The poor and forgotten Central America

Guatemala City (Prensa Latina) Central America is the poorest and most forgotten area of ​​the Latin American subcontinent. The vast majority of the world’s population associates the region with “banana countries”, and that is all the knowledge they have of the area.

In other words: widespread poverty, much violence, corruption. And, of course, banana production. Or “dessert” production, as it has been called: fruits, coffee and sugar.

With socioeconomic indices similar to those of Sub-Saharan Africa, structural problems turn almost all of its countries (Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua) into a virtual time bomb.

High rates of malnutrition, illiteracy, lack of job opportunities, starvation wages, deficit and corrupt states, shortage of basic services, plus a series of historical factors that we will see below, make this area a particularly insecure place.

Some Central American cities (San Pedro Sula, San Salvador, Guatemala, Tegucigalpa) are among the most dangerous cities in the world due to the alarming levels of crime.

The average number of homicides committed daily at the national level: 15, 20, 25, suggest territories at war.

In 2020, these rates fell drastically, due to the forced confinement that the COVID-19 pandemic brought. But the violence has not disappeared; Although it fell last year, it remained very high compared to other areas of the world, including countries openly at war.

In reality, these are not declared war conflicts, but in fact they are societies that live in perpetual “war”.

Extreme poverty is fertile soil for crime

It is nothing new that extreme poverty functions as a fertile breeding ground for crime. Added to this backdrop of chronic poverty are enormous migratory movements from the countryside to the cities (it is estimated that no less than 30 people a day in each country carry out this internal migration). This creates unmanageable pressures in large urban concentrations -capitals of between two and three million inhabitants-, disrupting the productive capacity of the communities of origin and producing processes out of control such as marginal neighborhoods.

For now, a quarter of the Central American urban population lives in so-called “marginal” areas, without basic services, dangerous, not friendly at all, most of the time in conditions of invaders on public land. The worst of all: with no immediate solution in sight, with a current health crisis that makes the situation even more complex.

In the large urban centers of the countries of the region, the sharp separation between these precarious neighborhoods is common, generally considered “red zones” (because of their danger, where “no one enters, not even the police”), on the one hand, and on the other, the luxurious ultra-protected sectors of very difficult or impossible access for the ordinary citizen (places where there are mansions with swimming pools and heliports, comparable to the best mansions of the so-called First World).

Walking the streets or traveling on public transport has become dangerous. And equally insecure and violent are rural areas: any point can be the scene of a robbery, a rape, an assault. As a pathetic example: sexual violations of women have not been rare on buses.

Criminal violence has become so common that it is not surprising; On the contrary, it has been trivialized in a certain sense, accepting itself as a normal part of the daily social landscape. A murder is frequent for the theft of a cell phone, a wristwatch, a ring.

Nowadays, daily violence has become a very serious problem in all these countries. In fact, before the pandemic, the homicide rate reached an average of 40 per 100,000 inhabitants, which is considered very high in relation to international standards.

This violence has a global cost as a percentage of GDP of between five and 15 percent, while that of private security ranges from eight to 15 percent (significant fact: security agencies are one of the business lines that has grown the most in recent decades, and the business continues to expand).

It is important to note that victims and perpetrators are regularly young people between 15 and 25 years old.

As complementary data, no less indicative of the situation, it should be noted that lynchings of thieves (of petty thieves, petty thieves) are not infrequent, which shows the social crisis at stake. Lynchings, by the way, which are widely accepted by the population.

Where does so much violence come from?

So much violence stems from an intertwining of causes: as anticipated, from structural poverty, in addition to the legacy of recent wars, from uncontrollable migrations; to which is added a historical impunity and a profound inefficiency of the justice systems (hence the lynchings, supposed “justice by one’s own hand”, “popular justice”).

The 1980s marked a time of furious internal armed conflict for Central America.

In the framework of the Cold War -cold for the two opposing superpowers, super hot for these countries, which are what effectively put the body in-, from the insurgent and counterinsurgent logic that was established, the area was completely militarized.

The immediate effects of these polarizations were terrible: dead, wounded, mutilated, material losses, plus all the psychological consequences that this entails, in general without any approach from effective public policies.

