Routing Peace Towards Central America

At the second annual Central American Donors Forum in Seattle, Julieta Castellanos spoke about the threats facing Central America. Among them, she cited rising homicide rates in what is now considered to be the most dangerous region on earth outside of a warzone. She focused on Honduras, a nation "in crisis" that currently ranks first among the world's most violent countries.

Castellanos, President of the National Autonomous University of Honduras, understands Central America's security situation from a deeply personal perspective. In October 2011, her 22-year-old son died after having been kidnapped and murdered in Tegucigalpa.

But Castellanos did not bring herself to mention that fact before an audience of leaders from the private, public, and civic sectors, all of whom had been brought together by the Seattle International Foundation (SIF) to find innovative ways to tackle the most pressing problems in Central America. Instead, she focused on the facts.

Over the past six years, insecurity has increased at frightening levels, especially in Honduras. The trafficking of drugs from Colombia through Central America towards the North American market has stimulated violence. Drug trafficking is related to a range of other criminal activities, particularly when drug lords neutralize or undermine the work of the police through corruption and even the infiltration of government forces -- as happens throughout Central America.

When discussing what governments, NGOs, private foundations, and businesses need to do to address the issue, Castellanos turned to one of the forum's central themes: youth.

"We have to invite youth into this discussion because they are the most at risk," Castellanos stated. "In Honduras in 2011, 7,000 youth between 15 and 34 were murdered. Of those about 4,000 were men and about 3,000 were women. Once found, many of their bodies showed signs of having been tortured."

Castellanos held her ground before the audience -- eyes dry, voice unwavering, spirit numbed -- as she shared the statistics that encompassed her son's tragedy.

Castellanos was not the only person at the forum to highlight the dismal reality that Central American youth confront. Geoff Thale of the Washington Office on Latin America spoke of the numerous threats that affect the region's expanding youth population. These include long-standing patterns of poverty and inequality, the disruption of traditional family structures due to migration, reduced access to education, and few opportunities in the labor market. Consequently, youth turn to gangs in their search of identity, stability, and family structure, which adds to the growing problems of street and organized crime.

While representatives of the public and civic sectors in attendance at the forum painted a grim image of Central America's reality, members of the private sector were more apt to offer pragmatic ideas for engagement. Leonardo Ortiz Villacorta Ramirez from Microsoft, for instance, stressed the need to spark interest in young people to forge the way towards a better future.

"By channeling investments and partnerships to provide technology, skills training, and specific programs that foster employability and entrepreneurship among youth, business leaders can help youth realize their goals in productive and impactful ways," said Villacorta Ramirez.

The focus on youth in Central America is critical as the region's youth population continues to grow. By 2015, an estimated one-third of Latin America's population will be between the ages of 15 and 34. Currently, one out of every five youth between the ages of 12 and 24 in Central America neither works nor studies. The situation is gravest in Honduras, where nearly one out of every four youth in this age bracket neither works nor studies.

Driving regional growth requires educations and jobs for Central American youth. As Julieta Castellanos stated, "Education is the one unquestionable element of social mobility." If left uneducated and unemployed, the booming youth generation will not produce drivers of economic growth and regional development. Instead, youth will continue to become the region's chief generators crime and violence.

Several women's rights groups at the forum shared ideas for helping Central Americans -- particularly young men -- reduce levels of violence in their countries, starting with gender-based violence. In a region where violence against women is rife, societal interpretations and cultural representations of what it means to be male and macho require integrated transformation. As the Inter-American Bank highlighted, an estimated 20 to 50 percent of women suffer intimate partner violence during the course of their lives. According to Amnesty International, one out of every six women who attempts crossing the U.S.-Mexican border becomes a victim of rape. This is but one example that highlights the need for specialized training programs, especially for boys. Such programs will foster cultural awareness of gender equality and more widespread acceptance of the notion that violence against women and violence, more generally, is intolerable.

Seattle International Foundation Breaking Ground

Central America is at a critical moment in its history due to crime, drugs, poverty, and violence. The reality is one where Central America's governments, often characterized by inefficiency and corruption, cannot succeed in operating solo to address the region's web of escalating problems. The geographic positioning of the drug trafficking route through Central America is unlikely to change in the short-term, nor are the levels of poverty or socioeconomic vulnerability likely to diminish.

Despite these seemingly dire circumstances, there is a prominent role to be played by members of the private and civic sectors.

"The U.S., including U.S. philanthropy, should do more in the region," said Mauricio Vivero, Executive Director of the Seattle International Foundation (SIF). "What happens there affects the U.S., through trade, immigration, and violence caused by the drug wars and gangs."

SIF is a small foundation that is paving the way forward in this dialogue, with the goal of increasing and improving development in Central America through better donor coordination. SIF organized the Central American Donors Forum as a response and an opportunity for foundations, corporations, government actors, and NGOs to establish partnerships that will direct more resources to initiatives that address the region's chief concerns. In this sense, SIF's work helps reverse the U.S.' Cold War legacy of supporting violent regimes and civil conflicts in Central America that claimed tens of thousands of lives.

Ultimately, the aim is to transform the landscape of global philanthropy so that all sectors -- private, public, civic -- become more effective changemakers.

"The magnitude of the problems we face is so profound, so immense," Julieta Castellanos offered. "This limits our hope a bit every day. But if we want to see results, then integrated, coordinated, and sustainable actions are necessary."