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Washington DC Peace & Security Forum

Washington DC Forum: Transnational Crime in the Americas

Forum on Transnational Crime in the Americas
UPF Washington Office of Peace and Security Affairs
The Washington Times, Washington, DC, USA
March 14, 2012


Washington, DC, USA - UPF Washington’s Office of Peace and Security Affairs held its third roundtable on March 14, focused on the issue of: “Transnational Crime in the Americas.” 
It is a very challenging and contentious issue, not previously dealt with by any UPF program, although extremely important because of the serious political, economic and moral ramifications presenting a great challenge to the international democratic system.

The topic is vast and includes not only the trafficking of goods (arms and drugs) but also human trafficking and sex slavery. This level of criminal activity evolved long ago from being just problems of single nations. These are now transnational organized crimes with violent networks and connections with international terrorist organizations, as well as radical Islamic groups in Afghanistan and Iran. Vast amounts of economic and political power are under their control in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua making some of these nations ineffective and in the opinion of experts circumstantial failed democracies.

Moderated by Dr. Antonio Betancourt - Director of the UPF Office of Peace and Security Affairs, Washington, DC. Participants included: Adriana Beltrán - Senior Associate for Citizen Security, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA); Prof. Celina B. Realuyo - Assistant Professor of National Security Affairs, Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies; Dr. Maria Velez de Berliner – President, Latin Intelligence Corporation and Professor of Political Violence and Terrorism, The George Washington University; Daniela Palacios – First Secretary, Embassy of Honduras; Glenn Strait - Former Senior Editor of the magazine World & I: Innovative Approaches to Peace; Dr. Mark P. Barry - Senior Fellow for Public Policy at the Summit Council for World Peace; William Selig - Deputy Director, Office of Peace and Security Affairs, Universal Peace Federation; and Yuriko Kitagawa - (Observer) - Office of Public Affairs, UPF International - DC Office.


Opening Remarks by Dr. Antonio Betancourt

Transnational organized crime poses a serious threat to democratic governance, human rights, and the rule of law in Central America and beyond.  It is a multi-faceted phenomenon and has manifested itself in trafficking in persons, firearms and narcotics; money laundering; and a shocking host of illicit activities.

Drug trafficking, as one of the main activities of organized crime groups, supplies enormous profits and power to these groups in the region.  These transnational criminal organizations have found a promising new home in some of the poorest and most vulnerable countries in the Americas such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, or the “Northern Triangle” as the three countries are frequently referred to. Central America forms a bridge between Colombia, the largest cocaine producer, and Mexico, the staging post for the world’s biggest market for the drug – the United States and Europe. As pressure has mounted on these criminal organizations, first in Colombia and now in Mexico, Central America has attracted more and more traffic. Accordingly, the murder rate has risen alarmingly across the region, doubling in some countries.

There are many complicating factors that should be mentioned. First, as globalization has expanded international trade, the range of organized crime activities has broadened and diversified. The traditional hierarchical forms of organized crime groups have diminished; replaced with loose networks who work together in order to exploit new market opportunities such as the smuggling of other illegal goods. Globalization also signals an ease in which these groups are able to locate, communicate and satisfy customers in the United States, Europe and around the world.

Second, the labor force of these transnational groups is a second cause for concern. Mexican cartels are “contracting” out their work, taking advantage of Central America’s competitive narco-labor market. They recruit trained hit men from pools of soldiers laid off by these countries’ armies, slashed since the end of the civil wars 20 years ago. Furthermore, there are the roughly 70,000 members of Central America’s maras, or youth gangs, which provide a ready supply of teenagers willing to transport drugs, monitor kidnap victims and carry out other low-level jobs. The blossoming links between the drug traffickers and the maras as well as the cartels’ tendency to pay in kind rather than cash which has ramped up local consumption, offers new opportunities for criminality.

Third, most Central American governments are ill-equipped to tackle these fronts. The countries of the “northern triangle” are among the poorest in the Americas, with income per head of around $2,700, less than a third that of Mexico.  Yet despite its poverty, Central America receives little outside assistance.  As of last year, Mexico had received 84% of the $1.6 billion so far allocated under the Mérida Initiative, a United States drug-fighting program aimed to support Mexico as well as Central America. In Honduras’ case, political instability adds to its difficulties since nearly all foreign aid to Honduras was frozen following a coup against its president in 2009.

These and many other factors have strengthened the grasp these criminal organizations have on Central American societies and even governments they have crippled law enforcement entities, government efforts, and business and investment at all levels. The civilian population living between Mexico and Guatemala are becoming increasingly more vulnerable to the violence and lawlessness these illicit groups have brought to their region.  Now is a crucial time to address these challenges and promote viable solutions.

