorient security institutions towards community policing. A militarization of the war on drugs has beefed up regional militaries but simultaneously obscured the real source of most citizen insecurity in the region: urban gangs. Neighborhood extortion rings and forced recruiting of young people by maras are a principal impetus for migration. Plans to rebuild communities through social development initiatives and educational opportunities must be accompanied by the introduction of professional, well-trained police that can enforce laws and disrupt local criminal activity. No amount of military hardware is a sufficient substitute for a competent and trustworthy police presence.
Third, U.S. officials should lobby regional political elites to legislate taxes to fund security sector reform. At present the countries of the Northern Triangle have among the lowest tax revenues as a percentage of GDP in the world, straining public services and inhibiting government capacity to overhaul struggling institutions like the police. U.S. funding is not a cure-all, and in much the same way that the Colombian public backed a security tax to complement U.S. assistance under Plan Colombia, Central Americans need to demonstrate a commitment to the sustainability of reforms long after U.S. aid disappears. Levying higher taxes is a necessary first step.
A windfall of foreign assistance and the support of the UN and OAS have provided Central Americans with an unprecedented opportunity to tackle corruption, improve security, and stimulate economic growth. U.S. taxpayers have signaled their commitment to these goals through significant financial support. However, in chasing short-term objectives like homicide reduction and thwarting immigration flow, the U.S. government should be careful not to miss a crucial opportunity to revamp Central America’s security institutions once and for all. Doing so would get at the heart of the region’s current instability and, most importantly, assure the longevity of the Northern Triangle’s hard-earned peace.
Angelo is an International Affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations based in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. He is a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and earned a master of Philosophy in Latin American Studies at the University of Oxford, where he was a Rhodes Scholar. The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author alone.