Transforming Public Security in the Americas

Maria Otero
Under Secretary for Democracy and Global Affairs 
George Washington University
Washington, DC
May 10, 2011

Thank you, and good morning. It’s a pleasure to be with you. I want to thank George Washington University and its partners for organizing and hosting this important conference.

As you know, I am the Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs—soon to be for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights. I am also a native of South America—born and raised in Bolivia. So you could say this conference represents a particularly important convergence for me—citizen security in the Americas.

Throughout this hemisphere, we see societies plagued by endemic violence left uninhibited by weak institutions. Young people search desperately for employment or training; more and more they turn to criminal activity when they cannot find either.

Minority populations, including women, LGBT persons and indigenous communities, are marginalized by old traditions and the outdated laws that shield them. And journalists who report on human rights abuses are themselves abused for pursuing fundamental freedoms of expression and of the press.

Gangs, such as MS-13 and Barrio Aztecas, and narcotics trafficking organizations, such as the Zetas, Gulf, and Sinaloa cartels, perpetuate much of the violence in the region. Through drug and arms trafficking, extortion, and human trafficking, criminal organizations undermine economic development and investment, stifle opportunities for youth, encourage corruption, subvert democratic institutions, and undercut respect for human rights and the rule of law.

None of these incidents occur in isolation. Instead, we are witness to a self-fulfilling cycle, with one weakness feeding into the next. It is the great irony of such weakness that it grows ever stronger when left unattended.

We are here today to discuss how we can stop this cycle of civilian insecurity. How do we move from bold ambitions and weak institutions to strong rule of law and stable communities?

I would argue that, much like the negative trends I just mentioned, our efforts towards civilian security in the Americas do not exist in isolation from one another. We cannot succeed in addressing citizen security over the long term without addressing the underlying causes of social dislocation and disaffection that leads to violence, drug abuse, and corruption.

Indeed, our success depends on many moving parts—many antidotes to the overall weakness we seek to displace.

Today, I would like to talk about three of those antidotes. The first is what we would call institutional reform—or investing in the building blocks of the security sector to better secure rule of law and protect human rights. The second is another kind of investment—in our youth. We must identify and promote alternate opportunities for our young people so they can make good choices for themselves and for society. And thirdly, we must recommit to ourselves human rights for all people—including the traditionally marginalized and abused, such as women, ethnic minorities and LGBT communities.

First, in order to strengthen citizen security in the Americas, we must continue to invest in the institutional framework that provides accountability for criminals and recourse for victims. Without this basic structure, our pursuit of societies governed justly through rule of law is like a skeleton without a backbone.

Our investment must take on several forms—from basic equipment and infrastructure to extensive training and curriculum development. The Department of State and other US Government agencies work with partner nations’ law enforcement, security, and criminal justice agencies to strengthen law enforcement and criminal justice capabilities.

In Central America, we work through the Regional Law Enforcement Equipment and Training program to enhance communications and transportation among law enforcement officials.

We are also working with hemispheric partners to strengthen the human rights and rule of law aspects of justice sector institutions, through for example, the International Law Enforcement Academy that we sponsor, which I will visit in San Salvador next month, as well as through many other programs.

Of course, violence often transcends national borders, which is why we are working with multinational teams – Transnational Anti-Gang Units - to fight gang violence. Such partnerships allows us to more effectively identify the transnational linkages of gang operations—for instance between the United States and El Salvador. In turn, these teams cooperate to investigate and prosecute top criminal gang leaders.

Gang violence and other criminal activity in the Americas has lead to a crippling lack of public confidence in the judicial system, leading to another cycle of weakness. Without trust, systems break down, accountability slacks, and crime rises. Which is why, throughout the Americas, we are emphasizing the importance of anti-corruption, transparency and accountability training for prosecutors and judicial investigators. The extensive work of the Department of Justice and Department of State with prosecutors, judges, police and forensic scientists in Colombia has produced strong results that we are working to replicate elsewhere in the hemisphere. While there is still a great deal to be done, our efforts on corrections reform since 2007 have also paid off, particularly in Mexico and Honduras.

In every country, we know the foot soldiers for human rights and social justice are not just the victims of abuses but also the public defenders who face overwhelming odds as they seek to right the wrongs of weak institutions. As we strengthen citizen security, we must be sure to educate and empower the people that build rule of law and act as agents of social change—including investigators, police officers, prosecutors, judges and juries—throughout the Americas.

Likewise, the youth of the Western Hemisphere demand our attention in the realm of citizen security. The young people of our countries play many roles, foremost among them as perpetrators of gang violence. But they are also the human rights leaders of the next generation. They are also the future of their countries. Yet, too often their options for personal and professional growth are limited, leading them to a life in the shadows of society. We owe them a better choice.

Nowhere have I seen the power of youth as I have seen in the small town of El Progreso, Honduras. There, a young man [full disclaimer, he is my son] and a friend recognized that the way to empower youth was through education . They started a non-profit organization, Organization for Youth Empowerment , OYE, that offers scholarships to at-risk youth to finish high school and attend college.

