Commentary: Crime in Central America a problem for U.S.

SAN SALVADOR, El Salvador – One of the first issues President-elect Barack Obama's transition team will look into when it starts mapping its Latin America policy: the wave of crime that is rocking much of the region, and that is increasingly spreading into major U.S. cities.

According to a new study by United Nations Development Program economist Carlos Acevedo, Central America already ranks as the world's region with the highest homicide rates, and several Caribbean and South American countries are not far behind.

El Salvador's homicide rate of 68 killings a year per 100,000 inhabitants – the world's highest after Iraq – is followed within the region by Guatemala with 45 homicides, Colombia and Honduras with 43, and Venezuela with 41. By comparison, the U.S. homicide rate is 5.7 per 100,000 inhabitants, the study says.

And from what I heard from international experts and government officials during a visit here last week, a major increase in the number of U.S. deportations of undocumented migrants with criminal records is swelling the ranks of the unemployed in Central America, and further driving up crime rates.

"A friend of mine was robbed at gunpoint on a bus three times within one week," Acevedo told me. "I've been luckier: I have only been robbed once, also at gunpoint, when I stopped my car at a red light."

More than 17,500 Salvadorans – including 5,500 with criminal records – have been deported from the United States back to this country since the beginning of the year, a 10 percent increase from last year, government figures show. Many of the deportees are gang members who later return – illegally – to the United States.

"They come and go," El Salvador's Security and Justice Minister René Figueroa told me. "As soon as they arrive in El Salvador, they make some fast money through robberies, or kidnappings, and then go back to the United States to join their gangs. Once there, they push drugs on the streets, or steal cars, and we're even starting to see some cases where they carry out kidnappings."

The problem may get worse. There are already more than 300,000 gang members in Central America – in some countries more than their respective police forces. Some of them have killed as many as 10 people by the time they reach age 15, Figueroa said.

In September, Salvadoran security forces seized an anti-tank missile, M-16 and AK-47 rifles and an Uzi submachine gun from a gang on the outskirts of San Salvador, the country's capital. The gang members belonged to the Mara Salvatrucha – a group that originated in Los Angeles and operates there and in several other U.S. cities.

"These gangs are for hire," Figueroa said. "Until now, they have largely worked for drug traffickers, but the danger is that they end up being paid to commit other crimes, such as terrorist attacks."

And according to the UNDP experts, violence costs Central America more than $6.5 billion a year in damaged property, increased healthcare expenditures and extra security measures, and creates a generalized insecurity that drives more people from all walks of life to try to immigrate to the United States.

What should the Obama administration do, I asked several law enforcement experts here. Most agreed that Central America is getting too little of the $400 million Mérida Initiative U.S. aid package to help combat violence in Mexico and Central America. They also complained that most of the U.S. aid is focused on anti-drug equipment such as speedboats, rather than on crime prevention.

The most effective way to combat the gangs is through education and prevention, by sponsoring activities such as nightly sports games that keep young people off the streets, most of them said.

My Opinion: In a May 23 campaign speech in Miami, Obama rightly stated that "The Mérida Initiative does not invest enough in Central America, where much of the trafficking and gang activity begins."

I agree. But it's also time to step up transnational anti-gang efforts, take stronger actions to prevent U.S. arms trafficking, and change the focus of U.S. anti-crime measures toward more education and crime prevention programs. Increasingly, crime in Central America has become far more than a local issue. Increasingly, it's a U.S. problem.