April 14-15 in Cartagena, Colombia, 34 heads of state and government of the Western Hemisphere will meet at the 6th Summit of the Americas in order to discuss challenges to development, citizen security and welfare, disasters, and other important topics. In regards to organized crime, a well-defined hemispheric agenda at the highest level in addition to regional cooperation will be key to overcoming the Hemisphere’s challenges in this daunting area. It is of the utmost importance that transnational organized crime be addressed directly and in an integrated fashion so that solutions can be formed and implemented in a timely manner.

Transnational organized crime is considered as one of the major threats to human security, impeding the social, economic, political and cultural development of societies worldwide.

There is a saying that when it rains in the first world; it rains cats and dogs in the developing world. The sad reality of these developing countries is a total absence of economic opportunities to allow the poor to lift themselves up, with economies incapable of absorbing such a great surplus of labor power. This creates a tragic human market more than ready and available to be harnessed not by productive forces creating real economic growth, prosperity and development, but by criminal economies creating broken lives and a broken “democratic system.”

We seek to formulate possible ways to tackle the many facets of this issue and attract attention to this important challenge to the peace and security of the International Democratic System.

Discussion questions:

1.What is the genesis of transnational Crime in Central America, how did this problem develop, who were the principals pioneers of the problem, and what were the initial connections with organized crime in Colombia and the U.S.?  

Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) in Central America was described as a symptom and a product of inequitable capitalism, and a failure of the government to provide the basic needs to the community. This applies not only to Central America but all the countries which have failed to produce equitable governments. As a result, mass swaths of the population are ready and willing to choose whatever financial opportunity is available. A prime example given are the cartels in Medellin which have established a parallel economy and institutions to provide opportunity for housing, clothing, facilities, telephone service, and most importantly, to send their kids to school. The mission of a government is to provide a system of economic opportunities to allow people to take care of their economic needs. If there is corruption and faulty institutions in the government, then people are obliged to find alternative ways to fill their needs. In some cases, it was pointed out, TCOs provide more jobs than the government. Criminal organizations fill a void.

2.To what extent do Central American weak institutions threaten regional security?  What should CA countries do to fight the culture of corruption that undermines state institutions and economic prosperity empowering transnational criminal organizations?

One participant said that the governments also derive benefits from the operations of these TCOs, including health care and jobs. Central American society has traditionally suffered from inequality, but it has never been fully addressed by the north triangle countries. Are countries really ready to invest what is necessary to fundamentally alter the society? In the case of Guatemala, for instance, many businesses have never paid taxes. They are willing to build façades of quick democratic institutions for the population but they do not actually function when it comes to building institutions. The police institution suffers from internal corruption, but that is only an example of the kind of institution that is poorly invested in. The police come from humble, uneducated backgrounds. With no career opportunities or incentives, then the outcome should not be a surprise. In Honduras, the government is seeking advice and financial support to strengthen the institutions. For example, all businesses are required to pay 2% of their incomes to be directed towards security. Variations in ethical standards must be examined. What is considered corrupt by one nation’s standards is considered normal practice in another. People intrinsically do not want chaos, especially those who have evolved intellectually, spiritually and psychologically.  Eventually people will come to say: “enough is enough,” and realize that it is in their own interest not just for morality, but for survival, then they will naturally claim ownership of their lives and destinies and push for accountability. Transparency, accountability and zero corruption are the fashion of today and what’s behind calls for true democracy.

3.Would some of the Central American nations risk collapsing into narco-states in the medium term?  If so, which ones, e.g., Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador? To what extent should international cooperation in Central America be a part of the solution?  Should it be bilateral, trilateral or multilateral (e.g., including extra-regional actors like Spain and Great Britain)?

A narco state is defined as an area that has been taken over and is controlled and corrupted by drug cartels and where law enforcement is effectively nonexistent. According to this definition the experts say there is a one major narco state in South America and at least one other in Central America. These makes it ideal for TCO activities. There are many examples outside of the region that are becoming trends. These countries have a culture not of corruption but of looking the other way and being an enabler. Many nations incorporate the benefits of the cartels but oppose the violence. “As long as you don’t kill me, attack my family, don’t block the bridge, then, I’ll turn the other way.” Only when the violence personally affects them and their children, do they suddenly become publically outraged like in the case of Colombia, it was only after the killing of one relative of a family belonging to the super structure of the nation that real mobilization of state power took place.

4. What are the key lessons from the Mexican and Colombian cases for the Central American nations?  What to do and what not to do? What kind of role should Mexico play in Central America’s fight against transnational organized crime and violence?  To what extent should it be similar or different to the one that the U.S. has played in Mexico? 

