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The cooperation of the armed forces in support of civilian law enforcement bodies has a long-established history in Central America, where in many cases it stretches back to the peace accords. Cooperation includes the provision of military personnel and equipment for tasks such as urban patrols, engaging in border operations targeting organized criminal groups and trafficking; and their deployment at penitentiary centers, where they often engage in perimeter security tasks and control of persons and objects entering and exiting prisons.
With crime and violence soaring, governments are increasingly resorting to an increasing role of the armed forces in public security tasks, in some cases acting as de facto police forces. The relative benefits and challenges of such a strong involvement for an institution whose fundamental basis is associated with external rather and internal security, and whose training is fundamentally of a military as opposed to a policing character, is the subject of much debate.
Concerns include their effectiveness in reducing insecurity; human rights concerns; and the long-term impact of deploying the armed forces in what is often seen as a tactic designed to make short-term political gains, at the expense of engaging in longer-term investments in police capacities. With that said, their role has become increasingly institutionalised in the region.
The private security sector has converted itself into an important actor across the Central American countries due to their numbers, the functions they provide, and the fact that in many cases they cover gaps in the field of public security that have arisen due to a lack of coverage by state security actors.
As displayed in the graphic, which is taken from the case of Guatemala, private security employees often outnumber the number of state law enforcement personnel, while they also carry out important functions and activities that include: personal bodyguards; guarding properties in urban and rural areas; and private investigators.
Regulation of the private security sector is in many cases incomplete, but ministries responsible for security and policing tend to be responsible for control of the sector, which includes issuing licenses, regulating the activities of firms, and tasks related to training.
Crime and violence disproportionately impact youth, which are both victims and major drivers of insecurity in Central America, and in recent years the region has witnessed the rise of Maras - gangs of youths linked to arms and drug trafficking, and to involvement in violent crimes such as murders and extortion.
Intricately linked to the issue of the gangs, and to youth crime in general, is that of social inclusion, or rather the lack of it. It refers to a sense of belonging—to a group or to a process - as opposed to being marginalized. A lack of social inclusion, which is closely linked to issues such as poverty, inequality and unemployment, generates a sense of alienation, of being an outsider and of not belonging. This inevitably leads to a sense of insecurity, and often to non-conventional (and often violent) efforts to attain justice and security. In Central America, these mutually reinforcing phenomena of marginalization and insecurity come together in a turbulent mix.
In contrast to the mano dura (Iron fist) policies, characterised by repression and hardline responses to crime, increasing attention is now being paid to the formulation of legislation, policies, and institutions that seek, often in a preventive manner, to target the underlying drivers of insecurity and social exclusion.
For more information: see RESDAL’s article “Behind the Numbers, Insecurity and Marginalization in Central America’ in America’s Quarterly:
Women, alongside youth, also represent a vulnerable group within an overall context of insecurity. In addition to the general forms of crime and violence, women are also subject (on a much greater scale to men) to gender-based violence, which are those forms of violence based on a person’s gender; sexual violence, including rape and various other forms of sexual violence; and domestic violence. While not restricted solely to women, these forms of violence tend to produce much larger numbers of female as opposed to male victims.
As a result of greater incidence of such crimes and recognition of the issue, attention is being paid to institutional programs and bodies specifically targeting these forms of violence, while specific legal frameworks and reforms to the penal code related to the crime of femicide are progressively being introduced, creating longer sentences and typifying the crime. All countries in the region now have legislation specifically relating to violence against women, although definitions for the crime of femicide vary greatly.
Women continue to be greatly under-represented within public security forces across the region, in particular among senior ranking officers. In the case of Panama, 1 in every 7.7 uniformed police personnel is female.
Border control and the security of border areas is an issue of growing importance on the regional agenda, as well being an issue closely linked to other key themes, notably organized crime; drug trafficking; and, in the certain cases in Latin America, the presence and operations of armed groups.
The situation is further complicated by socio-economic challenges, with many of the border regions facing high rates of poverty, while the presence of the state is often scarce and highly limited.
Within this setting, and given the highly porous nature of many of these borders and established informal cross-border trading and movements, border control in the region is a complex task.
In addition to border authorities, a multi-institutional approach - including the armed forces and other agencies – has been employed to provide a more comprehensive approach to the issue. A prime example is the Chorti Task Force of Guatemala. It is an elite force constituted by police (200) and army (100) personnel, alongside those of the Office of the Superintendent of Tax Administration (10). Instituted in 2014, it operates along the border with Honduras, targeting organised crime and drug trafficking activity.
Established, informal and unregulated border movements of goods and persons exist across Central America.
The Armed Forces and Security
Youth, Marginalization and Insecurity
Women and Insecurity
Women in Public Security Forces