SECURITY: Latin America’s Problem: What to Expect and What Should be Done  

Dr. Solheim: Latin America's lacking criminal justice systems, political leadership, and socioeconomic inequality aggravate its security problem. Photo (c) La Prensa Honduras 2013Dr. Solheim: Latin America's lacking criminal justice systems, political leadership, and socioeconomic inequality aggravate its security problem. Photo (c) La Prensa Honduras 2013

By Dr. Håvar Solheim; University lecturer Modern History; Department of Latin American Studies; Leiden University – For years Latin America has been profiled as one of the most violent regions in the world, superseding homicide rates of today´s most war-ridden countries such as Iraq and Afghanistan. Unsurprisingly Mexico is one of the worst off with 23.000 murders in 2016. In fact, according to these recent numbers released by the International Institute for Strategic Studies in its annual Armed Conflict Survey 2017, solely Syria had a larger body count than the Latin American nation last year.

Organized crime groups with transnational reach, mainly driven by drug trafficking, constitute the largest threat to public security in the region – the so-called ´mid-level threat´ – as Pion-Berlin and Trinkunas (2011) characterize them.[1] These are crime organizations that have the power to upset social order, and in many cases are more technologically proficient and possess more firepower than the state security agencies. Poignant examples include the Mexican drug cartels, the Mara youth gangs in Central America and the former paramilitary groups that merged with organized crime organizations that operate under the acronym BACRIM (criminal gangs) in Colombia.

Violence and crime discourages investment and presses on the state’s generally limited resources. Since the 1990s, much effort has been dedicated to strengthening national and local security agencies in order to counter the crime rise. The common strategy found in the Latin American security reforms package has been police transformation, though it has largely failed to improve the security situation. The lack of a wholescale modernization process of the criminal justice system, the discontinuity of political leadership, and the ever growing socioeconomic inequality of Latin American societies aggravate the problem. Together with the high acceptance of illegality and the dominating militarized answer to drug trafficking, these aspects amount to a general inability to counter crime and violence on a regional level. The compelling truth is that Latin America, and in particular the region´s main urban areas, face much more complex crime dynamics than ever before, which only increment the already elevated homicide rate. According to a report published by the Mexican NGO Seguridad Justicia y Paz in 2014, among the 50 most violent cities in the world 42 of those were situated in Latin America.

Photo (c) El Faro 2017

Poignant examples include the Mexican drug cartels, the Mara youth gangs in Central America and the former paramilitary groups that merged with organized crime organizations that operate under the acronym BACRIM (criminal gangs) in Colombia. Photo (c) El Faro 2017

Unfortunately not much improvement in the regional security situation should be expected in the foreseeable future. And this for the following reasons. In the case of Mexico, the state is facing an overwhelming task in countering the high homicide rates. Since 2012 under President Peña Nieto´s leadership a decrease of murders during his first years in power took place. A number of organized crime leaders have been arrested in recent years as a result of the Kingpin Strategy, which former president Felipe Calderón first employed in 2006. However, after a restructuring period organized crime groups are now fighting to gain control of territory and drug trafficking routes. This is what now appears to have provoked the recent rise in violence and crime. This is taking place despite the defence and public security budget has remained high during recent years. At the moment there is no indication that the violence will seize in the nearby future. The situation is more likely to deteriorate and become more complex (for the federal government) as organized crime networks expand their presence and become increasingly “professional”. As the foundation Insight Crime reports on its website; the Mexican organized crime organizations are estimated to be among the most violent and sophisticated in the region and benefit from a contact network that stretches throughout the entire Western Hemisphere.[2] In addition, corruption of public officials at all levels of government further aggravates the situation as it allows for these groups to carry out their illicit activities with less risk of being detected and acted upon by the state security agencies.

Secondly, due to the dramatic deterioration of the political scenario in Venezuela and the lack of disposition of the Maduro government to negotiate with the opposition, an increase in political violence is to be expected. Moreover, existing social tensions, domestic violence and the ongoing refugee stream to the neighbouring countries (foremost Colombia, some Caribbean islands and Brazil) are most likely to escalate. