TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — Defense and security leaders from Central American nations joined counterparts from other Western Hemisphere countries in Tegucigalpa May 7 – 8, 2019, and took part in the 2019 Central American Security Conference, co-hosted by the Honduran Armed Forces and U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM).
Honduras hosted the annual security forum for the second time in five years. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, Defense Minister Fredy Díaz, Chief of Defense Staff, Maj. Gen. René Ponce and U.S. Navy Adm. Craig Faller, SOUTHCOM commander, were on hand to welcome more than 100 participants from Belize, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Panama and the United States.
During the two-day security meeting, the participating delegations and observers discussed how military and public-security forces support civilian authorities, as well as regional efforts to target transnational organized crime.
The delegations also met during bilateral and multilateral sessions for talks centered on topics of mutual interest.
Their dialogue included panels moderated by regional experts, including Eric Olson a consultant to the Latin American Program and Mexico Institute at the Wilson Center, a U.S. congressionally-chartered, non-partisan policy forum. Joining Olson were other expert panelists and guests, including Dr. Evan Ellis, a research professor of Latin American studies at the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College; Anthony Brand, program coordinator for the U.S. Agency for International Development in Honduras; and Jackeline Anchesta, Honduran Vice Minister of Human Rights.
Sandwiched between cocaine source countries and the U.S., where much of the cocaine trafficked through the region is consumed, Central America has experienced many of the harming effects associated with the presence of transnational criminal organizations and gangs over the past decade.
“We’re dealing with a thousand-head monster here,” President Hernandez told his country’s guests before CENTSEC began.
Despite a history of violence, there are recent signs the countries most impacted by transnational organized crime in Central America are moving in the right direction. Within the last decade, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala experienced alarmingly high homicide rates and violence. In 2011, the homicide rate in Honduras reached 85 murders per 100,000 citizens; and four years later, that rate reached 105 murders per 100,000 citizens in El Salvador.
“Without security, there is no investment. Without investment, there are no jobs and there is no economic growth,” observed the Honduran president.
To address those alarming trends, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala developed a strategy they called the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity. The three countries committed approximately $8.6 billion from 2016-2018 to support their strategy. In October 2018, the country’s leaders met with U.S. and Mexican leaders in Washington, D.C., during the Second Conference on Prosperity in Central America, where they agreed on ways to expand cooperation to address the key economic, security, and governance issues facing the region. Their commitment to addressing those issues and to advancing their strategy is beginning to show results.
President Hernandez told CENTSEC attendees security must be achieved in a professional manner “with care for democratic principles, care for human rights, care for the rule of law, and beyond that the rule of justice.”
Faller echoed the president’s view that security must be achieved while maintaining the public’s trust.
“We reinforce our legitimacy by the actions we take and the decisions we make,” the admiral said, “by always remaining apolitical, and by upholding and defending values like human rights, the rule of law, sovereignty, and democracy.”
One of the countries attending this year’s CENTSEC, Colombia, has assisted Central American nations with strengthening their security as part of a joint initiative with the U.S. called the U.S.-Colombia Action Plan for Regional Security Cooperation. According to Colombia’s Ministry of Defense, between 2013 and 2017, Colombia trained 16,997 personnel under the plan. Eighty-five percent of those personnel were from Central American countries.
There are signs the region is making progress. Since 2015, homicide rates have declined in the Alliance for Prosperity countries. President Hernandez told CENTSEC attendees the homicide rate in Honduras was 38 homicides per 100,000 citizens in 2018, down 55 percent compared to 2011.
According to the U.S. State Department’s latest International Narcotics Control Strategy Report, last year, the Salvadoran Navy completed the largest cocaine seizure in that country’s history when it interdicted more than six metric tons of that drug 250 nautical miles off the coast. It was one of several successes that have forced illicit traffickers deeper into Pacific waters.
Costa Rica – who recently joined the multinational staff at Joint Interagency Task Force South supporting detection and monitoring operations that target illicit traffickers in the region – seized 22 metric tons of cocaine in the first nine months of 2018.
And in Panama, a country that seized 78 metric tons of illicit drugs in 2018, the Office of Drug Prosecution achieved a 98 percent conviction rate in 2018.
But not all of the region’s recent firsts have been positive, and some serious challenges remain. In Guatemala, where U.S. authorities estimate drug trafficking organizations smuggled 1,400 metric tons of cocaine in 2018, the country’s authorities made an unprecedented find when they discovered 75,000 coca plants were grown on Guatemalan soil. Despite noteworthy successes by Guatemala’s Special Naval Forces in disrupting illicit traffickers operating in or near the country’s territorial waters, Guatemala has also experienced a high volume of inbound aircraft suspected of trafficking drugs, with transnational criminal organizations routinely shifting landing sites to avoid detection.
Ponce told the delegations attending CENTSEC the forum was an opportunity for participating nations to establish a new “starting point” in their shared responsibility, working together to reduce arms trafficking, organized crime and criminal groups.
Recognizing its shared responsibility, the U.S. is doing its part to reduce the demand for drugs at home. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 70,000 people died in the U.S. from drug overdoses in 2017. That is why more than half of the requested U.S. National Drug Control Budget for fiscal years 2019 and 2020 will go towards demand reduction in the form of prevention and treatment programs, with the remaining budget focused on reducing the availability of illicit drugs through domestic law enforcement, interdiction and support for international partners who contribute to reducing its supply.
Effective cooperation with international partners to disrupt and dismantle the illicit operations of transnational criminal organizations was a main topic during CENTSEC with the delegations working to strengthen ties among the regional defense and security forces represented, evaluate current challenges impacting security, and share their successes and lessons learned.
“Our commitment is to continue the process of integration and cooperation between our armed forces,” Diaz said, describing what the delegations hoped to advance during this year’s forum.
Those delegations included senior enlisted leaders who met concurrently with CENTSEC to discuss similar issues and objectives, as well as human rights, the increasing role of women in peace and security missions, and professional development. This year marked the second time the senior leaders took part in a regionally-focused seminar that coincides with CENTSEC.