We interviewed Enrique Roig from our Latin America and Caribbean Bureau to discuss his work on citizen security in Central America.

Enrique Roig, Coordinator for CARSI at USAID Photo Credit: La Prensa

Can you describe the security situation in Central America? Violence levels in Central America are among the highest in the world – there are an estimated 900 gangs with a total of 70,000 members in the region. The region is marked by surges in murder rates, transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, and rising levels of crime. Citizens are most concerned about security, even ahead of economic issues. Despite efforts to focus on social inclusion and anti-poverty programs, income inequalities remain some of the most extreme in the world. A great part of the region’s population lacks access to healthcare, social services, and educational opportunities. The burgeoning youth bulge is also of grave concern since unemployment is extremely high.

We often hear the term, CARSI. What is that? The  U.S. government’s Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), launched by President Obama, is the interagency approach to combat citizen insecurity and violence in the region. In particular, USAID supports community-based approaches to crime and violence prevention, as well as rule of law programs.

How is USAID working to improve citizen security? USAID empowers communities to determine their own risk factors, understand assets available in their communities, and develop plans that combine resources from local governments, the private sector, NGOs, and donors to improve citizen security. Then, we help fund some of the identified priorities, including crime observatories, community policing initiatives, and at-risk youth services.

Currently, USAID works in 50 municipalities (equivalent to 175 communities).  We have established 65 outreach centers to service at-risk youth, provided vocational training opportunities to thousands of young adults, and pushed for juvenile justice reform and prevention policies.

On the rule of law front, USAID is working to implement the criminal procedure code in El Salvador to improve prosecution of criminal cases, while also establishing alternative dispute resolution as a mechanism for reducing the formal case load. In Guatemala, efforts have focused on ensuring due process for those detained while also providing support for the prosecution of high-level cases.

Youth consists of 50% of population in many of these countries. How are you targeting them? To reach youth from troubled backgrounds, we partner with regional governments, NGOs, and the private sector to provide educational opportunities, job training, and apprenticeships. These opportunities encourage youth to make healthy decisions and not join gangs.

The outreach centers provide kids with a safe space in commonly violent communities. Youth are given a peaceful place to study, use computers, learn English, or play sports. As Gabriela Benitez, a youth from Honduras said simply, “the outreach center is our refuge.”

USAID also supports youth movements, like Movimiento de Jovenes Contra La Violencia, a group of youth activists against crime in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras that have impacted national policies and helped better integrate youth into the workforce.