During the last decade in countries like Brazil, Chile and other areas in Latin America, changing economic policies and innovative social inclusion programs are giving rise to economic growth built on exports and an increasingly prosperous middle class. But in Central America, a region of growing strategic importance to the United States, many countries face a bourgeoning security and law-enforcement crisis that demands greater attention from us all.
A few weeks ago, I visited a river that divides Guatemala and Mexico — a tree-lined river beside a small Guatemalan town, a lazy-flowing river, and, as I learned, a dangerous river.
I saw upwards of 25 rafts ferrying contraband ashore in makeshift boats. Young boys floating barrels of cheap Mexican petroleum were undeterred by border patrols in the light of day. Just imagine what crosses that river under the cover of darkness.
Getting our Central America policy right will require stronger partnerships and a greater emphasis on strengthening the institutions of justice to meet our mutual security needs. Law enforcement assistance is a vital component in combating the regional problems that eventually affect us here in the United States. But we also need to help countries in this region attack the root causes of drug trafficking and crime.
For years now, the United States has stood in solidarity and mobilized resources to help our Central American neighbors — and it’s not hard to understand why. We share common values and a dynamic partnership rooted in deep and longstanding cultural ties. Central America is a valuable market for U.S. exports, and is home to key shipping lanes for global commerce. From counternarcotics to trade, our peoples and our security are increasingly intertwined.
And yet, for all its promise, Central America confronts a security crisis that is poised to grow in the years ahead. Gang violence and rampant corruption have undermined social and economic development. Criminal organizations operate with impunity. Too often, corrupt law-enforcement agencies turn a blind eye to violent crimes and the youth increasingly find themselves without jobs or hope for a better future.
The president’s fiscal-year 2014 request for Central America reflects the urgency that this moment requires. At a time when budgets are tight all around, the president requested a 20-percent increase for the Central American Regional Security Initiative. CARSI can point to some notable successes, but the fact that homicide rates in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala are still among the highest in the world underscores that we have much to work on together.
The United States is committed to deepening and broadening our partnerships with the countries of Central America. That is why one of my first trips as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. And that is why I will be introducing a bill to clarify our policy and objectives in this region and create new incentives for instituting policy reforms and meeting our shared responsibilities.
The path forward will require a three-pronged approach.
• First, we need to bring greater strategic clarity and focus to our policy and sub-regional goals. Developing a comprehensive and balanced approach to strengthening law enforcement capacity, addressing insecurity and combating the narcotics trade in our hemisphere will directly improve security here at home and keep drugs off of our streets.
• Second, our approach must strengthen the capacity of regional governments to tackle the root causes of crime – lack of education, high levels of poverty and inefficient judicial systems. We need to encourage long-term reform that will help build the institutions of governance and strengthen social and economic infrastructure.
• Finally, we need to upgrade our partnerships in the region. Partnerships with civil society and the private sector are critical for creating jobs, protecting human rights and sustaining social welfare. Now more than ever, it should be clear that broad-based and inclusive economic growth is a key part of any sustainable security strategy.
If we respond forcefully to this crisis, if we work effectively with our partners and adequately resource these efforts, we can build a stable, safe and prosperous hemisphere. This isn’t just a good-neighbor policy, it’s a smart national security strategy. So let’s seize the opportunity.
U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez, a Democrat from New Jersey, is chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.