WASHINGTON – U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Roberta Jacobson said she was optimistic about Central American efforts to develop democratic institutions capable of fighting transnational crime and praised the growth of the region’s civil society after a trip to El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras on June 26-29.
During the trip, Jacobson met with government officials and civil society leaders to discuss regional cooperation on security measures and institution building.
A nation’s most powerful tools against transnational crime are strong democratic institutions that can withstand corruption and abuse, Jacobson said. Though Central American countries must invest much time and effort in their efforts to combat transnational crime, some governments have already taken concrete steps to create the necessary legal framework and atmosphere for what former Brazilian President Fernando Henrique Cardoso has called an “infrastructure of hope” to flourish, she said.
“I think this is a very long, hard slog that is going to take quite a while because, fundamentally, the efforts against transnational crime can only be combated by stronger democratic institutions, institutions like the police and military, institutions like the judiciary, institutions like the fiscales, institutions in communities,” Jacobson said. “But I think people are starting to know what works and starting to replicate it, and I also think we’ve seen very important movement forward over the last year or two by governments to create the structures and the legal frameworks, the policy agenda that makes success possible, which is certainly a very important first step.”
Invoking Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s metaphor of a healthy society as a three-legged stool, Jacobson emphasized the role that civil society, along with government and the private sector, must play in developing durable democratic institutions and improving security. In El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, Jacobson said, she saw civil society activity indicating that those Central American societies are moving closer to this ideal balance.
“In all three places, I think one of the things that left me optimistic was the fact that there were such vibrant civil society organizations engaged, doing their own work, working in communities, gathering their own statistics, challenging the government on occasion, but also working with them to try and create safer communities,” Jacobson said.
In El Salvador, Jacobson attended a variety of youth-education events and handed out 49 micro scholarships to allow a small group of Salvadoran students to study at American community colleges as part of the United States’ SEED, or SEMILLA, program. Half of the scholarship recipients were female and all came from rural areas where they might otherwise never have had the opportunity to pursue higher education.
Jacobson’s next stop, in Guatemala, included a visit to the United States’ Access English program, an English language program with 1,400 students and more than 700 alumni that is the largest in the Western Hemisphere. After taking English classes for a number of months, some of the advanced students are serving as interpreters for medics serving in a U.S.-Guatemalan military humanitarian exercise. These English learners translate information from K’iche’, a group of Mayan languages, to English.
While in Honduras, Jacobson attended a meeting of the Central American Integration System (SICA) with government officials. There she emphasized the importance of an integrated approach to regional security that includes economic and social development in addition to law enforcement assistance. Cooperation among SICA’s member nations is also critical to regional security efforts, she said.
“We were able to make the statement about the importance of regional efforts and that no country can do this alone,” Jacobson said. “Our programs are premised on regional cooperation to combat transnational crime.”
The integrated approach advocated by Jacobson is also the essence of the Central American Regional Security Initiative, which was launched by President Obama during a trip to El Salvador in 2011. Since 2008, the United States has disbursed $500 million in assistance to Central America, with 90 percent focused on core development issues like education, health, support for civil society and economic growth.
During her stay in Honduras, Jacobson also met with University of Honduras rector Julieta Castellanos and other leaders of the three-month old civil consortium Alliance for Peace and Justice. After the meeting, Jacobson said that she was “impressed with their work and impressed with their enthusiasm.”