U.S. officials have warned that in parts of Central America where there is little state presence, criminal groups are stepping up to fill the void and offer services to the population, winning their loyalty.
Christopher Ashe, a U.S. State Department official, who works for the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), warned of the existence of “remote areas where there is a general lack of government presence, a lack of capacity of security forces and where government spending tends to be extremely low compared to urban areas."
Speaking at a conference at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington D.C., Ashe said that the lack of state presence in these areas creates a vacuum which can be filled by organized crime groups.
He mentioned several areas of particular concern including the border between Guatemala and Belize, Panama’s border area with Colombia, the Honduran region of Mosquitia, and the Atlantic coast of Nicaragua.
A lack of state presence and funding in these areas, Nash said, allows organized criminal groups to get established in isolated communities, and offer "parallel services" to the local population, undermining the rule of law.
Werner Ovalle, of the Central American Border Security Program (SEFRO) agreed with this analysis, saying that organized crime groups can "fill gaps that the state has left” and in the process gain the loyalty of the local population.
With government crackdowns on drug trafficking in Mexico and Colombia, transnational drug gangs have been increasing their activities in Central America over recent years. The United Nations (UN) Global Study on Homicide for 2011 lists the region as one of the most violent in the world outside of armed conflict zones.