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Former Tico Envoy Looks at Central American Crime Wave
The Nica Times / September 5, 2008

By Larry Luxner

WASHINGTON — The expanding "21st century socialist revolution" of Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez may represent a destabilizing political threat to Central America, but worsening crime is what concerns most average people throughout the region.

That's the conclusion of Jaime Daremblum, who served as Costa Rica's ambassador to the United States from 1998 to 2004. The retired diplomat is now director of Latin American studies at the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank.

In a recent article for the Weekly Standard, Daremblum warned of a "genuine risk that El Salvador could become another satellite of Hugo Chávez."

Nicaragua, and more recently Honduras, have already signed on to Chávez's Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas (ALBA). El Salvador appears to be positioned to join after their elections next year, if the polls are correct.

In the latest voter intention polls, Mauricio Funes, candidate for teh left-wing Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) leads by more than 10 points in the polls over the ruling ARENA party, whose President Tony Saca is declining in poopularity, in part due to crime.

"Although Saca has not made any glaring mistakes since his election in 2004, he has not been able to win over the hearts and minds of most Salvadorans," said Daremblum. "Despite his efforts to boost security, El Salvador remains plagued by widespread violent crime" — even as the percentage of Salvadoran households living in extreme poverty fell from 28% in 1991 to under 10% in 2006.

In a recent interview with the Nica Times, Daremblum noted that "Costa Rica still has one of the lowest homicide rates in the hemisphere," especially when compared to Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador or Nicaragua.

Guatemala, which endured a 36-year civil war, is especially violent because so many weapons are still in the hands of former guerrillas.

"The problem with Guatemala is that law enforcement has partially merged with organized crime," Daremblum said. "Many policemen have found it more profitable to go into business with criminals. Political reconciliation does not assure you will have a stable social environment free of crime. If people were killing in the past because of guerrilla activity, and now there's peace and no need for them, those guerrillas become criminals."

He added: "Perhaps the big lesson is that we need to look for more effective mechanisms to reincorporate elements of subversive forces into society — lawful activities so that they don't have to continue killing for economic reasons."

Daremblum, 67, got his law degree from the University of Costa Rica, and master's and doctorate degrees from the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He began his diplomatic career in Washington in the 1960s, as an economist working in the Western Hemispher department of the International Monetary Fund.

From 1993 to 1998, Daremblum was a columnist and editorial writer for Costa Rica's largest newspaper, La Nación. His office is filled with color photographs of himself and his wife Gina taken during his six-year stint as ambassador, posing with dignitaries such as President Clinton, Sen. Joseph Lieberman and Tipper Gore.

There's also a framed certificate proclaiming Daremblum an "honorary Texan" — signed by George W. Bush when the 43rd president was still governor of Texas.

At the right-of-center Hudson Institute — which is often described as "right-of-center" or "moderately conservative" — Daremblum spends his time reading, writing and organizing seminars on everything from Bolivia's Aug. 10 presidential referendum to Iran's growing presence in Latin America.

In February, he published a white paper entitled "How to Strengthen Democracy in Latin America." The report argues that only through education and empowerment of the middle class will the region

"Many countries in Latin America are not as prepared for a new knowledge-based economy as they could be. The notion that raw materials, rather than brains, are the source of wealth remains the prevailing perspective in too much of the hemisphere," Daremblum wrote. "The cultivation of the human mind is the great task of the present and the foundation for the future of Latin America. The people of the region must make education their number-one priority if they want to remain competitive in the global marketplace."

In the interview, Daremblum attributes the dramatic increase in violent crime throughout the region to poverty, unsatisfied expectations and a jump in drug trafficking.

"The main drug market is here in the United States, and traffickers pay increasingly with product for local services, and that multiplies the phenomenon," he told the Nica Times. "I think that's been driving crime up. Much of the crime you see is for territory."

One thing Daremblum doesn't blame for Central America's crime wave is the region's return to democracy in the 1980s — a view that places him squarely at oods with those who argue that dictatorships of both the left and right help keep violence in check.

"When you look at what happened at the Soviet Union, the rampant crime, corruption and violence became very clear at the time of Gorbachev," Daremblum said. "The same is true in Latin America. In totalitarian regimes, information is very scarce, but that doesn't mean crime is not happening.

"It also doesn't mean that because there's democracy, all of a sudden there's crime," he continued. "When there's democracy, groups can exert their influence on government and bring about a more peaceful atmosphere."

With regard to Guatemala, Daremblum said "President [Alvaro] Colom has to clean up the police services, make them more professional and pay them better. There must also be a judiciary which is transparent, with clear laws and regulations. Those are the main instruments in democratic countries, and they affect the investment climate, because instability causes security costs to increase. This is more a priority for some countries than for others. For Guatemala, it's the number-one problem."

Improving transparency and the rule of law is also essential in attracting foreign investment. Costa Rica is a clear example of that, he said, since Costa Rica — the most politically stable country in Central America — also receives more forign investment than any other country in the region.

Daremblum praised both Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and Mexican President Felipe Calderón for getting tough with criminal gangs and narco-traffickers.

"Uribe has become a paradigm for many governments in Latin America, an example to be followed," he said. "In the past, people were scared just to land in Bogotá. Today it's a wonderful and very safe city, thanks to the policies followed by Uribe, and the United States has played an important role in that."

He added: "Colombia has underway a demilitarization program in which those who renounce violence and surrender their weapons are reincorporated into civil society. So far, it's working very well."

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