Last week, I found myself sitting around the table with 16 young Hondurans who face crime and violence every day. These students from the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH) described the daily toll that violence takes on their lives, whether through fear of leaving their homes or through the lack of job opportunities in their communities. Most know someone who has been killed. This is not surprising given that Honduras has one of the world's highest homicide rates at 82 per 100,000 according to the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Young people represent six out of every 10 of those deaths.
My discussion with the UNAH students was part of a weeklong trip to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras. I met with senior government officials, civil society leaders, women entrepreneurs, and youth activists. Each told me of the serious challenges, such as crisis levels of crime and violence, impunity, threats to human rights, and trafficking in persons, that stand in the way of realizing a regional vision for a safe, prosperous future for all. Many of these issues are interconnected and require an integrated approach.
The young people I spoke with are taking just such an approach. They have formed organizations such as the Youth Against Violence Movement and are playing an active role in pressing for an end to violence and endemic corruption in Honduras. These youth activists spoke eloquently about the importance of involving youth, who are directly affected by violence and often recruited by gangs and criminal organizations, in the design of community-based solutions.
Indeed, every citizen has a role to play in building a more secure future in Central America. Central American governments must work directly with civil society and the private sector to address their nations' challenges. Some of the most promising solutions to the crime and violence that plague Central America involve community-based approaches, like Youth Against Violence, and public-private partnerships. I saw community outreach centers in Guatemala and Costa Rica that offer at-risk youth vocational training and recreational activities that build their self-esteem, increase their employability, and reduce the possibility that they will engage in criminal activities. These young people are not just bettering themselves; many of them have in turn become leaders and role models for others in their communities who are struggling to find their way.
Civil society and youth-driven engagement are absolutely essential in combating crime and building more resilient communities. The governments of Central America also must play the leading role. They must continue to strengthen law enforcement and security institutions, combat impunity and corruption, and invest resources to protect the human rights of every individual, especially the most vulnerable members of society: women; youth; lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals; and individuals with disabilities.
The United States is and will remain a steadfast partner with the people and governments of Central America as they work toward a safer, more resilient region, because no one, young or old, should lose out on opportunities to succeed, or should live in fear, due to violence that can -- and must -- be prevented.
As Under Secretary of State for Democracy and Global Affairs, María Otero oversees U.S. foreign policy on democracy, human rights, population, refugees, trafficking in persons, and Tibetan issues.Related Content: View photographs of Under Secretary Otero's travel to Costa Rica, Guatemala, and Honduras on Flickr.