Big News, Little Region: Central America

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Belize: Northern security assistance

While Belize struck headlines back in December for being one of the staging grounds for the John McAfee manhunt, the small nation is once again getting attention for its role in the War on Drugs. Spillover from Mexico’s violent drug war is prompting the Canadian government and military to become more involved in helping defend the tiny, Central American country. This cooperation has been kept relatively quiet in the Canadian press, but recently obtained internal reports have shown that Canada is providing both equipment and strategic planning to Belize to help combat the deteriorating situation in Belize between law enforcement and cartels, and between the drug cartels themselves. The move is interesting because it not only highlights the increasing regional security implications of drug violence in Mexico, but it demonstrates the vision of Canadian foreign policy makers in the Americas, as a possible alternative to relying exclusively on the United States.

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El Salvador: An unlikely peace

Unsurprisingly, most media attention in Central America has been paid to the War on Drugs and pervasive crime—with El Salvador being no exception. Moreover, what makes El Salvador particularly notable is that it highlights a trend of the past decade of Mexican drug violence migrating south. Up until 2012, El Salvador has ranked second in the UN’s global murder rankings—a particularly alarming statistic when you consider that El Salvador has a small population of 6.3 million people. However, over the past year the murder rate has dropped significantly, in part due to an odd government policy. Rocked by unemployment, joining a major gang was a standard path for many youths coming from El Salvador’s rural areas, but a new policy offering employers subsidies to employ former gang members has appeared to work dividends, with many former gang members going legit. This has been compounded by an uneasy peace between the two main rival gangs in the country, who have instituted a type of armistice, allowing the murder rate to fall and the government to create alternatives to the gang lifestyle.

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Honduras: The migrating drug war

Similar to El Salvador, Honduras has also faced the migrating Mexican drug war. However, unlike El Salvador, Honduras has seen crime and violence increase and take an even more pervasive hold in the political system. As a result, the past year has seen an alarmingly high murder rate, a rise in the assassination of journalists and pervasive corruption at nearly every level of government. Moreover, with elections scheduled for November, there is fear that the widespread instability may finally come down upon itself come the election. Honduran politics have rarely been stable, with one not needing to look any further than in 2009 when President Manuel Zelaya was ousted in a coup. With such a wide array of alarming trends developing, many experts are worrying about the fate of Honduras as all political and criminal players begin to make their moves come election season.

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Nicaragua: Tourism makeover

Unlike its neighbours in the region, Nicaragua has received a string of positive press lately, especially in painting the Central American country as a top tourist destination. For 2013, Nicaragua ranked third on The New York Times’ Top 46 places to Go list. This is a great boom for a country that has long been trying to shake off the negative connotations of its past and has been investing heavily in tourism. Still, even with the recent positive reviews within the tourism industry, Nicaragua still has major public relations problems, often being associated with Oliver North‘s stories and Contra militias.  The good news is that tourism, perhaps more than anything else, has the power to accelerate the country’s image makeover and recast Nicaragua as a friendly and inviting place.

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Guatemala: Justice in the courts

Another country that is in the throes of shaking off its negative past is Guatemala. Back in January, a Guatemalan judge made history by greenlighting a public trial for the former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt on charges of genocide. The judge, Miguel Ángel Gálvez, made his country the first in the Americas to prosecute a former head of state, in its own domestic courts, for the ultimate crime of genocide. Ríos Montt seized power by a coup in March 1982, taking charge of a counterinsurgency that was then two decades old. To deny the guerrillas local support, he sent soldiers to wipe out hundreds of Mayan villages. In 1999, after the war’s end, the United Nations-sponsored Historical Clarification Commission tallied thousands of rapes, tortures, disappearances, violations of cultural rights and extrajudicial executions his forces committed while he held power, and concluded that he presided over acts of genocide.

The trial is historic and it will be interesting to see if it will lead to any other high-profile trials. Many former officials of military rule live with impunity, and others occupy posts in the current government, including president Otto Pérez Molina, a former general who commanded troops in the Ixil region — the focus of the genocide trial — during Ríos Montt’s rule.

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Costa Rica: Taxes and debt

Economic growth has always been an elusive concept in Costa Rica, as the country has grappled between socialism and neoliberal reform during the 20th century. Amidst the economic crisis, Costa Rica’s export markets have shrunk and the country is facing a large fiscal debt along with slipping economic performance indicators. A few days ago, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) expressed concern about Costa Rica’s fiscal state. In response to the country’s deteriorating economy, the government will submit to lawmakers in 2014 a fiscal reform bill to boost consumption taxes and cut the deficit as it seeks to tap global debt markets. However, the move is extremely unpopular amongst the citizenry and it remains to be seen if the much needed economic reform bill will receive the necessary support.

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