Colombia was a unique experience to curb drug smuggling and combat left-wing insurgency. It will never happen again. The resources will not be replicated. The countries in Central America do not have national security strategies. They do not see TCO as a transnational security threat. Political will is needed as part of the formula to combat this problem. All the participants agreed that the military should not have a role, but instead what is needed is institutional strengthening. Colombia, it was agreed, is not a model to copy. Reliable statistics are needed to identify the levels of violence and locations. This is needed to understand where resources should be placed. It is true that the police lacks the ability to deal with the violence, but the army is as corruptible as the police. The idea of a military solution is wrong. But there are some bright spots; the new attorney-general in Guatemala has shown that if there is political will, then there can be a functioning government. Political will is more important than a military solution. Before September 11, the guerrillas in Colombia were dealt with in a half-hearted manner, but after the attack, they were redefined as what they really were, terrorists, and immediately with the help of the Bush administration, a successful action plan was implemented.

5. What are the drivers that give rise and abet the growth and expansion of Transnational Criminal Organizations (TCO) in CA?What can be said for the “hidden alliance” between legal business and the business of the TCOs - collusion? 

One participant described the first controlled substance as the Forbidden Fruit in the Garden of Eden. The drug problem did not begin with the cocaine trade. Long before, there was opium, and a war between England and China. In Colombia, development of the industry began in earnest in the 1970s and the early ‘80s when dollars were coming into the country at the rate of more than $5 billion a year. The Colombian government’s Central Bank opened a cashier window in every single branch of the Banco Central so that dollars could be exchanged for pesos. There were no protests which showed that there was protection in high places. The prevailing view was the problem was the U.S. “They’re buying the stuff. Without the demand from the U.S., there would be no drug problem.” Meanwhile, the Medellin cartel was growing and employing many of young people. A participant told the story that the president of Colombia had to wait one year for an import license to get a new computer, but through the cartel’s connections, the computers arrived the next day. The cartels can circumvent the laws. They’re moving a lot more than just drugs, including holding a girl hostage to work in a brothel house all night. She’s a “renewable resource” that makes more money from multiple transactions than the single one in a drug related business. You get one payoff from higher risk, higher penalties. Human trafficking is less risky more profitable and matches the demand.

6.How can CA fight against these criminal transnational enterprises with global reach and unlimited financial resources? What role should the military in Central America play to combat transnational criminal organizations (vs. law enforcement)?

The consensus among the participants is that it will take generations to change it. One participant said a better question is whether to continue the war on drugs or should the focus be on decreased levels of violence? This would require different strategies and where you put your attention. If it is to reduce levels of violence then the question that needs to be answered would be what the different types of violence are, where is the focus? Drug related violence has very different sources, for example, extortion, gang rivalries. Different strategies must be devised that can be applied. There is a need to invest a lot more in prevention. Most of the violence prevention programs have failed. They did not decrease violence, but led to restructuring of gangs. It had multiple, multiple negative effects. Most of the violence prevention programs are internationally funded whether run by NGOs and churches, which brings up the question of sustainability. Very little funding is provided by the national governments for violence prevention. Why should the U.S. support these programs when the local nation has no interest? CA governments have to walk the talk. Until the violence becomes personal and becomes galvanizing, it will be just diplomatic talk – until the bodies are strewn on the U.S. side of the border. The question for Central America is whether to continue the war on drugs or the war on violence. It’s a legitimate question to ask. You must determine where to focus your limited resources. The U.S. is not the only donor to the region. The last five years there is lack of coordination of the donors among the different agencies which affect the clarity of what the focus should be. There is a lack of national security strategy which is a lot more important and the whole issue of government accountability. The Andean countries focus the blame on the U.S. The U.S. is not blameless. As long as those governments say the problem is not our problem then that takes them off the hook. It’s an issue of accountability and political will. The military is not the solution. Bullets will not solve this.

7.What effect would the agreement of the US to discuss “drug legalization” at the Cartagena Summit have in CA? What about Guatemala’s proposal to decriminalize transportation of drugs throughout its territory? What if other CA governments decide to tax transportation of illegal drugs without stopping it?

The proposal to decriminalize is being debated by the CA governments. There’s also a proposal by the Guatemalan government to legalize the transportation. Can we look at alternatives to what has been a failed policy? The war on drugs has not been effective. The Guatemalan president is only saying that to scare the Americans. “Brazil is the largest user of cocaine in the world. More than one million users in São Paulo alone.” The U.S. will not legalize for two simple reasons: What would they do with the DEA? The U.S. approach is to see the problem as a moral crusade. If it was seen as a business proposition, then the approach would be different. The U.S. will be brought into the circle to deal with the elimination of violence. Britain has tremendous drug problems. We are never going to stop organized crime. We must look for a happy medium.

