Updated June 23
With the exception of catastrophic Hurricane Mitch in 1998 and the Honduran coup of 2009, the world has all but forgotten about Central America since its civil wars obsessed the Reagan Administration in the 1980s. But here, along with the storm and the putsch, is what happened in the meantime: the region has become what U.S. Air Force Gen. Douglas Fraser, head of the Miami-based U.S. Southern Command, calls “the deadliest zone in the world” outside Afghanistan and Iraq.
Certain swaths of neighboring Mexico, like the bloodied border city of Juárez, are deadlier. Still, Central America’s Guatemala-El Salvador-Honduras triangle has one of the world’s highest murder rates: last year Honduras suffered 73 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, El Salvador 71 and Guatemala 41. The U.S. rate was about 5. Even violence-plagued Latin American countries like Brazil (25) and Mexico (18) can’t compare. Over the past decade, Central America has logged some 100,000 slayings, more than the 75,000 killed in El Salvador’s 1980-1992 civil war. Today’s violence isn’t the work of left-wing guerrillas and right-wing death squads but of drug gangs, including the Mexican cartels that are expanding south – like the bloodthirsty Zetas, who last month massacred and decapitated 27 Guatemalan campesinos on a ranch in the Peten rainforest.
That’s a big reason President Obama, to the surprise of many, put El Salvador on his itinerary when he visited Latin America in March: as bad as it would have been to see Central America fall to communists in the 20th century, it would be even worse to watch it succumb to drug lords in the 21st. Obama pledged $200 million to help the region combat its new scourge, which is why Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton is headed to Guatemala today, June 22, to take part in a conference on how to contain the region’s brutal and metastasizing lawlessness. (Update: In Guatemala, Clinton upped the U.S. pledge to $300 million, while other international donors added almost $1 billion.)
The gathering, hosted by the Central American Integration System, or SICA, the organization of the region’s seven nations, will also include representatives from Europe, Asia and South America as well as organizations like the U.N. and the Inter-American Development Bank. They’ll all be needed, given how daunting Central America’s security crisis and its root causes are. Chief among them are the region’s utterly threadbare police and judicial institutions, which are no match whatsoever for the finances, firepower and sheer ferocity of not only the Zetas but more homegrown criminal groups like the Mara Salvatrucha, tattooed monsters who terrorize barrios not only on the isthmus but in U.S. cities like Los Angeles, where the gang actually started out. “The Mara’s been my family since I was 13,” one 32-year-old gangbanger told me in 2006 inside the Quezaltepeque prison outside San Salvador.
That also points up how important it is that the SICA conference help Central America solve the grinding inequality that makes the isthmus so vulnerable to criminals. It’s no coincidence that 70% of Hondurans live in poverty or that the richest tenth of its population owns almost half its wealth. As TIME’s Tim Rogers recently reported, indigenous communities along Nicaragua’s Mosquito Coast are breaking into the middle class only by trafficking “white lobsters,” packages of cocaine and other drugs pitched overboard by smugglers. If Central America and partners like the U.S. don’t “address the problem at its fundamental core,” William Brownfield, State’s assistant secretary for international narcotics and law enforcement affairs, who’s with Clinton in Guatemala, said last week, “we are merely moving the problem around the chessboard.”
Toward that end, the U.S. has brought El Salvador – whose President, Mauricio Funes, is widely considered the region’s interlocutor with the Obama Administration – into the Partnership for Growth, a new and more comprehensive development project, and it’s bringing more of Central America into its Pathways to Prosperity program, aimed at developing nations’ most marginalized citizens. It seems the least Washington can do, given the large roles that smuggled U.S. weapons and America’s voracious appetite for illegal drugs have played in creating Central America’s gangster tragedy, which includes a deadly wave of kidnapping and extortion. Washington might be obsessed with other parts of the world today, but it can’t ignore the western hemisphere’s “deadliest zone” any longer.