Stacks Image 10254
Stacks Image 7007

Central America 2013: "Violence and corruption"

Background to the project

The 2013 edition of "Crossed Pens" addressed the issue of violence and corruption in three Central American countries: Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Since emerging from the conflicts they endured during the Cold War power games between the United States and the USSR in South America, these three countries have been grappling with very high levels of crime and criminal networks that in some cases have usurped the authority of government.

There is an unprecedented level of violence in these three countries, which are considered to be among the most violent states in the world today. Honduras and El Salvador are currently placed first and second in the world in terms of murders, with 91.6 and 70.2 intentional homicides respectively per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. Guatemala is very close behind (38.5) and the murder rate in some Guatemalan cities is as high as 165 per 100,000 inhabitants a year.

It wasn't until 1996, when Guatemala signed peace accords, that the conflicts that had ravaged Central America in the second half of the 20th century ended.

Although the peace accords were a huge step towards bringing peace to Central America, the years of conflict left a deep imprint on society. Indeed, the legacy of these war years was that violence within cities became a real societal problem from the end of the era of inter-state conflict.

The Esquipulas process, launched in 1986 by the Costa Rican president and future Nobel peace prize laureate, Oscar Arias Sànchez, which initiated the peace process in Central America, provided for the reintegration into society of the irregular forces of the various armies involved in the conflicts. Amnesties were extended to combatants of all factions involved in the fighting that had ravaged the centre of the American continent. The Nicaraguan Contras, the FMLN in El Salvador and the Guatemalan URNG became political parties.

However, the process of reintegrating soldiers into civilian life did not always go smoothly. Indeed, having only ever experienced war some of these former soldiers found themselves marginalised within society. So they resumed their principal activity – perpetrating violence. But this time they did so within the private armies of drug traffickers, property magnates' militias or the organised crime gangs that they formed.

These developments were a major factor in extending the resort to violence in Central America, which was already prevalent in civilian society in the war years. It is even claimed that they were the primary cause. Institutional violence has since been replaced by criminal violence.

Furthermore, as the two often go hand in hand, the rise in organised violence in Central America has been accompanied by a sharp increase in cases of proven corruption. This generalised corruption riddles society, and the people's decreasing confidence in their society’s institutions is a real source of concern.

The shift in behaviour poses a challenge to Central American societies, which must find alternatives to the use of violence if they are to bring peace to the civilian population and eliminate everyday violence from society.

Current human rights situation


Guatemalan society has become increasingly violent in recent years – a trend seen in the other Central American states too. In 2012 no fewer than 5,174 violent deaths were recorded, ranking Guatemala fifth in the list of the world's most violent countries. The figures make clear that tackling this problem is a human rights priority.

Another issue affecting human rights in Guatemala, respect for property – and in particular the land rights of local communities – is seriously mismanaged. There has often been inadequate consultation with the civil population in the context of a major process of mining companies, hydroelectric power plants and other industrial enterprises setting up in these countries. Despite efforts by the international community to press the Guatemalan government into greater respect for fundamental rights in this area, as well as an appeal to multinationals to conform to international norms, the situation has remained unchanged for several years.

As in many other states, impunity is prevalent in Guatemala. Indeed, there appears to be a lack of will to prosecute serious human rights violations dating back to the war years, as well as crimes in contemporary society – mainly owing to corruption.

Protection for human rights defenders in Guatemala is another matter of concern. Despite repeated appeals by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, the state has failed to adopt effective measures to protect human rights defenders.

Lastly, the situation of the indigenous peoples deserves a mention. The target of systematic discrimination, they comprise by far the biggest group living in poverty. Furthermore, they are the population group most affected by government measures to encourage multinational companies to set up in the country.


The violence in society is a focus of attention and a major political issue in Honduras. Yet it is just one area of concern with regard to the country's human rights record.

The position of human rights defenders is alarming. This issue is now of central importance for international institutions and is also a priority area for Switzerland, given its foreign policy objective of human rights protection and promotion. Human rights defenders are regularly threatened, beaten and even killed. Most of these crimes go unpunished.

Sexual and reproductive rights are another area where particularly serious violations occur in Honduras. Not content with having banned abortion in all circumstances, the Honduras government in 2012 also banned the emergency contraceptive pill, or morning-after pill, thereby becoming the first country to criminalise a form of contraception.

Finally, there is also concern regarding the prison situation, which is directly linked to the level of violence in the country. Jails are overcrowded, and every year several hundred people die as a result of the insanitary conditions and prison violence.

El Salvador

Currently the main human rights problem in El Salvador is impunity, relating both to the wave of violence that the country is experiencing now and to the 12 years of war from 1980 to 1992 that preceded the conclusion of peace between the Central American states.

What is more, the violent death rate and the growing power of criminal organisations in El Salvador, acquired partly through corruption, lead to fears that the situation will worsen in the years to come.

Another cause of concern is that violations of reproductive rights are becoming more widespread and institutionalised. In fact, abortion in all circumstances remains a crime in El Salvador, punishable by a prison sentence. There is no medical justification that allows it, irrespective of whether the mother's life is at risk.

Lastly, the El Salvador judicial system is itself a concern. Since April 2013 changes to the procedure for electing judges, in particular to the Salvadoran Supreme Court, have raised fears of a loss of judicial independence. This is particularly problematic in view of the corruption that is already undermining the system.

3. Aims of the project

The caricaturists' aim in this fifth edition of "Crossed Pens" was to highlight the extent of the violence in Central America at present, as well as the direct correlation with the scale of corruption in these countries, notably within the justice system.