Earlier this month, I stood in awe in an amphitheatre filled with thousands of people in El Salvador’s capital city of San Salvador. The place pulsed with cheers and music. Legions of young people hoisted signs for peace. Former leaders of warring parties stood together in common cause.
We joined forces to mark the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the accords that ended the country’s 12-year civil war. My predecessor as U.N. secretary-general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, worked until the last minute of his last day in office to help seal the deal to end a war that claimed more than 75,000 lives and rattled the region.
A generation later, the armed conflicts that once burned through El Salvador and the region are no more. Political violence has been greatly reduced and democratic elections are the norm.
But as local newspapers on the day after the peace ceremony made clear, profound challenges remain. Stories about the anniversary event competed with headlines on El Salvador’s latest murder toll: 22 dead during a single day. That would be the equivalent of 1,050 killings in the United States in 24 hours. Sadly, it was just another day in Central America.
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Countries of the region — especially the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras — are being held at gun point by transnational organized crime, gang violence and drug trafficking.
Sandwiched between drug-producing countries to the south and major consuming countries in the north, proximity has bred criminality and brutality.
Today, the region is home to the highest murder rates in the world. Nearly as many Salvadorans have died in violence since the end of the civil war as those who perished during the fighting.
Half of the country’s population was born after the 1992 Peace Agreements, and young people without jobs and hope are the most vulnerable to violence. Forty per cent of murders target children and youth. Every three hours, another woman or girl is a victim of sexual violence.
As a community leader told me when I visited one of San Salvador’s most troubled neighborhoods, “Our children cannot play in the streets. We cannot go on a bus or leave home secure in the knowledge that we will return. Every Salvadoran lives in constant fear of being the next victim.”
A young woman simply added, “We fear the future.”
Drugs and crime are not solely issues of North and South, but East and West.
Central America is a bridge to North America, but the Americas are also a staging post for Europe. One of the trafficking routes to Europe is through West and Central Africa — among the most fragile regions in the world. Terrorist networks and transnational organized crime are creating a toxic brew of trouble.
In our interconnected world, we all have a stake in rooting out these threats. Yet insecurity, inequality, impunity are causing many — including unaccompanied children — to literally run for their lives.
Much of this turmoil is unfolding outside the world’s radar of concern. It is little wonder that Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado asked: “What is the difference between people displaced by violence in other regions and those displaced by violence generated by drug traffickers and transnational crime?”
Countries themselves must do more. Over 90 per cent of murders in El Salvador and Honduras are never prosecuted, prisons are overcrowded, institutions lack accountability and corruption is rife. During my visit, I urged leaders to strengthen institutions, respect human rights, empower women and uphold the rule of law. The United States also needs to do more to reduce drug consumption and stop the flow of weapons which fuel the violence in Central America.
The good news is that I sensed a determination to tackle thorny issues and open spaces for dialogue and constructive action. Often when I broach tough human rights concerns, leaders quickly move into a defensive mode. On my visit to Honduras — with the government’s full support — I announced the planned opening of the first-ever U.N. office on human rights in the country. At another stop, a leader smiled and said “because you are bringing up difficult issues, I know you are a real friend of my country.”
The governments of the region have adopted a Central American Security Strategy to boost coordination and develop joint policies to tackle youth violence and related challenges. Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador also have launched the Alliance for Prosperity to promote investment, production and regional integration. El Salvador’s Council on Citizen Security has just released a $2 billion action plan to improve public spaces for recreation, enhance education and address prison conditions. All of these efforts merit the full backing of the international community.
In our time, Central America has traveled a long road to reconciliation. The Salvadoran peace accords showed that when a society is united — with international support — great things can happen.
The wars in Central America may be over — and the anniversary of their end should be celebrated. But the people of the region are still waiting for the full peace and stability they deserve.
Ban Ki-Moon is secretary-general of the United Nations.