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Central America's Rising Crime and Violence puts Region's Development at Risk

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WASHINGTON DC, April 7, 2011 - Central America's spiraling wave of crime and violence is threatening the region's prosperity as countries face huge economic and human losses as a result of it, according to a newly released World Bank report.

Aside from the pain and trauma inflicted upon victims, violence can cost the region up to 8 percent of its GDP when taking into account law enforcement, citizen security and health care costs, the report argues. This is no small change for a region that in 2010 grew around 2 percent of GDP, while the rest of Latin America grew around 6 percent.

To make matters worse, crime and violence also hampers economic growth, not just from the victims' lost wages and labor, but by polluting the investment climate and diverting scarce government resources to strengthen law enforcement rather than promote economic activity, argues Crime and Violence in Central America: a Development challenge.

But, in a redeeming twist, the study also suggests that a ten percent reduction of murder rates in the region's most violent countries could boost annual economic growth by as much as a full one percent. Crime rates in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are among the top five in Latin America. In the region's other three countries—Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama—crime and violence levels are significantly lower, but a spike in recent years has raised serious concerns.

Some perspective may help gauge the extent of the problem. While Central America's population is roughly the same size as Spain's,Spain only registered 336 homicides in 2006, in sharp contrast with Central America's 14,257 homicides–an average of 40 per day.

A heavy burden

Crime is a heavy burden on Central America's economic and social perspectives, the report states.

"From threatening the wellbeing of citizens and the investment climate, to weakening the legitimacy of government institutions, violence affects all spheres of life in Central America," notes author and social development expert Rodrigo Serrano- Berthet. All Central American business owners, except in Costa Rica, place crime among the top five obstacles to business growth and productivity, notes Serrano-Berthet.

"More tellingly, 71 percent of Central Americans identify crime as the main threat to their wellbeing," the expert said.

Drug trafficking and a decades-long culture of violence emerge as the main culprits in Central America's crime predicament. Easy access to firearms and weak judicial institutions are also to blame for the region's violent state of affairs, according to the report.

Narco trafficking ranks as the top cause for the rising crime rates and violence levels in Central America, a reflection in part of the sheer volume of narcotics flows through the area –90 percent of US-bound drugs, according to the study. Inherent traits of drug cartel operations, such as turf wars and vendettas between rival gangs, seem to fuel the region's murder rates.

The complexity of this situation calls for a regional approach and greater emphasis on prevention, at the expense of interdiction, which has proven insufficient to diminish the traffickers'capacity. Also, successful strategies require actions along multiple fronts, combining prevention and criminal justice reform, says report author and social development expert Lorena Cohan.

"Marginal funds that countries have should be redirected for use in drug prevention and youth-at-risk programs, in reforming weak criminal justice institutions and in passing legislation to curb easy access to firearms," Cohan said.

Availability of firearms, an offshoot of the drug trade, is indeed a stubborn problem in a region where lengthy civil wars made weapons household items. As a result, some 4.5 million small arms were in the region in 2007, the vast majority of them illegal, and often used in the commission of violent crimes, the report said.

Most homicide victims are young men between the ages of 15 and 34. This makes youth violence and gangs a critical concern in Central America today, where estimates place the number of gangs or 'maras'at 900, with a total of 70,000 members.

Despite the overwhelming numbers, gangs don't seem to be the main culprits in raising crime rates. "While gangs are doubtless a major contributor to crime in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, the very limited evidence indicates that they are responsible for only a minority share of violence; multiple sources suggest that perhaps 15 percent of homicides are gang related," according to the report.

Video: A Development Challenge

Criminal justice system 'weak'

The study also puts under the microscope Central America's criminal justice system which it calls "weak". While it argues that this "weakness" limits the efficacy of crime and violence punishment and prevention, it also recognizes the advances the region has made in improving its judicial institutions.

"There is a vicious circle in the region where the high crime rates are contributing to weakening the criminal justice system. By contrast, many countries have been applying a set of measures that need to be supported, including a transition to more transparent accusatorial mechanisms, providing a greater role to prosecutors, strengthening publicdefense and introducing alternative sentencing mechanisms," Serrano- Berthet said.

The report contends that there is no quick and easy fix to Central America's crime and violence problem.

Rather, it stresses that policymakers will need to persevere because all indications are that the fight against crime is likely to be long lasting.

Specifically, the study suggests that:

Successful strategies require actions along multiple fronts, combining prevention and criminal justice reform, together with regional approaches in the areas of drug trafficking and firearms.

Interventions should be evidence based, starting with a clear understanding of the risk factors involved and ending with a careful evaluation of how any planned action might affect future options.

Designing national crime reduction plans and setting up national cross-sectoral crime commissions are important steps to coordinate the actions of different government branches, ease cross-sectoral collaboration and prioritize resource allocation.

Involvement of civil society organizations, in which much of the expertise in violence prevention and rehabilitation resides.

Increasing preventive strategies such as early childhood development programs, effective parenting or school-based violence prevention programs.

Since some of these programs may pay dividends only in the medium to long term, they should be complemented by programs that can generate significant short run reductions in crime and violence.

These include integrated citizen security approaches, particularly at the local level, that combine modern methods of policing with preventive programs such as situational crime prevention.

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