Executive Summary for the Wilson Center “Working Papers” on CARSI in Guatemala and Honduras

The recent sharp increase in unaccompanied Central American children and families arriving at the southwestern United States border has brought into sharp focus the factors compelling approximately 63,000 children to embark on a perilous journey to the U.S. through Central America and Mexico over the last 10 months. 

Approximately two-thirds of the unaccompanied children detained by the U.S. are from the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras.  They are fleeing homicide rates that are among the highest in the world, communities where youth gangs are in control and extort nearly all economic activity, where domestic violence is rampant, and crime goes largely unpunished.  Many of those fleeing are attempting to escape these dismal conditions and to reunite with parents and family members already in the United States.

The origins of these problems stem back many years, even decades.  But the immediate context may be the inability of these nations to protect their citizens and the growing power of criminal networks to control the state and engage in illegal trafficking of everything from drugs, to precious metals and hardwoods, to humans.

The United States response to the growing threat of crime and violence in the region began with support for the Government of Mexico’s efforts to aggressively confront organized crime at home in 2007 through the Merida Initiative and within a framework of “shared responsibility.”  At the time, Members of Congress and Bush Administration officials also expressed growing alarm about dramatic increases in violence and homicides in Central America as the region became an important transfer point for trafficking organizations bringing cocaine from the Andes to the U.S. Approximately 80% of cocaine leaving the Andes is estimated to pass through Central America.

To address these threats, both the Bush and Obama Administrations, together with Congress, devised a plan dubbed the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).  According to a Department of State “Fact Sheet” from August 2010, CARSI’s five goals in Central America are to:

1. Create safe streets for the citizens in 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
5. Foster enhanced levels of security and rule of law coordination and cooperation between the nations of the region

To accomplish these goals, the U.S. works with host countries to increase drug interdiction efforts; to strengthen the capacity of law enforcement institutions, including police and prosecutors, to fight crime; and, to engage in community-level crime prevention efforts to assist at-risk youth.

For the past year, the Latin American Program at the Woodrow Wilson Center has engaged in an extensive review of the impact and outcomes of the CARSI program in the Northern Triangle countries. Two of our initial country studies on Honduras and Guatemala, are now available here. These will be part of a final report that will also include an El Salvador country study, an in depth look at the geographic distribution of homicides and what it might tell us about how to address the problem, and a series of options for policy makers to consider.

Each country study reviews the current in-country security context, what and how the CARSI program is attempting to address these problems, and what impact the CARSI program is having in particular areas.

Conclusions

Both the Honduras and Guatemala paper identify some areas of modest success for the CARSI program.  In Guatemala, the work of the then-Attorney General to engage in targeted and strategic persecutions of criminal networks, the creation of a special 24-hour court to handle domestic violence cases and effectively protect victims and witnesses; and the national anti-gangs unit (PANDA) are all identified as promising initiatives. In Honduras, efforts to build up community-based programs for at-risk youth and the formation of a special prosecutor’s taskforce to address long-standing community conflicts in the Bajo Aguan region are singled out as promising.

However, both studies also identify areas of considerable weakness for CARSI programs. Lack of impact evaluations for most programs is a major problem in many cases. Furthermore, promoting U.S.-based drug prevention programs such as the D.A.R.E. program in Guatemala is highly questionable since studies of its effectiveness in the United States have shown it has almost no discernable impact on youth drug use. 

In Honduras, the study questions the wisdom of forming multiple special vetted units taskforces within law enforcement agencies when these can have a divisive impact on the overall law-enforcement institution, cause unnecessary redundancies, and contribute to weakening rather than strengthening the capacity of police and prosecutors.

Overall, the studies find that CARSI does not reflect an integrated strategy for addressing the critical security threats in Central America and thus has had negligible impact on the factors driving the increased Central American migration since 2011. 

For questions related to the Wilson Center’s CARSI project, and questions and comments related to the Honduras and Guatemala papers, please contact us via eric.olson@wilsoncenter.org