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Detained gang members in El Salvador (Photo: Salvadorean Attorney General's Office)
Monday, September 3, 2012

Time for Another Peace Accord?

Should Central America, under siege from drug and gang violence, reach another peace accord 25 years after Esquipulas II?


Inter-American Dialogue 

Aug. 7 marked the 25th anniversary of the Esquipulas II Peace Accords, which helped provide the framework to end years of conflict in Central America. Speaking at the OAS, former Guatemalan President Vinicio Cerezo called for a new Esquipulas Accord to confront the issues that currently threaten the region's stability, arguing that violence, corruption and inequality can only be mitigated by a cohesive response from Central America's leaders. Would signing an "Esquipulas III" be a good idea? In what ways has Central America seen successes in recent years, and which are its most intractable problems? How should weak institutions be strengthened? What steps could leaders take to more effectively confront the region's crises?   

Vanda Felbab-Brown, foreign policy fellow at the Brookings Institution:
Regional coordination and sharing of intelligence and best practices can mitigate the dangers of illicit economies and organized crime being displaced to new locales and cushion some of their worst manifestations. Historic rivalries, however, have often hampered anti-crime coordination efforts in Central America. Given the level of corruption within law enforcement agencies in Central America, governments there have also feared that sharing intelligence will augment the chances of it leaking out to criminals or-conversely-expose corruption in one's political and legal system. But there are limits to what even effective coordination can achieve. Absent a significant reduction in demand, drug supply and transshipment will inevitably relocate. As long as an area has weaker law enforcement and state presence, crime will move there. Such crime displacement takes place also within countries with strong governments and effective rule of law and law enforcement capacity: Anti-crime successes in New York City, for example, displaced crime into broader New York state and New Jersey. Larger institutional reform to increase state capacity and social equity may well be critical for robust success of anti-crime measures in Central America. But governments there have found it difficult to implement such measures. In the context of high corruption and weak state capacity, initial anti-crime interventions should prioritize targeting street crime and the most violent criminal organizations. Model courts and model prisons can be a first step toward bolstering the effectiveness of judicial systems. Anti-crime efforts should also include well-conceived and evidence-based socio-economic programs designed to address root causes of crime. Civil society needs to play an active role in such anti-crime efforts, such as by encouraging community-police exchanges and exposing corruption. 

Fulton Armstrong, senior fellow at American University's Center for Latin America Studies and former U.S. National Intelligence Officer for Latin America: The historic significance of the Esquipulas Accord was that Central American nations embraced a vision for a peaceful future that defied their detractors and cynics, including the United States. Esquipulas achieved what most experts in and outside the U.S. government had never predicted: the Sandinistas presided over elections that led to peaceful alternation of power; Salvadorans on the right and left laid down their arms and committed to a better future; and even Cuba encouraged its allies to follow the peaceful, democratic zeitgeist. Central America is again at a crossroads. Its institutions are weak-by design-and its challenges are big. Its elites resist the reforms needed to address these challenges and instead continue to look to the United States for magic solutions. But what Washington offers are shop-worn programs that have failed to address the fundamental problems in the drug-producing states, including Colombia, and the drug-transit states, including Mexico. U.S. policy seems to aim to use Central Americans as cannon fodder in a 'war on drugs' that the United States itself-consumer of the drugs and provider of the cartels' arms and cash-does not engage in. The cartel footprint in the United States dwarfs that in Central America and Mexico, but there is no 'war' here. President Cerezo's vision for an Esquipulas III is valid. The region's challenges, as in 1986, demand serious soul-searching and sacrifice by Central Americans themselves, not foreign fixes and other diversions.

Arturo Cruz, former ambassador of Nicaragua to the United States and political analyst: When the presidents of Central America signed the Esquipulas II Accords, architected by Costa Rican President Óscar Arias, the following factors favored their signatures. 1.) The Soviet Union was beginning to feel overwhelmed by the capital deficiencies of its economy, heavy military spending and the burden of its client states. 2.) The majority of European countries, to say nothing of Latin American countries like Mexico and Brazil, never felt comfortable with Ronald Regan's Central America policies. 3.) The Reagan administration, regardless of how it is remembered today, by the end of 1986 was diminished by the Iran-Contra scandal (with the House of Representatives in direct opposition to Regan's policy and the Senate voting 97-1 for Arias' plan in its early versions.) 4.) The situation in Nicaragua was of 'dual power,' with the cities favorable to the Sandinistas and rural areas preferring the Contras, locked in a war. We must also remember, however, that Arias' plan had great challenges: The Regan administration was still trying to force regime change in Nicaragua, despite its doubtful viability; the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional preferred to continue insisting on the Contadora initiative, which didn't include designing a new political architecture; and we cannot forget Costa Rica's economic situation. Still in the mid-1980s, it was precarious and vulnerable to the flow of economic assistance from the United States, which was limited to 'sensitize' Arias to the Reagan administration's interests. In conclusion, the Esquipulas I and II were exclusively Central American initiatives. The strength of the Arias Plan was largely its simplicity, with only 11 points that fit onto six pages, highlighting the demands of democratization and free elections.

Cynthia J. Arnson, director of the Latin American program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars: Esquipulas II represented an unprecedented effort on the part of Central American nations to put forward a common vision for how to overcome armed conflict in the region. It was not a laundry list of objectives, but rather a relatively small number of basic principles to guide internal as well as international behavior: privileging dialogue and negotiation over military means, promoting internal democratization and calling for an end to outside support of the parties to the conflict. The peace plan provided a basic architecture around which multiple actors coalesced and it became a central organizing principle for U.S. policy in an environment fractured, first, by the Iran-Contra scandal, and subsequently by the end of the Cold War. Since the end of armed conflict, there have been many advances in terms of formal democratization-the widening of political spaces, a much more open and plural debate in the media, growing activism by groups in civil society on a host of policy issues. But the crisis of citizen security and gang violence-which pre-dated by and is far more prevalent than the violence caused by drug trafficking and other forms of transnational organized crime-is reinforcing authoritarian tendencies, retarding processes of judicial and police reform and making the material conditions of life for large numbers of people simply intolerable. Moreover, the absence of consensus on social issues, reflected in some of the lowest rates of taxation in the hemisphere and levels of spending on education and health that are below the regional averages, has left deep social cleavages that provide a steady incentive for millions of people to migrate. Overcoming these deep social divides is an urgent task. The failure to do so only exacerbates the security problems and in more global terms, undermines the region's competitiveness. Esquipulas III must have the construction of social pacts as its central goal, without which Central American countries will continue to find it impossible to achieve sustainable development or resolve the deep security crisis.

Republished with permission from the Inter-American Dialogue's daily Latin America Advisor newsletter



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