LA JOLLA — Organized crime and drug trafficking are threatening democratic gains in Central America, Kevin Casas-Zamora, the former vice president of Costa Rica, said during a Nov. 10 Tequila Talk at the Institute of the Americas.

“In Central America, crime both in its more trivial and its more sinister manifestations is putting at risk everything that the region has achieved in the past two decades — particularly the triumph of reaching a negotiated solution to terrible civil wars and of having sown the seeds of lasting democratic systems,” said Casas-Zamora, who served as Costa Rica’s vice president from 2006-2007 and is now a senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution.  “Violence in Central America not only threatens the process of democratic consolidation but also endangers the very viability of the state as a regulator of social life.”

More than 120,000 Central Americans have died in the last decade as a result of crime — most of it organized crime — as the amount of cocaine seized by Central American countries has grown by a factor of six. The region’s death toll due to violent crime “is so high that it almost certainly parallels body counts at the peak of Central America’s civil wars,” Casas-Zamora said.

Today, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have among the highest murder rates in the world. Despite being small countries, both Guatemala and Honduras in 2009 reported more homicides than the 27 member states of the European Union combined.

“Even Costa Rica and Panama, which until now had relatively low murder rates, have seen their crime indicators take a turn for the worst in the past few years,” Casas-Zamora said. “What we are witnessing is a tragedy of Biblical proportions, whose implications extend beyond the obvious cost of human lives.  There are also economic consequences which are manifested in the fact that more than half of Central America’s homicide victims are young men aged 15-29 years old, at the peak of their productive and reproductive lives.”

There are also serious political consequences, the worst of which is the erosion of support for democratic institutions.

Casas-Zamora cited a recent study which showed that support for democracy is profoundly affected by concerns about public security and by public perception that governments are losing the fight against crime.  Even more troubling, he said, is the fact that Central Americans cite crime as the issue that could most easily convince them to support a coup d’état. According to the survey, 53 percent of the populations of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras would be willing to return to an authoritarian regime to resolve public insecurity problems, a reaction that no other social, political or economic challenge has elicited.

“No challenge rings more urgently that the question of personal safety in Latin America and particularly in Central America and Mexico,” Casas-Zamora said. “With all their flaws, these democracies have proved infinitely better than the authoritarian regimes that preceded them.  The achievement of leaving behind the twin nightmares of political repression and war is one that must be preserved at all costs in Central America.”

The epidemic of violence is exerting intense pressure on all the governments and political actors in the region, Casas-Zamora said.  “It is no wonder that the regional debate on security so prominently features – particularly during campaign season – vociferous pledges to go confront insecurity with iron-fisted tactics, with methods that make intensive use of state coercion with disdain for basic human rights.

But the record of “iron fist” solutions to crime is poor, he said. In Honduras, the enactment over the past seven years of successive crime bills with repressive overtones has not been successful in reducing crime. At 67 murders per 100,000 people, Honduras’ murder rate in 2009 was worse than in 2002, when the first legislation was enacted. In El Salvador, the “Iron Fist” and “Super Iron Fist” acts in 2003 and 2004 were unable to keep the murder rate from doubling between 2004 and 2009.

Casas-Zamora said the escalating crime problem requires a complex response that incorporates a professional police force, streamlined judicial system, improved relations between law enforcement agencies and the communities they serve and social programs to respond to the problems and needs of youth.

“If we are to be successful in battling crime in Central America, we have to exorcise some of the demons that have plagued our development. Crime is not really a security issue. It’s a development issue,” he said.

“There are ways out of our current state of affairs. The violence that plagues contemporary Latin America is not inexorable,” said Casas-Zamora. “But these solutions will not come easily, quickly or cheaply.”