Reporter's Notebook: Reporting on Gangs and Narco-Violence in Central America

On April 26, the Inter-American Dialogue held a discussion on criminal violence in Central America and US policy responses at the US Capitol building. The event was sponsored by Senator Dianne Feinstein, chairman of the Senate Caucus on International Narcotics Control.  As part of this panel, three prominent Central America journalists—Carlos Dada of El Salvador’s El Faro, Julie López of Guatemala’s Plaza Pública, and Carlos Fernando Chamorro of Nicaragua’s Confidencial—shared their thoughts on the efficacy of today’s approaches to confronting rising crimes rates and how the United States in particular can be more productive in dealing with regional challenges.  Fox News Latino asked Julie López, a freelance contributor to our site, to reflect on her participation. 

Ever since the first Zeta attack on local drug traffickers in Guatemala, on March 25, 2008, there has been renewed U.S. interest in Central America. The attack, which left 11 dead, was the most violent in years. It was followed by another eight months later that left 17 dead; and a third, in 2011, which left 27 decapitated farm workers. It is logical to be alarmed.

Drug trafficking hinders the region’s development, encourages corruption and undermines the effects of foreign aid --particularly that from the U.S. and Europe. Since 2008, the U.S. Congress has appropriated $361.5 million through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) to help fight the problem.

Now, in 2012, criminal gangs --whose members total some 70,000 from Guatemala to Panama-- and drug traffickers --mainly associates of the Mexican Sinaloa Cartel, the Zetas, and the Gulf Cartel-- are associated with the alarming level of violence in the region.

Current concerns about violence mirror those that gripped the region during the civil conflicts of the late 1970s to the early 1990s --when warfare between guerrilla factions and local armies made Central America politically unstable.

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During that violent time, the number of homicides in Guatemala reached a yearly average of 5,000. That number was surpassed in 2006  --ten years after the civil conflict ended-- due to crime.

While Honduras did not go through an armed civil conflict back then, it suffered from the effects of military dictatorships until 1982, and still shows a strong military influence over civilian forces --as does Guatemala  with a retired general as President, and El Salvador, despite its left-wing government.

In 2011, Honduras reached 86 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, the world's highest murder rate.

In El Salvador, staff from El Faro has been harassed after blowing the whistle on police officers involved in drug trafficking, and on an agreement between the government and gangs to reduce the homicide rate in exchange for thousands of dollars.

In Guatemala, while the homicide rate remains between 38 and 41 for 100,000 inhabitants, the impunity rate is 98 percent --that means that only 2 of 100 homicide cases end in conviction.

Honduras has an 80 percent impunity rate. This includes the murders of 24 journalists since the 2009 coup.

Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Panama and Belize show lower violence rates, yet the levels have increased at an unprecedented rate.

The State Department has tried to unify Central American efforts through the Central American Integration System (SICA).

Some political actors argue in favor of a reprise of the strategy of the late 1980s, when the countries of the region sought to end social conflict by negotiating peace agreements with the guerrilla movements.

The scenario today, however, is far much different, and the peace negotiations with insurgent organizations cannot be translated into agreements with organized crime.

Yet, even pointing out this inconsistency has proven dangerous, as journalists from El Faro have discovered.

But the discussion on drugs and criminal violence is ongoing, and there isn’t a simple recipe to follow or a single strategy to follow for Central American countries.

Julie López is a journalist based in Guatemala. She won the 2010 Félix Varela Award in Excellence in American Journalism on Latino Issues. She is a frequent contributor to Fox News Latino.