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Peace consolidation

Lessons from Central America

by Tillmann Elliesen

In brief

Imprisoned member of 18th Street Gang in San Salvador/Häftling der 18th Street Gang in San Salvador.

Imprisoned member of 18th Street Gang in San Salvador/Häftling der 18th Street Gang in San Salvador.

Even though civil wars ended in El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua in the 1990s, these three countries are still far from stable peace and real democracy.

After 20 years of military rule, a civilian came to power in Guatemala in 1986. At the time, Germany supplied equipment to that country’s police force, funded from the budget of the Development Ministry (BMZ). The idea was to strengthen the civilian government and thus promote democracy at the same time. But the plan failed, as Guatemala lapsed into another ten years of civil war. The warring parties did not make peace until 1996.

The assistance Germany provided in the 1986 is a typical example of a precipitous and counter-productive intervention. Intended to have a stabilising effect, it actually made matters worse. In Guatemala’s context, police equipment was, at the time, indeed likely to be used for destructive purposes. In a study of Central American peace processes in the 1980s and ‘90s, Sabine Kurtenbach of the German Institute for Global and Area Studies (GIGA) writes: “Stabilisation does not need to rely mostly on the repressive capacity of the state (police, military), but should be based on inclusion and participation.” In autumn 1986, after incidents of violence in Guatemala, the German Bundestag banned any further assistance to the police funded by the BMZ – and that ban stayed in place for 15 years.

Kurtenbach asks in her paper what lessons can be learned from El Salvador, Guatemala and Nicaragua. She refers to the three countries as “laboratories” for the “liberal peacebuilding paradigm”, which has three elements: peace, democracy and market economy. The civil wars may have ended in Central America, Kurtenbach says, but they have left a legacy of crime and excessive reciprocal violence by private security services. The process of democratisation has stalled, and marginalised groups still have hardly any say. Making matters worse, according to Kurtenbach, economic reform in the three countries has deepened the rift between rich and poor instead of promoting wide-spread prosperity.

In El Salvador and Guatemala, Kurtenbach notes a failure to restore public security. In her view, governmental and armed forces have been successfully demobilised, but the combatants have not been adequately reintegrated into society. Many of them now make a living in private-sector security firms. According to Kurtenbach, there are more than 180 such firms in Guatemala alone, and only 28 of them have a license.

As Kurtenbach bemoans, the paramilitary forces that fought on the side of the governments in El Salvador and Guatemala were never disarmed. As a result, both countries are flooded with hand guns and suffer from a vicious cycle of criminal violence and repression by governmental and private-sector security services. In the first ten years after the peace settlement, more people were murdered in El Salvador than in 12 years of civil war.

The violence, which Kurtenbach considers less serious in Nicaragua, is an obstacle to real democracy. The international community insisted on elections, she points out, but that made no difference to the political polarisation of the countries. No space was created for the formulation of a vision for a post-war society. “Democratisation has helped to address one side of the regions’ grievances but – at least up to the moment – has failed to give a perspective for social change and inclusion,” Kurtenbach writes. What is more, she sees no improvement in the economic situation for large sections of society.

The author draws three conclusions from her analysis:
– Peacebuilding strategies are only likely to succeed if they are rooted in society and are long term.
– One should not overestimate the effect of political interventions on peacebuilding at the national level as the forces of globalisation tend to have a greater impact.
– Stabilisation must not be confined to restoring physical security because real democracy and respect for human rights are vital requirements. (ell)