The escape through alcohol is the easiest way to “cover up” the problems. “In Guatemala you can only live drunk,” said the Nobel Prize for Literature, Guatemalan Miguel Ángel Asturias.

The 1990s gave rise to peace processes in each country, ending the war situation in fact, but the culture of violence that was installed throughout the area and whose consequences still persist, persisted.

In any Central American republic, today you can get an assault rifle with ammunition for $100 on the black market, and the custom of using firearms is widespread (it is estimated that there are as many registered weapons as there are illegal ones among the civilian population). .

In general, the youth sectors are the most affected by all these processes, those who find less space for development.

The nefarious role of social prejudice

Social prejudices – fueled by a deep-seated patriarchal ideology – see youth as a social problem in itself, without addressing the complex problem that leads to the proliferation of youth gangs, which is, above all, a social symptom that speaks -violently, rudely- of the failure of the prevailing models in the region.

Many times, when the authorities think of “preventing violence” in the “red zones”, they dedicate themselves to putting public lighting in the darkest areas and handing over soccer or basketball fields, as if that, by itself, were a solution, while the root causes of the situation remain unknown.

One of the most frequent outlets for young Central Americans with limited resources, both urban and rural, -which, by the way, are the majority- is to join the ranks of illegal immigrants headed for the United States; and if not, the gangs (the “maras”, as they are known in the region). The “easy money”, the street distribution of drugs, transgressive behaviors, are always a temptation.

An ingredient that strongly contributes to the climate of daily violence is the general impunity that prevails: widespread government corruption, obsolete and inoperative judicial systems, discredited police forces, collapsed prison systems; all of which does not contribute to lower crime rates, but rather, in the end, feeds them back.

In many cases, various mechanisms of the States are kidnapped by organized crime mafias, with large amounts of political power, who openly manage their businesses protected by this legal cover: drug trafficking, smuggling, trafficking of undocumented immigrants, powerful gangs of bank robbers or car robberies. regional level, illegal sale of timber resources.

For these groups, needless to say, the reigning criminality is not only functional but necessary. And in the face of all this, private security agencies appear to be the solution (although, in reality, they are not a big deal for their owners, they do not represent any solution).

“You don’t have to be a sociologist or a political scientist to realize the relationship that exists between the gang member who is sent to extort money from a neighborhood and the private security agency, a deputy or a military man, who comes the next day to offer their services,” a young man from a Central American gang said with crystal clarity.

Crime wave and history of cultural violence

This crime wave that is plaguing the region is mounted, in turn, in a history of cultural violence marked by authoritarianism, patriarchal machismo, the lack of democratic mechanisms and consensus, an almost feudal spirit in some cases (in remote rural areas the virtual right to pernada, jus prima nocte, is not uncommon).

To use an already well-known expression, but without a doubt always timely: violence generates violence. If in a home a child is raised with extreme violence – that is the dominant pattern: “the best psychologist is the belt” -, he will surely repeat that in his subsequent actions, when he grows up. “What was passively suffered is actively repeated” teaches psychoanalysis.

For the popular perception, public insecurity is one of the main problems to face, if not the biggest, as much or more than historical poverty.

The continuous media bombardment contributes to reinforcing this stereotype, fueling a climate of collective paranoia where the “iron fist” appears as the saving option.

It is in this logic -deliberately manipulated by groups that benefit from this climate of violence- that the militarization of everyday culture does not stop, and private security agencies far outnumber the state police in a ratio of five to one; which, it is worth insisting, in no way guarantees citizen security.

Repression is not the solution

The solution to all this is not repression; The best way to end -or at least substantially reduce- this social cancer of criminal violence, of daily crime, of violence in general, is prevention.

But not that satire of prevention mentioned above, where young people seem to be “naturally” the problem to be addressed.

In other words: the only real possibility of transforming the situation lies in improving the living conditions of the population: bread and justice.

Citizen security is not achieved with weapons, guard dogs, electrified fences and alarm systems; achieved with social equity. “It is better to invest in classrooms than in prisons”, said Lula da Silva. Great truth!

Marcelo Colossi,

Contributor of Latin Press.

We would love to give thanks to the writer of this article for this amazing material

The poor and forgotten Central America