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Seattle philanthropy seeks changed mindset in world murder capital

Down with Drugs
Down with Drugs
Flickr, Curtis Gregory Perry

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden is in Mexico and soon will be on his way to Honduras, meeting with Central American leaders to figure out an effective strategy for combating the surging, deadly drug trade.

Many Latin American leaders say the so-called ‘War on Drugs,’ which emphasizes aggressive law enforcement, has failed and only led to increased violence. Some want to explore de-criminalizing drugs.

The Obama Administration and others remain steadfastly opposed to legalization, and appear to be planning stepped-up hemispheric drug enforcement actions.

But what if the illicit drug trade is just a symptom of the real problem?

“What’s really needed is a new mindset, about changing the culture so that the people with wealth and power in these countries invest in improving the lives of their own citizens,” said Mauricio Vivero, executive director at the Seattle International Foundation.

Mauricio Vivero
Puget Sound Business Journal

Vivero just got back from Honduras, which some have dubbed the current murder capital of the world, where he met with business leaders, politicians, philanthropists and development experts. He attended a meeting in San Pedro Sula called by the Honduran government and World Bank and featuring the Central American Leadership Initiative — an organization launched in 2007 by Bill Clapp, co-founder of the Seattle International Foundation, along with other business leaders in the region.

Biden is headed to Honduras Tuesday in part because the drug cartels are moving there, forced south due to the crackdown in Mexico.

The fight against drug cartels often resembles pushing on a balloon. Last week, the Organization of American States said the drug violence across much of Latin America is increasing and becoming so bad it is threatening to undermine democracy.

Biden’s trip, according to one Honduran newspaper, indicates the Obama Administration is looking to expand its military presence in the region with an aim to curbing drug violence. Says the editor of the news weekly, Marco Cáceres:

The writing is on the wall. Central America is the next US “hot spot”. It’s been more than two decades since the days of the Contras and the fight against communism in Central America. Not pleasant memories for Honduras back then, so I ask that you think carefully about your strategy there… and go gently. Nearly 50,000 people have died in Mexico since Mr. Calderón declared war against the drug cartels in his country in 2006 and mobilized his military for an all-out offensive.

Vivero and his colleagues at the Seattle International Foundation, as well as on the Central American Leadership Initiative (CALI), aren’t taking a position on the debate over drug enforcement strategy. They just think it may be a bit of a red herring.

Many parts of Central America are in crisis today, Vivero said, due to the combination of poverty, destabilized governments weakened by years of civil war and a disengaged business community that, in effect, operates behind walls in isolation from the people and their own country.

“In the U.S., we take for granted the collaborative efforts of business and government to work on problems, the idea of public-private partnerships,” he said. In Central America, he said, there’s still a lot of mistrust between business people and government officials — which further leads to more corruption and loss of public confidence in both government and business.

“They don’t work together and that’s a big part of the problem,” Vivero said. “Honduras is especially weak right now and the drug lords are taking advantage of it…. Getting the private sector to collaborate effectively with governments and NGOs is complicated and requires building trust and shared goals.”

There is no quick fix for this, Vivero said, no Hollywood-action-movie game plan that will fix the problem. If the U.S. government truly wants to put a dent in the illegal drug trade, he said, the first step should be to do whatever it can to promote trust and partnerships between business and local governments.

The Seattle International Foundation has so far donated about $225,000 to these efforts in Latin America aimed at bringing people together, building trust and facilitating public-private partnerships. CALI has worked with ­­­­­­­­150 business leaders since it began, so far creating dozens of initiatives in the region to combat poverty and promote social cohesion.

“But we recognize major change never really comes from outside,” said Vivero, noting he is the only ‘gringo’ on the Central American Leadership Council. “We’re not trying to build a clinic or dig a well here. We’re trying to change the way people think.”



About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.