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Preventing crime and violence is better than fighting it

Bastiaan Engelhard | 10 August 2014

Prevention programmes, rather than iron fist strategies, help decrease crime and violence on the streets of the ‘Northern Triangle’ countries of Central America (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). According to UNODC, the region is one of the most violent in the world and its countries rank highest on interpersonal violence, impunity and human rights violations. Since 2012, to respond to the challenges, the Netherlands has been implementing a programme in Central America with a focus on citizen security, justice and human rights.

The Northern Triangle trilogy

This expert opinion is part of a trilogy on the security threats facing the Northern Triangle, that includes Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. These countries are challenged by the highest levels of youth violence in the world, the highest homicide rates, powerful drug trading groups, weak institutions and political crime. The influx of migrants in the United States reflects the instability in Central-American countries, as people flee to escape violence and poor living conditions. Many national, regional and international strategies have been developed to combat the region's biggest threats in an integrated way, but often they have been counterproductive. The article on the relationship between drugs and violence, by Pien Metaal and Liza ten Velde of the Transnational Institute, untangles the relationship between the drug industry and high homicide rates for more effective violence reducing policies. This article on illicit networks by Ivan Briscoe of the Clingendael Institute sheds light on the intertwined structures of patrimonial relationships and the development of the state after the civil wars in the Northern Triangle, creating a criminal complexion of governments. And the article on anti-gang policies and gang responses by Chris van der Borgh of the University of Utrecht and Wim Savenije of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, set out the gang phenomenon and how it's evolution has been shaped by ineffective policies.  

There is a widespread perception among the public, fed by bloody media reports, that most casualties in the Northern Triangle are the victims of drug-related violence. However, according to several violence observatories, interpersonal and domestic violence contributes almost equally to the high levels of homicides rates.

Governments in the region have implemented various zero-tolerance policies over the past decade to respond to exploding violence levels. Many international studies however, like the UNDP regional development report, have shown that these policies are seldom effective. Rather, the answer to violence lies in a combination of prevention policies, working with NGOs and local governments rather than sending the army on the streets. More and more police officers in the region are convinced that community-oriented policing is much more effective in the long run. But many politicians still win public support by advocating more policing and militarization to combat the high insecurities.

The Central America programme (known by its Dutch abbreviation MAP) was born at a time when the Dutch government decided to close its embassies in Guatemala and Nicaragua and therefore end its bilateral cooperation programmes in those countries. Since the security situation is the worst in the three northern countries of Central America (the Northern Triangle), and because Nicaragua is the poorest country in Central America, the MAP focuses mainly on Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua, without excluding Costa Rica, Panama and Belize.

The aim is to create an environment in which economic development and social inclusion can be stimulated. Children as young as seven are recruited at school to work within gangs. Many of them come from broken families and see this as an opportunity to earn an income and join a peer group. This makes it crucial to work on both preventing vulnerable young people from joining gangs and creating more educational and employment opportunities for them. Through its regional programme, the Netherlands aims to promote regional cooperation to prevent crime and violence, to strengthen the rule of law and to protect human rights defenders (see box). 

A regional programme to prevent violence

 For example, the Netherlands finances the PREVENIR project implemented by the German development organization GIZ. The programme trains municipalities, schools and the police to improve their cooperation at local level, in order to keep children and adolescents at school and reduce violence. They are also trained to recognize signs that kids are going off the tracks. Thirdly, PREVENIR works on improving opportunities for adolescents to study, to obtain vocational training and to find internships.

Additional prevention should be promoted within communities. Mediating conflicts in communities can reduce high rates of violence. For example, by giving judicial advice to judges and citizens to improve judicial procedures and improve relationships between judges and communities (see box).

Mediating conflict within the community

Other programmes within MAP focus on preventing conflict in communities by working with judicial facilitators. The Netherlands finances the Judicial Facilitator programme in six Central American countries, which is implemented by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the court systems. Community leaders are selected by their peers to be voluntary judicial facilitators, acting as a bridge between the community and the local judicial entity. The facilitators not only mediate in conflicts between neighbours – the casualties of interpersonal violence – but also give advice on going to court and what papers are required, etc. The Judicial Facilitator programme has also changed the work of many local judges, who tend to visit their working districts more frequently. The programme has received an award from the Hague Institute for the Internationalization of Law (HiiL) at the Peace Palace in The Hague.

Photo credit main picture: Berliner Kaffeeroesterei

Human Security

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Bastiaan Engelhard

Bastiaan Engelhard is First Secretary at the Embassy of the Kingdom of the Netherlands in Costa R...

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