Photo source: Costa Rica Star (http://news.co.cr/police-in-el-salvador-make-changes-to-arrest-procedures-following-gang-demands/12034/)
A couple of nights ago, the PBS Newshour aired a segment about crime in Honduras, taken from a documentary filmed for British television. Even for the standards of a public more or less used to the journalistic crime blotter, the stories and images shown were harrowing, if not graphic. The image being presented was that of a country very much under siege by crime, with a police force barely able to keep up.
The soundbyte did an excellent job at demonstrating that crime is a fact of life in Latin America. It is certainly so in the developed world, but what sets Latin America apart is that crime is not just a social problem. In their landmark 2003 study on the Latin American social structure, Alejandro Portes and Kelly Hoffmann argue that crime is a response to the pauperization of significant segments of society during the implementation of neoliberal economic reform in the 1990s. In other words, many people were forced into poverty but are still hard pressed to live like their wealthier compatriots, and yet they are barred from living decently through legal means (except for the informal economy) because they are poor. This economic dimension also has societal effects, as the correlation between crime and poverty imposes a stigma onto the poor that further alienates them from the wealthier segments of society. On that issue, Greg Grandin comments that those who can afford it resort to private security, while those who cannot (especially in rural areas) resort to vigilantism. Both cases represent a serious challenge on the monopoly on force exercised by Latin American states — or at least what little of it they can impose.
Which brings us to the political dimension of Latin America’s crime problem. The issue is twofold. First, the proliferation of private security services and the incidence of vigilantism attests to how governments are not delivering on citizen security and how desperate citizens have become. In other words, crime in Latin America is also a governance issue. To complicate matters further, many police departments throughout the region are rife with corruption (it is well known that many Mexican police officers, for example, moonlight for the drug cartels as hired guns or take part in the trafficking themselves) and the police is among the least trusted institutions in Latin America. On the other side of this ledger, some governments – especially in Mexico and Central America – have responded by making citizen security a national security issue, prompting either the deployment of military forces (ex. Mexico) or the militarization of police forces (ex. Brazil), and either way creating the conditions for violations of the rule of law in an area of the world where it is not that deeply embedded. That latter situation, as well as the other extreme of too little policing, leads to the second aspect of this dimension: As elected governments seem incapable of fulfilling the basic responsibility of protecting the public, support for democracy regionwide suffers.
Grandin offers some rays of hope, as he mentions how several countries are experimenting with community policing and less punitive approaches to drug trafficking, but they can only function insofar as governments make the necessary commitment to and investments in these programs. Indeed, public and international (read US) pressure force Latin American governments to follow the politically expedient (but flawed) iron-fisted anti-crime policies. It will certainly take political will and imaginative policies to truly minimize Latin America’s crime problem, but in the meantime we are dealing with an issue that has many dimensions and bleakens the future of its citizens.