$750 million for Central America: Young people living between homicide and hope

By Justin Fugle
July 8, 2016

Last December, Congress appropriated $750 million in support of the efforts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to improve security, education and employment in an effort to provide some stability and hope to fearful populations. However, 2015 was a very violent year, with more than 17,000 homicides across the three nations. It is apparent that more people than ever are facing the choice between migrating, joining gangs or losing their lives.

What programs have been launched? What models can be tapped? What lessons have been learned from similar crises in Colombia and Ciudad Juarez, Mexico that have now improved? With Congress on the verge of approving major additional funding, these questions are in need of answers.

Recently, more than 80 U.S. government officials and development practitioners gathered at Plan International’s DC office to hear the views of four experts on these topics and discuss a path forward. Plan’s Policy Panel was moderated by our CEO, Dr. Tessie San Martin, and included:

— E. Ambassador and Deputy Chief of Mission, Honduran Embassy, Salvador Rodezno.

— United States Agency for International Development (USAID)’s Director for Central America, Eric Kite.

— Country Director, Plan International Guatemala, Debora Cobar.

— Associate Director for Latin America, Wilson Center, Eric Olson.

The panel explained that the challenges faced by El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras are many, including malnutrition, lack of opportunities for youth, Zika and other social issues — all of which are complicated by rampant violence and corruption. Gang violence has led to skyrocketing homicide rates that resemble the casualty count from a major war. In El Salvador last year, there were 6,657 homicides. To compare, there was not a single year when that many Salvadorans were killed during that nation’s civil war.

Impunity has also been a major concern. A sense that crimes go unpunished seems to be at the center of these issues. In Honduras, there have been a number of large marches and protests against impunity, and those marches included a number of young people. People are calling for more transparency and accountability so they can have more faith in the system.

Ambassador Rodezno explained that Honduras has recently launched a major effort to improve the police force.

“We had a very corrupt police force,” he said. “We had so many problems. For example, there was the case where the police chiefs conspired to kill the national drug czar. So, the penetration of organized crime was very deep.”

Another advance cited by many is Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez’s decision to launch a new international anti-corruption body to reduce impunity. Known as MACCIH, it is modeled on the U.N.’s anti-corruption body in Guatemala that helped Guatemala make historic advances last year.

Eric Kite from USAID offered a number of insights based on USAID’s prior experience and recent research. He cited the importance of a balanced approach that works to improve the situation both through law enforcement and social services. Kite agreed with Plan that young people are too often seen as the problem.

“If society views youth-at-risk as irredeemable, then that’s a lost generation,” he said.

That positive perspective on young people was reinforced by a report from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) that Plan International supported. The Commission calls on governments to respect the rights of young people and not to stereotype them as public enemies. It says that many more young people are gang victims than gang members. It calls on states to have a “mindset of fully protecting their rights, as well as rehabilitating and reintegrating them into society.”

The report points out that many young people face violence in their homes and schools, as well as from the gangs. Kite agreed that these sources of violence must also be addressed “because one of the risk factors we found that is most important in predicting whether or not a youth will become involved in crime and violence is witnessing domestic violence.”

So, rather than a hard line, what most young people really need are opportunities for employment, education and especially to feel heard, explained Debora Cobar, Plan Guatemala’s country director.

In Plan’s interviews with 600 young people in Guatemala’s Western Highlands, “The young people said, ‘all the time people are asking us about what we want to do, but there are no social programs and no job opportunities,’” according to Cobar.

“The budget for children’s rights in Guatemala is very low and the Youth Centers are not outside the cities,” she said.

Plan and the IACHR have also recently presented the report together at well-attended policy events in Central America, specifically in Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. Plan’s Regional Director for Latin America, Corina Villacorta, spoke about these topics at a conference organized by the Honduran government, where she shared Plan’s experience in reversing violence in schools.

All of this dialogue with senior government officials fosters Plan’s view that young people must be seen by policy makers as part of the solution.