MANAGUA – Nicaragua’s long-standing claim to being the safest country in Central America is losing its luster in a region that is now considered one of the most dangerous areas in the world, according to a new report on human development inCentral America.
El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras –Central America’s “northern triangle” – has become one of the most violent regions in the world, with homicide rates five to seventimes higher than the world average. In El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador alone, there are an average of 16 murders a day, according to recent statistics.
Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica – Central America’s “southern triangle” – are still remarkably safer than their northern neighbors, but only Costa Rica has a homicide rate (eight per 100,000 habitants) lower than the world average of nine. According to the report, compiled and published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), Panama averages 11 homicides per 100,000 habitants, and Nicaragua averages 13. El Salvador tops the region, with 65 murders per 100,000 habitants, followed by Guatemala’s 47, and Honduras’ 46.
In total, there have been 79,000 homicides in Central America over the past six years – more deaths than produced by either El Salvador’s 12-year civil war or a decade of fighting in Nicaragua.
Not only are homicide rates higher here than in most of the world, but they’re growing faster than in the rest ofLatin America.
Comparative data from 2000 to 2006 shows Central America’s homicide rate increased by more than 10 per 100,000 inhabitants, while in other parts of Latin America the murder rate remained the same or even dipped, as in the cases of Brazil and Colombia.
“Central America has become the most violent region in a continent that is notoriously violent,” the report found, noting that only the Sub-Saharan Africa has a higher homicide rate thanCentral America.
“In other words,” the report grimly states, “Central Americais the most violent region on the planet, except for those regions that are being affected by intense political violence.”
Even in the cases of Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama – which have homicide rates between three to six times less than the northern triangle countries – the report still
notes a relative increase in homicides over the past two years. In Costa Rica and Panama, for example, the homicide rates have nearly doubled between 2006 and 2008, while in Nicaragua it’s increased by slightly less than 50 percent.
“The countries in the southern triangle need to prepare themselves now,” said Rebeca Grynspan, the UNDP’s director for Latin America and theCaribbean. She warned that the levels of violence and insecurity plaguing the northern half ofCentral Americacould soon spread south and “become a regional problem.”
Grynspan noted that much ofCentral America’s population is still young, and many are socially marginalized. This population needs to be engaged, included in society and given a chance to become productive citizens. This is especially true as more organized crime – gangs and drug trafficking cartels – make inroads inCentral America, offering the tempting promise of money to marginalized youth (NT, Oct. 2).
“The insecurity of Central American youth is simply dramatic,” the report found, noting that the “probability” of a young Latin American dying as a homicide victim is 30 times higher than it is for youth in Europe, and 70 times higher than it is for youth in countries such as Greece, Hungry, England, Austria, Japan or Ireland.
Of the 83 countries in the world where the UNDP ranked murder rates among youth, El Salvador ranked as the most dangerous country in the world (with 92.3 homicides for every 100,000 youths), while Guatemala ranked fourth, with an average 55.4 homicides.
“This is an opportunity forCentral Americato take immediate action to reduce insecurity in the region,” Grynspan stressed.
That message was repeated by Hernando Gómez, the regional coordinator of the report. He said that the region’s safer countries, such as Nicaragua, need to avoid the complacency of resting on their laurels as “the safest country inCentral America.”
“Nicaragua is in a good position compared to the other countries ofCentral America, but not compared to the world in general,” Gómez said. “Nicaraguans have a right to want better.”
Less Visible Threats
Two of the biggest threats facingCentral America’s citizen security are less visible, but no less dangerous: domestic violence and corruption.
Grynspan said that violence against women and children continues to be a “hidden crime” in much ofCentral America, where 15,000 women reported being raped between 2002-2005. Though a lot of domestic violence occurs in the privacy of homes, it is creating a culture of violence that is then replicated in society as a whole, she said.
“Domestic violence is a school for violence in society,” Grynspan noted.
Corruption, too, has become a “cancer”
inCentral America, according to Gómez.
This has become particularly apparent in Nicaragua, where polls show a growing number of Nicaraguans don’t trust the government. Over the past year, all four branches of government have been widely accused of fraud and corruption.
An M&R Consultants poll published Oct. 23 in the daily La Prensa shows that more than 65 percent of the population says they feel “pessimistic” about the recent controversial decision by the Sandinista judges in the Supreme Court to override a constitutional ban on presidential reelection, clearing the way for President Daniel Ortega to run again in 2011.
The controversial ruling has been blasted as “illegal” and “manipulative” by opposition political parties, constitutional lawyers, church leaders, business chambers, civil society and the U.S. government, among others (see separate story).
Despite the widespread rejection of the ruling and of the Sandinista judges responsible for it. Sandinista magistrate Francisco Rosales, the judge who handed down the reelection verdict on Oct. 19, was the UNDP’s special invited guest of honor at last week’s presentation of the report. Rosales’ appearance at the presentation came only hours after he was pelted with eggs in the street by protesters for his lead role in the Ortega ruling.
For some, listening to Rosales speak about the importance of judicial security, social contract and rule of law was too much to stomach.
“This is incredible, the man responsible for so much insecurity in Nicaragua is talking about the importance of citizen security,” said a disgusted Gonzalo Carrión, director of defense for theNicaraguaCenterfor Human Rights, before walking out on the presentation.
Francisco Javier Bautista, Nicaragua’s coordinator for the report, explained that citizen security, for the purposes of the report, measured only “the level of risk or the perception of risk that people have of being victims of crime.” He said that broader definitions of factors contributing to citizen insecurity – such as political and judicial corruption – “would require a much wider analysis of the phenomenon.”
But according to Carrión, who was not involved in the report, it doesn’t make sense to talk about citizen security in countries like Nicaragua without taking into account factors such as impunity and corruption, which, he says, “create a lot of insecurity among the population.”
“With a system of institutional corruption, there is no way for a country to develop democratically or peacefully,” Carrión said. “Having a state of law and judicial system that works are essential factors to human development and citizen security.”
Carrión noted that corruption and abuse of the law are even leading to acts of physical violence, when Nicaraguan citizens take to the streets to protest and are met by Sandinista thugs, who have attacked peaceful protests on more than 20 occasions over the past year.
So corruption is not only an abstract factor contributing to citizen insecurity, he said, rather one that has “direct consequences” on people’s physical wellbeing and security.
So while the authors of the report stressed that improvements to citizen security can be made within the framework of institutional democracy inCentral America, critics such as Carrión say it´s a chicken and egg situation when “democracy” itself is the problem.
“How can citizens feel secure if there is no confidence in government institutions?” he demanded.