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From newsdesk@igc.apc.org Wed Aug 2 09:45:11 2000
Date: Tue, 1 Aug 2000 22:19:23 -0500 (CDT)
From: IGC News Desk <newsdesk@igc.apc.org>
Subject: CENTRAL AMERICA: The Most Violent Area in the Americas
Article: 101646
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Copyright 2000 InterPress Service, all rights reserved.
Worldwide distribution via the APC networks.

The Most Violent Area in the Americas

By Néfer Muñoz, IPS, 31 July 2000

SAN JOSE, Jul 31 (IPS) - Central America is the most violent region in the Americas, and one of the most dangerous in the world, according to international bodies, whose findings are corroborated daily by the headlines in local papers.

The violence is on such a scale that it has reduced the life expectancy of the people of this region of 35 million. Lynching and other forms of murder, violent assault, kidnapping and robbery are all on the rise, especially in El Salvador and Guatemala, which are listed by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) among the five most violent countries in the world.

The average murder rate in Central America stands at 58 per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to an average of 30 per 100,000 among 20 other countries on the American continent studied by the IDB.

More than two million firearms are in the hands of civilians who, given the failure of authorities to restore law and order, often decide to take justice into their own hands.

"Insecurity and violence are devastating Central America," Laura Chinchilla, former Costa Rican minister of security and an adviser to the United Nations Development Programme's (UNDP) regional project on justice, told IPS.

Chinchilla said that while the region had carried out reforms and made some progress in terms of public safety, integral policies for combatting crime and violence were still lacking.

The situation is critical in El Salvador and Guatemala. "The insecurity is so alarming and the lack of action by the justice system so glaring that in towns in the interior (of Guatemala) the phenomenon of lynching has become frequent," Emilia Garc¡a, with the Mutual Support Group (GAM), a Guatemalan human rights organisation, told IPS.

GAM estimates that 257 murders were committed in Guatemala in the first half of the year, including 26 lynchings of alleged criminals.

"In these executions, it was never proven whether the accused were really guilty," said Garc¡a. "Many were beaten to death or burnt alive after being doused with gasoline."

Surveys indicate that one in three families in El Salvador, meanwhile, have purchased a gun for self-defence purposes.

But "this ends up becoming a factor contributing to the insecurity, not only for the people who have a gun, but for those around them," said Miguel Cruz, with the Jos‚ Sime¢n Ca¤as Central American University in El Salvador.

Cruz stressed that the greater the number of firearms in the hands of civilians, the higher the levels of crime and common violence, as seen in El Salvador and Guatemala.

The experts in public safety consulted by IPS pointed to several factors that have driven up the levels of violence in Central America, especially the civil wars of the 1980s, which left behind patterns of aggressive behaviour.

Theft and bank robberies have forced many companies to step up security measures, sometimes to an exaggerated extent according to people like Manuel Rodr¡guez in Guatemala, who complained after cashing a check in a bank.

"The guards now treat everyone with suspicion, as if we were criminals," said Rodr¡guez, who pointed out that those entering banks were submitted to strict controls, and were not even allowed in with certain objects.

Some companies in Guatemala use lie detectors when hiring new employees, for fear of infiltration by criminal elements. The use of such apparatuses has increased in recent months, and specialised companies offer the service for 150 dollars.

The violence is closely linked to the widespread poverty in the region and the presence of thousands of former guerrilla fighters and paramilitaries, many of whom, with no means of making a living, have joined criminal bands.

"Globalisation has brought the spirit of consumerism to Central America, but the problem is that a large segment of the population does not have economic resources, and crime offers a form of quick access to money," Costa Rican sociologist Jorge Hidalgo told IPS.

A UNDP study, "Violence in Costa Rica: the View from Public Health", by Guido Miranda and Luis del Valle points out that even in peaceful Costa Rica, violence has reduced the life expectancy of males by nearly four months, and that in the six years taken into account, violent deaths led to the loss of an estimated 24,000 years of life.

Kidnappings are also on the rise in Central America, with El Salvador and Guatemala again leading the pack.

Although no reliable statistics are available, Guatemala is one of the world leaders in kidnappings, second only to Colombia, where 1,739 cases were documented in 1997, according to the Free Country Foundation of Colombia.

In Guatemala, the best-known face of kidnapping is that of Elver Gabriel Alvarado, better known as "Lito", the head of the criminal band "Los Pasaco". Due to death threats from Lito's band, Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo sent his family to Canada.

"We are defenseless, that is the feeling on the street, because if the president, who has the entire police and military apparatus at his service, is afraid of the kidnappers, how are the rest of us supposed to feel?" Guatemalan political scientist Carmen Padilla said in a conversation with IPS.

Last week, several judges in El Salvador, backed by local business associations, urged Congress to authorise wiretapping as a tool against crime.

Some analysts say the spiral of violence was triggered by de facto military regimes that aggravated the already widespread impoverishment.

Experts warn that violence is tearing apart the social fabric in Central America, a region of just 523,000 square kms, where most of the population -- 80 percent in Guatemala and Honduras, and as high as 90 percent in Nicaragua -- lives in poverty.

[c] 2000, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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