Evolving Threats in Central America: Forecasting an Uncertain Future. Perry Center April 21 2016 Presentation by Adam Blackwell

Central AmericaOne of the presenters at a conference last week introduced me to the not so flattering concept of “management guru’s” or as he put it consultants who leverage a little evidence with a very persuasive message to make a fortune proposing simplistic solutions to systemic problems. I immediately thought of what I will now call “security gurus.” I mention this because the sponsor of this conference the Perry Center is an ideal vehicle for moving beyond the “guru solutions” by teasing out and developing new and innovative proposals that can lead us to a better place in 10 years.

I want to focus on the second half of the title of today’s forum “Evolving Threats in Central America: Forecasting an Uncertain Future.”  The threats aren’t new – as the people of the region would clamor, “They have evolved already.”

There is great urgency. We are not talking in the abstract, but rather about societies in distress; real lives and generations lost to either the guns or forced migration and displacement. This is the worst conflict not called Syria. To put it in perspective, if you take the homicide rate in El Salvador of over 100 per 100 thousand and apply it to the US, you would be talking about 325 thousand homicides a year.  Yet, last year, despite all of the tragic headlines the US had about 15 K homicides.

While it might sound naive or pollyanna ish, I don’t accept the fatalistic sigh that usually accompanies these events as I am an optimist, an unsatisfied one, but an optimist. So in that spirit I believe that we can shape the future to be more certain, but we need to design it — starting right now. In the last ten years, I have come to know and understand the people of this region; they are some of the most energetic and resilient on the planet. This resiliency is being tested by dysfunction of governments, donors and elites. Our job is not to pile on the negatives, repeating all of the bad news and falling into a capability trap, but to work together on a vision of hope and understanding.

As I point out in my book; So if the War on Drugs is Over – Now What, Security Without Easy Answers adamblackwell.net  in more detail than I can here – security is a wicked problem that needs to be unpacked so that its component parts can be understood.

The research shows that the drivers of crime and violence are “sticky”, and they tend to concentrate where a number of issues are converge;

1)    Social Vulnerabilities

2)    Fragile institutions

3)    Accelerants

Social Vulnerabilities

Social vulnerabilities are issues that affect societies unfavorably and unequally, creating challenges for citizens in general. “Pockets of vulnerability,” can vary from entire regions to specific neighborhoods within a city.  In 5 Latam cities with the highest homicide rates, 50% of the homicides are committed within 1.6 blocks!

There are numerous examples of social vulnerabilities, many interconnected, and each affecting various aspects of society and individual lives ; social exclusion, gender inequality, un/underemployment, largely disengaged youth populations, lack of identity and cohesion, and weak education systems.  Understanding these vulnerabilities helps us to understand their societal impact on insecurity, democracy, and trust. Let’s not forget that most of the gangs were started as protection and identity for diaspora populations in LA. I still think of gangs as violent expressions of social exclusion.

State and Institutional Fragilities

State and institutional fragilities have come to represent ineffective and fragmented services, institutions, and support provided by governments, communities, NGOs, and even the private sector. These weak or non-existent services and support mechanisms compound vulnerabilities, as individuals and societies living on the margin have little to no help or chance of escape, which serves to reinforce distrust and dissatisfaction with democracy and governance.   A warning here: state presence is not about doubling the size of a bad police force or changing uniforms but about establishing credible legitimate and transparent institutions.

These fragilities highlight the lack of an interconnected system of state infrastructure between services, which I call the “human security ecosystem”. The inability of the state to deliver and coordinate services and to promote and protect citizen security is the primary impediment to addressing what makes a particular segment of society vulnerable. Where can communities go if they can’t depend on the state and other institutions to obtain security, education, health services, and employment opportunities? Often, they turn to illegal or illegitimate alternatives, from migration to participation in the illicit economy to vigilante justice and dependence on gangs for protection. There is also a question of how to pay for this ecosystem; in the Northern Triangle, tax collection as a percentage of GDP is 13.6%. In the rest of Latin America it averages at 25% and in the US and Canada it is even higher.

I brought the El Salvador Peace Process mediation team to Washington and as part of our outreach I took them to meet with individuals from Montgomery County’s very successful “positive youth development initiative.” This initiative is a county-wide effort that brings together the police, departments of health, recreation, schools, library, corrections, and civil society organizations on a regular basis to manage gangs and at-risk youth. This is an initiative that roughly follows the “focused deterrence framework” developed during the “Boston Ceasefire of the 1990’s.” These types of initiatives, complemented by cognitive behavior therapy, exist in many jurisdictions and are at the heart of building a coordinated approach to improve effectiveness and outcomes.


