International Relations, Organized Crime, Politics, U.S. Relations, violence

OAS Meeting is the Latest Regional Effort to Combat Organized Crime in Central America

The Organization of American States is currently holding its 41st General Assembly in San Salvador, the theme of which is “Citizen Security in the Americas.” The agenda includes discussions on combating organized crime.  These discussions will include consideration of a draft proposal for fighting transnational crime, drawn up by El Salvador.  The Secretary General Miguel Insulza said that he expects “concrete results, because [they] are not going to confront the topic of transnational organized crime in [Latin America] with declarations alone.” This meeting will set the perimeters for an action plan that will be finalized for the November meeting in the Dominican Republic.

The OAS General Assembly in San Salvador

The OAS is not the only group to discuss the growing lack of citizen security and the problem of organized crime.  A recent meeting in Managua, Nicaragua of the presidents of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and Panama produced a new level of regional ownership of Central American organized crime.  The presidents met to affirm their commitments to collaboration in the fight against drug trafficking and trans-national crime.  Additionally, they recognized each nation’s respective weakness in the face of increasingly well-organized and -funded criminal syndicates.  Unfortunately, no specific actions were planned, but the budding cooperation between the countries is a positive step towards promoting greater security.

The United States Has pledged support and acknowledged that citizen security in the region is a “shared responsibility,” through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI). The State Department describes CARSO as an initiative to achieve five goals in Central America: 1) Create safe streets for the citizens of the region; 2) Disrupt the movement of criminals and contraband within and between the nations of Central America; 3) Support the development of strong, capable and accountable Central American governments; 4) Re-establish effective state presence and security in communities at risk; and 5) Foster enhanced levels of security and rule of law coordination and cooperation between the nations of the region.

Focusing on counternarcotics efforts (drug trafficking is at the center of organized crime), the U.S. spent $260 million on the CARSI initiative alone during 2008-2010 and President Obama pledged another $200 million during his meetings with Funes in March 2011.  Beyond financial support, several U.S. agencies are on the ground in El Salvador, including the FBI, the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), and USAID, all of which are partnering with Salvadoran ministries to fight organized crime.  The DEA, through their Drug Flow Attack Strategy, aim to intercept drug trafficking.  DEA agents recently played an instrumental role in a gun trafficking bust and confiscated 28 tons of ethyl phenyl acetate, a chemical used to make crystal meth.  The U.S. Military works in the region to combat drugs as well, coordinating their activities from the Soto Cano Air Base in Honduras.

In April of 2011, Panama inaugurated the Central American Integration System’s Operative Center for Regional Security (COSR-SICA), intended to be a cooperative center for the coordinated fight against organized crime.  It’s a network through which Central American agencies can share information and technology on drug trafficking, organized crime, human smuggling, gang activity, and other security threats.  It will also receive logistical support from a similar information-sharing center in Key West, Florida, where 31 U.S. agencies operate.  Each Central American nation will be sending experts to work in the Center to organize the coordinated efforts for citizen security.

The recent creation of cooperative bodies to ensure citizen security in Central America, and the increased focus on the issue by existing organizations is an indication of the growing threat that organized crime poses to individual security.  The highest levels of government are finally talking about organized crime, and that is a good first step.  But it will be important for the citizens of each of these countries to continue applying pressure so that the discussions grow into concrete actions.

El Salvador Government, U.S. Relations

Developments in U.S.–Salvadoran Relations

On September 29, 2010, President Funes traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  This was President Funes’ second official visit to D.C.; in March he met with President Obama to discuss multilateral projects, security issues in the region, improving El Salvador’s tax collection system, and how the U.S. could serve as a strategic partner in combating drug trafficking and organized crime (click here for the official White House remarks following the March 2010 meeting).

During the meeting, Secretary Clinton vaguely alluded to enhancing security agreements and encouraging economic growth.  She also highlighted important steps taken to address the issue of financial inclusion, a topic addressed in President Funes’ March meeting with President Obama, namely that of the newly launched Building Remittance Investment for Development, Growth and Entrepreneurship (BRIDGE) initiative.  BRIDGE is an initiative designed to redirect remittances through formal financial channels so banks can leverage remittance flows to benefit society at large.  Secretary Clinton extolled the value of BRIDGE, stating at a September 22 luncheon, “BRIDGE will make it easier for communities in El Salvador and Honduras to get the financing they need to build roads and bridges, for example, to support entrepreneurs, to make loans, to bring more people into the financial system” (click here for full remarks).

Funes reiterated his goals to work with the U.S. to create task forces to combat organized crime and poverty in the region.  While neither leader elaborated on the specifics of said task forces, there already exists a degree of collaborative effort between the two countries.  In 2007, the FBI opened a Legal Attaché office based in San Salvador, headed by Special Agent Leo Navarette, which “[helps] apprehend and extradite gang fugitives; [provides] criminal histories and arrest warrant information on gang associates; and [locates] witnesses to testify at U.S. trials.”  It also works with in-country initiatives to help law enforcement and prosecutors crack down on gangs; including programs like the Central American Fingerprint Exploitation (or CAFÉ), the Transnational Anti-Gang (TAG) Unit, and the Police Officer Exchange Program (FBI press release, 7/03/08).  The FBI and US State Department also worked together to form the Central American Intelligence Program (CAIP), launched in 2009, which focuses on the intelligence aspect of battling transnational gangs (FBI press release, 8/11/09).

President Funes also thanked the Administration for renewing El Salvador’s Temporary Protection Status (TPS) for another 18 months, until March 9, 2012.  Currently some 200,000 Salvadorans live and work in the U.S. under the TPS designation, which was enacted on March 9, 2001.  A foreign country can be designated for TPS “due to conditions in the country that temporarily prevent the country’s nationals from returning safely, or in certain circumstances, where the country is unable to handle the return of its nationals adequately” (U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services).  Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano approved the 18-month extension “because the conditions that prompted the 2001 TPS designation of El Salvador following a series of severe earthquakes persist and temporarily prevent El Salvador from adequately handling the return of its nationals” (18-Month Extension of Temporary Protected Status for El Salvador).

Earlier in September at the Americas Conference held in Miami, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Arturo Valenzuela said the U.S. continues to focus on four policy priorities in Latin America:  social and economic opportunity, clean energy, safety and democracy (The Miami Herald, 9/14/10).  So far the Obama administration has consistently voiced these regional goals in meetings with high-level officials and seems to have actively taken steps towards realizing them.

To read the full State Department remarks with Secretary Clinton and President Funes, click here.