He also noted that the concept of a “war on drugs,” a common phrase used to describe efforts in the region, fails to address the institutional reform that is needed to solve the entire scope of the problem. “To call it a war on drugs completely misses the point,” he said. “A program that only addresses drugs does not really meet the needs and requirements of 45 million common citizens of Central America whose real concern is violence and criminality in their communities on the streets and outside the doors to their homes.” Brownfield emphasized that education, public health, and economic development should be the focus.
That’s not to say drugs aren’t a serious problem. Brownfield called Central America a “victim of its own geography,” referring to its position between South and North America. He explained that 65 percent of the cocaine making its way from South America to the United States passes through Central America.
He also pointed out that violence and drugs, while related, are separate problems that require a multifaceted solution. “They are connected, but they are different. Not all violent criminals traffic in drugs; not all drug traffickers commit violent crimes,” he said, “but obviously there is a substantial amount of overlap between the two, and the one feeds the other.”
The UNODC study supports Brownfield’s assessment, noting that the relationship between violence and drugs isn’t always a direct one. It notes that while in Guatemala and Honduras, the link between territorial drug fights and the murder rate is clear, that’s not the case in other countries, such as El Salvador, which has suffered the highest sustained murder rates for a variety of reasons, not all related to drugs.