But they do more. OYE sees youth as the social change agents in their community and presents them with opportunities to develop leadership skills and social awareness. These youth now publish a monthly magazine, Jovenes, written by youth for youth. They distribute over 2,000 copies to the local schools. They run a weekly radio show broadcasted by youth about youth. And community service is a requirement if they want to retain their scholarship. Listening to these youth from poor homes is very moving: they now see themselves as the future of their country – they no longer see going north or joining a gang as the only options open to them. They now feel responsible for improving their country. And I should add that OYE has received many university students who have volunteered there, including a good number from George Washington University.

Of course, OYE in Honduras is just one example of many youth empowerment initiatives in Latin America. It reaches about 100 youth. Scaling up programs such as this one is the real challenge. These are cost-effective, preventive strategy that I have seen work.

There are many other approaches. For example, Youth in Action is a new youth exchange program in Mexico that is slated to begin in July 2011. It will provide workshops in the United States for Mexican high school students so that they can develop their leadership and civic engagement skills. A joint public-private funded program, it emphasizes community problem-solving and grassroots action to address violence and drugs.

In Ciudad Juarez, USAID and the International Youth Foundation work with civil society groups to create safe spaces for young people, expand and strengthen after-school and summer programs, and equip young people with the education, training, work, and life skills needed to pursue lives that do not include work for criminal organizations or narco-gangs. As the State Department, as I am sure most of you do, we see employment and job training as a crucial component to our citizen security agenda.

Clearly our pursuit of better citizen security in the Americas means better incorporating the potential of young people.

But we must go a step further—it also means elevating our commitment to marginalized and disenfranchised groups, including women, persons with disabilities, ethnic minorities, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender individuals.

Let me start with women. Despite bearing the brunt of society’s political and economic challenges, women across the Americas' continue to drive democratic change and social equality. I have met with women leaders in Brazil who are fighting the scourge of human trafficking. Women in Guatemala are raising their voices in the name of freedom of speech, and protecting the place of human rights defenders in society. In Colombia, women are defending the rights of the 3 million internally displaced people. And in Cuba, the Damas de Blanco were recently honored for its work fighting for fundamental freedoms.

Yet, despite these heroic examples, women remain marginalized by outdated legislation and lackluster law enforcement. As countries seek to establish more stable rule of law and respected judicial systems, the role of women will be tantamount to their success.

In nations across the hemisphere, men and women are subjected to horrific violence, persecution, and threats simply because of who they are or who they love. Such hatred poisons so-called “free” societies. The United States has responded by condemning such actions, and I have personally addressed this issue at the highest levels throughout Latin America.

At the Human Rights Council last March, the U.S. co- led with Colombia and Slovenia the international lobbying effort on a joint statement on ending acts of violence against LGBT people, which was signed by 85 countries—18 more than signed onto any previous UN statement on LGBT issues. This was also the first such statement to call for the decriminalization of LGBT status.

And most recently, President Obama announced with Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff their support for the establishment of an OAS Special Rapporteur for the human rights of LGBT people within the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. This special rapporteur would be the first of its kind in the international system. Brazil also has offered to partner with the United States to provide expertise for the region in inclusion of persons with disabilities in the electoral process.

We must not be blind to the racial, gender, and sexual-orientation based discrimination that exists within our hemisphere. Indigenous, African descendent, and other minority communities still face discrimination in employment, voting, and identification in Latin America.

Likewise, the erosion of freedom of expression in many areas of our region undermines the democratic institutions that we have fought to build and preserve for generations. Without this freedom, opposition is silenced and democracy becomes a vehicle for derision rather than peaceful and stable governance.

In order to achieve citizen security, we must stand up—time and again—for freedom of the press and freedom of expression. In many nations, including Haiti and Nicaragua, we have collaborated to support a healthy, free media through training journalists in human rights, unbiased reporting, and the importance of a free press. We are providing training in cyber security techniques and documentation of human rights violations against journalists. And we are working with NGO partners to expand online journalism platforms to encourage greater public exposure of organized crime and its threats to society.

We will continue to challenge the antiquated standards and laws of society that allow for the erosion of basic human rights. Civilian security will never be attained when those with little or no power are continually repressed or their stories silenced.

In closing, I want to reiterate that the US government is elevating civilian security not only in our words and deeds, but in the very way we are organizing our foreign policy establishment. Following the recommendations of the first ever Quadrennial Development and Diplomacy Review, QDDR, my position will be transitioned into the Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights—recognizing the interconnectedness between these three areas and their importance in our foreign policy priorities.

The shift reflects the widely recognized need to ensure that our law enforcement efforts to fight crime and combat corruption closely align with our efforts to strengthen democratic institutions and protect human rights. It will also enable the State Department to work together with USAID the Department of Defense, and other U.S. agencies, as we increase the presence of civilian response in the way we partner with nations around the world.

As President Obama emphasized earlier this year in Santiago, Chile, we must confront the challenge of citizen security together, and from every direction. As we invest in the judicial systems that form the backbone of every society, so too must we invest in a future that honors all members of society and empowers the youth of our region. The violence and insecurity we face today should not cripple our hope for a better future. With that, I thank you for all that you do, and for inviting me to be here with you today. Thank you very much.