Senior State Department Official Previewing the Central American Ministerial

Special Briefing
Senior State Department Official
New York, NY
September 27, 2012

MODERATOR: All right everybody, good morning. We have to give you all a preview of the Central American Ministerial today, [Senior State Department Official], hereafter Senior State Department Official. Go ahead, [Senior State Department Official].

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Thank you, [Moderator]. I’m delighted to be here. It is a relatively quiet time in the Western Hemisphere, I suppose, at the UN General Assembly, but today we have quite a big day, and the Secretary will be hosting her Central American counterparts from all of the countries of Central America and a pretty hefty chunk of international donor community representatives, including the Spanish Foreign Minister, representatives from the EU, Germany, as well as the international financial institutions, the IGB, or international institutions overall, the IGB, the World Bank, and the OAS.

And we’ve held these meetings before, but they are really incredibly important to continue the work that began in Guatemala in – over a year ago, to focus on security issues in Central America and how the international community can cooperate more effectively and how our progress is going. That’s the most important thing. We have seen some diminution in rates of homicide in the northern tier countries of Central America, which are El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and those rates have declined a little bit in the first half of 2012. Part of what we want to talk about is why that happened and how we can keep it going to reduce violence.

Our own programs in the Central American region total, over the last four years or so, total $496 million, nearly $500 million. The Administration has asked for $107 million again in 2013. And so we think that we have really come to the table with a very robust contribution towards the security in the Central American region, but clearly there is a lot more to be done. The main focus of our efforts these days is on building institution. And what we mean by that, really, is focusing on strengthening the civilian police, the judiciary, public prosecutors, and the whole system of rule of law, where, unfortunately, you have weak institutions that are subject to the predatory practices of transnational criminal organizations, whether that’s corruption or simply turning a blind eye to things that are going on.

We’re also focusing heavily on issues of access to justice and getting justice and reducing impunity. We have unfortunately seen some very high profile murder cases in Honduras, for example, over the last number of years; against journalists, against human rights activists, against LGBT activists, and we’re working very closely with the Honduran Government to bring closure to those cases by finding those responsible and prosecuting them.

So it will discuss a range of those issues and enable the donors to get a better sense of where everybody is, what’s working, what’s not working, and our Central American counterparts to talk a little bit about what they are doing, because a lot is happening in their own countries to advance these issues in partnership with the United States. So that sets the stage for that. I know that you’ll be talking with other officials about the Connecting the Americas 2022 meeting on energy, which is one of the other events today, and meetings on other subjects that the Secretary will be holding today.

MODERATOR: Any new announcements to make?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: I do not think there are going to be new announcements coming out of this meeting. I’ve just told you what the lay-down is on the assistance figures, but those are out already. It’s a part of our budget process, they’re a part of the regular budget process for us. And I think this is really more of a continuation of a dialogue that we’ve had over the last couple of years. I don’t expect anything dramatic to come out of this conversation - important, but not necessarily dramatic.

MODERATOR: Questions? Andy.

QUESTION: You mentioned the diminution of the murder rates in the northern tier. Is that the first – I mean, number one, can you tie that directly to the work that’s been undertaken sort of in this initiative, and secondly, is that the first sign that this might, in fact, be working in certain places?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: The answer to that question is: I certainly hope so. What obviously – what statisticians will tell you is you cannot necessarily attribute causality to those – to correlation, to the fact that we have a reduction in the homicide rates in the first six months of this year. On the other hand, I think it is probably not a coincidence that after three years of putting programs into place, expanding those programs, looking at what works and expanding that, working in communities, model police precincts, we do know better what works and what doesn’t. The governments know better what works and what doesn’t, and they are doing a lot of things jointly with us and on their own to strengthen institutions, move forward their legal framework to support anti-crime efforts.

So it is hard to know to what extent these figures, number one, will be sustained, which is critical, and number two, are results of the efforts we’re making. But I certainly believe there is a connection between the two. Countries have passed extradition laws. There are new temporary taxes to fund the security services and professionalize them. There are efforts being made in communities under what are called model precincts, where we’re working with civilian and police leadership – local community and police leadership in which in a number of the communities in Guatemala and El Salvador so far, we’ve seen overall crime reductions of anywhere from 25 to 40 percent.

Now we know that’s connected to what we did in those communities. We also know from AID that where they’re working – they have done a study of – I’m not sure of the exact number of communities in which AID is present and working on crime prevention strategies compared with communities in which they’re not present – they know that statistically crime is lower in the communities where they’re working. People say they have more confidence in the authorities, and people say they are not afraid to be in places in those communities. That is definitely causal, and therefore we’re optimistic that these things are in fact connected, and hopefully will be sustained.

MODERATOR: Great. Other questions? Stacy.

QUESTION: Yes. I wanted to know if there’s any bilateral planned or maybe the Secretary’s going to pull aside some of the ministers. And also particularly about the situation in El Salvador with the institutional crisis there, if she’s interested in that at all?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, certainly the Secretary followed what was going on in El Salvador. I think today’s meeting is fairly tight in time and will be a conversation among the ministers and with the international community, and I don’t anticipate that she’s necessarily going to have any individual conversations, although she’ll obviously be talking with all the ministers collectively and greeting them and so forth.

On the case of El Salvador, we obviously – we put out a number of statements during the institutional crisis, the crisis over the supreme court or the constitutional court and the legislature. And we felt very strongly that it was important that that be resolved for Salvador and important that it be resolved in a constitutional fashion, in a fashion that respected separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary. I think that has happened. The Secretary is delighted that that has been resolved or is largely resolved. I know there is one issue outstanding.

And we’ll continue to support efforts to resolve that as we can. It is fundamentally an issue for Salvadorans to resolve, and they have really largely done that, and that enables them to get back to the very important work of moving forward on both development and political issues. Salvador is a partner in the Partnership for Growth. There are lots of things that we want to move ahead that, frankly, were slowed down a bit by the institutional crisis. So we’re delighted that that’s now moving ahead.

MODERATOR: Any other questions? Please.

QUESTION: After a number of Central American leaders at the UN have called for new measures when it comes to narc traffic, and they also mentioned, as you said, transnational crime in the region. What was the reaction?

SENIOR STATE DEPARTMENT OFFICIAL: Well, I think, obviously these are calls that we have heard before and conversations that we have engaged in. The President was very clear in Cartagena at the Summit of the Americas that we understand the frustration with these problems. The levels of violence are way too high. And we understand that as a shared responsibility the United States has a role here. We have a responsibility and we have a role. And we’re playing that role, both in efforts to reduce demand at home and efforts to help the countries in the hemisphere who are victimized by transnational organized crime. And I appreciate the way you put it, because it isn’t just drug trafficking; it is transnational organized crime, whether that’s migrant smuggling and abuse or gang violence in the region.

So I think there are lots of calls for further discussion about how we resolve these issues. And the President and the Secretary have made very clear that’s a conversation we welcome. We welcome a conversation based on what’s going on on the ground and the facts about what works and what doesn’t work so that we can all design more effective strategies.

MODERATOR: Good. Thank you all very much.


MODERATOR: Thank you.

PRN: 2012/1532