8.How can Central American governments promote economic growth and development as a counter-proposal to the criminal economy, and lack of participation of the common people in the formal economies? 

Dr. Betancourt shared about new financial and legal instruments created in the US in the 1980s based on the writings of lawyer/economist Louis Kelso and philosopher Mortimer Adler in their book, The Capitalist Manifesto, and carried out by organizations like the Center for Economic and Social Justice (CESJ) and the Kelso Institute on economic empowerment and the democratization of access to money and credit as a counter proposal to the Wall Street model. They propose a Third Way to communism and capitalism. The participants expressed cynicism about the micro-credit banks because of the absence of credible legal systems for the protection of private investment. Micro credit often has been used to smuggle money and serve criminal enterprises. Diplomacy has to work. If we are expecting effective policy, then it has to be based on reality, and not just shooting darts and hoping. Until people are beheaded in Phoenix, Arizona, then people will continue to deny the problem, but by then it will be too late. Everyone agreed on the importance of harnessing and involving the émigrés and expatriates to build up Central America as has happened with the Vietnamese and Filipino communities in America and around the world. We should tap into the Diaspora in America. The Salvadoran community has been trying to tap into the U.S. community to build sister communities.  In the case of Guatemala, a lot of communities just broke apart during the war years. People left the country. The communities are fractured. There has not been reconciliation. Expats have mixed sense of loyalty: Do I belong to a community or a nation? Often, it was pointed out, if someone from Latin America is asked where they are from, they will answer a particular city or region, but not the nation.  This says a lot about the fractured concept of Latin America. They don’t galvanize around this concept. One participant wondered if NGOs could work with a greater sense of cohesion among expatriates here so that communities could start offering more like the Filipino communities. That could be one kind of a model to try to promote. We’re looking at international approach. Sister communities are being promoted in El Salvador. Dr. Betancourt emphasized the value of studying the ideas and practices coming from Louis Kelso and whether they can be implemented. Countries must have the legal framework to implement this.  The proposal is for the creation of new cities of shareholders or nations of share holders. The U.S. would be a nation where every citizen would have a stake in the economy. Not as a laborer for hire but as an employee, worker owner. “I work for the company but I also own the company.” He said for more information go to or the Kelso Institute. One participant emphasized the need to restructure the educational system. Many young people are working for the cartels. A young person can make $1,000 by working as a mirador (the look out). NGOs and church-based groups provide job skill training but after the skills, what about the jobs?

9.What should be the four most important resolutions affecting Central America coming out of upcoming Cartagena Summit.

There was skepticism about the annual conferences that seems to get together for photo ops, but then nothing happens. Governments must be more transparent and accountable. NGOs have to tell exactly how much is being spent on microloans and be more transparent.  Government assistance programs have no means to be accountable. Oftentimes during these discussions they do not really address the factors underneath, never see the issue of corruption, broader issues of institutional strengthening. They are not holding them accountable. Need indicators or measurements to hold government accountable. Too often outside investors and donor nations expect quick results, but what is really needed is to build up democratic institutions. That really takes a long time.

10.What are the final responsibilities of the Central American Governments as well as the U.S. for what is going on in the region?Who can “save” Central America and how?

All participants agreed that only Central America can take responsibility and save itself. According to experts some states are already narco states or on the way to becoming so. Political will is needed. Donor nations must respect the will of the assistance nations. The Golden Rule has to be redefined. There must be ways to galvanize the leaders and support people who are being brave and honest individuals who deserve our support. Some of the participants expressed doubt that the ruling families can get past their hubris to act and do something about the problem. The social media, it was suggested, is bubbling up with change in CA like in the rest of the world if is there a way of networking to bring about positive change. The role of women was discussed for the need for greater participation and opening of opportunities for women. More women are needed in the political process. Can candidates galvanize the vote? Every parent wants a better life for their child. Only when a child gets hurt do the people get galvanized. Everyone must feel it. Dr. Betancourt concluded the three-hour session by pointing out that UPF believes in an innate goodness. The UPF’s founders talk about: “Let's change the logic of power for the logic of True Love.” We are connected to a network of people of good will, some in very high places of leadership and governments around the world. We believe in redemption, that humans in partnership with the Creator eventually will find solutions to what besieges them. It is the role of people like us to have integrity to be role models even in the face of adversity and opposition, to keep our commitments to the common good of humanity. To leave behind a better world for future generations. We do it for ourselves and humanity.

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