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U.S. gingerly expands security role in Central America

Its checkered history in the violence-racked region leads the U.S. to limit its involvement, which in turn prompts criticism that it's not doing enough.

December 04, 2012|By Richard Fausset and Tracy Wilkinson, Los Angeles Times

But the crime-fighting initiative goes far beyond surveillance cameras. The U.S. is also investing in civic projects under the theory that the drug war here cannot be won without more skilled and trustworthy police and prosecutors, along with an engaged citizenry that has reason to hope.

On a recent visit to the neighborhood of Bucaro — a dusty, concrete warren of poverty beset with drug and gang problems — officials detailed plans for a partially American-funded public school campus, basketball court and commercial plaza. At a community center across town, U.S. "security initiative" tax dollars provide poor children with alternatives to crime such as break-dancing performances and clown and juggling programs.

Here, as in Mexico, security funds are also being used to impart both basic and advanced skills to police. Specialized "vetted" law enforcement units, subjected to background checks and polygraph tests, work with American immigration and policing agencies.

But the United States' list of potential security partners is not encouraging.

In El Salvador, politicians and police are believed to be tied to the criminal groups with roots in the military and paramilitary forces that sprang up during the country's civil war.

Guatemala's military, which is increasingly being called upon to keep the peace here, had a notorious human rights record during its own civil war, and nonmilitary security forces are also a cause for concern: In March, Guatemala's former national police chief Marlene Blanco was arrested on suspicion of contributing to the extrajudicial slaying of gang members.

In Honduras, meanwhile, senior government officials participated in or supported the 2009 coup that overthrew a democratically elected president. Security forces are notoriously corrupt; the judiciary, largely incapable of administering justice. Some members of Congress are said to be working with cartels.

The Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos "El Tigre" Bonilla, has been connected to death squads that allegedly went after gang members and kidnappers in a "social cleansing" campaign, according to investigators from the U.S. Congress, which in August restricted aid to the Honduran police.

In addition to the boat incident, an American DEA agent in June killed a suspected drug trafficker during a raid using U.S. helicopters in northern Honduras. In July, two American DEA agents killed a man they described as a suspected drug trafficker who emerged from a cocaine-ferrying plane that had crash-landed, the agency said.

Such shootings highlight how potentially dangerous it is for U.S. operatives to dig deeper in the region with unreliable partners.

Bertha Oliva, a veteran Honduran human rights activist, said that although drug-trafficking is a severe problem, "it is being used as a pretext to militarize the country, with the U.S. leading the charge."

Meanwhile, the Obama administration's security funding request for the region is $107 million for fiscal 2013, more than 20% less than the appropriation for fiscal 2012. Sentiments like Oliva's will probably make it harder for those who would like to see more funding and involvement in Central America.

But even if they did get more money, it's not clear that the targeted countries would be capable of spending it effectively.

State Department officials in Guatemala said they recently put 85 members of the country's national police through the American-style vetting process.

Six of them passed.

Fausset reported from Villa Nueva, Guatemala,  and Wilkinson from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

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