Central America’s “Northern Triangle” has become the most violent region in the world over the past few years. The Wilson Center’s Latin American Program and Vanderbilt University's Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) brought together a panel of experts to discuss Central Americans’ perceptions of and experiences with crime, violence, and public security in their countries. Special attention was given to the effects of crime and violence on public opinion as well as the role of the police, community leaders, and educators in finding policy solutions. Presentations were based on findings from the 2012 AmericasBarometer biennial survey by LAPOP, as well as a special set of LAPOP qualitative interviews. Panelists included: Elizabeth J. Zechmeister, Vanderbilt University; José Miguel Cruz, Florida International University; Susan Berk-Seligson, Vanderbilt University; Commentary by: Rodrigo Serrano-Berthet, World Bank.
Dr. Elizabeth J. Zechmeister’s presentation will paint a broad portrait of patterns of crime and violence in Central America and the connection between crime and democratic attitudes. Key points include:
- Crime and violence are pressing problems in Central America, but AmericasBarometer survey data demonstrates that experiences and feelings of insecurity vary significantly across regions within Central American countries.
- Experiences with crime also vary by type of crime and region: violent crime victimization is far more common in urban than rural areas.
- Insecurity and crime victimization diminish life satisfaction, system support, and support for the rule of law.
Dr. José Miguel Cruz’s presentation will address the critical role of the police. Key points include:
- AmericasBarometer survey data demonstrates that the role of the police is crucial in resolving problems of crime and violence in Central America, and in providing political stability to countries affected by citizen insecurity.
- Police corruption can decrease support for and trust in the political system.
- However, local community policing efforts can increase trust in the police and in the overall political system
Dr. Susan Berk-Seligson’s presentation will pick up on the theme of the role of the police and, as well, discuss examples of success and challenges in programs in Central America. Key points include:
- Qualitative interviews with community stake holders show that distrust in the police decreases citizens’ willingness to report crimes and, as well, fuels citizens’ support for taking the law into their own hands.
- Specific examples of community policy programs in El Salvador and Panama provide examples of successes in increasing perceptions of police accountability and strengthening links between the police and citizens.
- Well-designed programs that focus on “at risk” school-age youth are particularly important in policy solutions to problems of crime and violence in Central America.