The United States has seen a dramatic decrease in violent crime over the last two decades. In 1994, more than half of all citizens reported violent crime as a major concern. Today, according to Gallup, only two percent consider it a serious problem. Sadly, in Central America – a region vital to our security and prosperity – violent crime is a pervasive concern. The region’s homicide rates are among the highest in the world, and other violent incidents are tragically commonplace. Crime routinely goes unreported or unsolved, and it impedes economic growth.
The situation in Central America matters to us as Americans. We are linked not only by our proximity, but also by deep interpersonal ties and more than $60 billion in two-way trade. As we work with Central American and international partners on strategies to improve regional security, we must not lose sight of the concerns of citizens who endure this violence every day.
A recent CID-Gallup report, “Central Americans are More Concerned with Street Crime,” shows that the majority of Central Americans perceive street crimes like robbery and extortion as the single greatest threat to their security. Nearly two-thirds of residents in the capitals of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras report they have been victims of robbery or assault. The increase in drug trafficking through Central America in recent years has been a significant contributor to violent crime and corruption in the region that threaten the rule of law and challenge the authority of the State. However, many Central Americans see a different threat on their doorstep. More than half cite local gangs or common criminals as most responsible for crime in their communities.
The people of Central America demand what so many of us take for granted: the ability to live and move safely in their communities, to conduct business free from extortion, to protect their children from harm, and to know that criminals will be brought to justice. As a friend, neighbor, and partner, the United States has a responsibility to help Central America forge lasting solutions that reduce violence and address the underlying causes of crime, such as poverty, unemployment, and weak institutions that foster corruption and impunity.
Since 2008, the United States has committed nearly half a billion dollars through our Central America Regional Security Initiative to help reduce and prevent violence, improve criminal investigations and prosecutions, root out corruption, disrupt criminal networks, and enhance respect for human rights and the rule of law in Central America. Although law enforcement operations and drug interdiction attract the most attention, the majority of U.S. assistance supports training and capacity building for rule of law and security institutions, as well as community-based crime prevention. We share best practices in gang violence prevention from Los Angeles and other U.S. cities. Our development assistance complements these goals, reinforcing security in every sense – food security and better access to health care, economic security through education and job training, more resilient families through domestic violence prevention and outreach to at-risk youth, and social and political inclusion for women, minorities, and other marginalized groups.
Just as we have succeeded in reducing violent crime in the United States, I am optimistic that with our continued support and through a sustained partnership among all sectors of society, Central America can overcome the cycle of violence and deliver the security, justice, and opportunity that every citizen deserves.