Examples of accelerants include the presence of gangs, the proliferation of firearms (in the NT 85% of all homicides are committed with a firearm, the global average is 36%), domestic abuse, accessibility of drugs or alcohol, and the presence and prevalence of the informal/illicit economy. The monomaniacal focus by some on the UNGASS on Drugs is a distraction. Sure, reform of the drug conventions would help, but they do not regulate the creation of credible and humane security eco systems.

So what can we do about it?

At the OAS, we developed a methodology to evaluate security sectors of countries/jurisdictions based on the OECD model of security sector reform and governance.

We discovered four things:

  1. In most cases this was the first time that anyone had tried to weave together the institutional fabric of what a public security system looks like – not surprisingly, there exist massive differences on rules, roles and responsibilities and a total lack of horizontal coordination.


  1. Most of the capacity and focus was and still is centered around repression of the accelerants I mentioned earlier and the traditional war on drugs indicators. Prevention and social development were left to NGO’s and faith groups or were included as an afterthought.


  1. Very low legitimacy quotient of the state to provide even the basic rule of law and justice, let alone embark on proven strategies of focused deterrence and cognitive behavior therapy.


  1. Very little data with which to make informed decisions.


Given this back drop, how can we design a positive future? The first thing we need to recognize is that there are no quick fixes – trust and credibility have to be rebuilt.

To start the re design we need a big, bold and dramatic new narrative built around five core principles of; empowerment, systems, inclusion, innovation and values and ethics.

  1. Empowerment as a means to social cohesion; people support what they help create, and they need a cause and a sense of pride and belonging. I often talk of the third pillar of democracy as the expansion of citizenship, creating a real sense of rights and responsibility. In our hyper connected world successful leaders will harness this people power those that don’t will pay the price.
  2. Systematic and systemic approach; we need to stop looking at security in silo’s; multidimensional security approaches help identify and develop a security eco system. Rule of law is not law enforcement, as with the war on drugs, the war on crime needs to stop, as repression will not/does not remove the underlying causes of the violence.


  • Innovate; we need to stop litigating the past to justify the present or the future will pass us by. There are probably two things that we can all agree upon; 1) what has been tried in the past has not worked – if it had, we wouldn’t be here and 2), we are now in an era of technology driven hyper connectivity. So new thinking is required. There are broad initiatives out there (CICIG, MACCHI, MAPP Colombia are a few multilateral examples) and recently released research by Thomas Abt at Harvard validates the fact that there are practices that have worked well, namely focused deterrence, which works by targeting small groups of offenders and trying to create collective accountability supported by cognitive behavior therapy. This is very much like a traditional health based approach; address the contagion at its heart, limit the spread and then gradually change behaviors.


  1. Inclusion; Oxfam warned at the recent Davos meeting that the combined wealth of the richest 1% will overtake that of the other 99% of people by 2016. We all know from ECLAC reports that the Americas is the most unequal and the most violent – just maybe these things are related?


  1. Values and ethics; We have a tendency to want to codify everything, which is important but as I say in my book it is not just what you do but how you do it that counts. Security Sector Reform including Drug Policy needs to be built with human being, values and dignity at its core. It’s not because we don’t change the Drug Conventions at the ongoing UNGASS meeting that we need harsh sentencing regimes and repressive policing.

Guided by these principles, we need to develop Balanced National Security Strategies through a consultative process, engaging all major political actors across the ideological spectrums, jurisdictions and civil society. We do this with Defense White Papers – why not with Public Security? Both are a state responsibility, a public good, and a basic right. With some tough love from the international community, an agreement across political actors with common principles is possible. I was close in Honduras and El Salvador – the drafts exist. Political will in my view is 20% aspirational and 80% road map. Let’s build the road map.

To support this, I would suggest a Transformative Scenario Planning process. People support what they help create, and you need to create the drive and vision for change. President Santos asked us to use a scenario methodology for our OAS drug report based on his 1997 participation in a similar process called Destino Colombia. Santos still refers to this as a catalytic moment in the evolution of Colombia. Mexico is currently working on a similar approach called Mexicosposibles. To get the most out of these processes, you need to select the participants carefully; leaders and opinion makers from a broad spectrum of life and views who will become the catalyst of change.





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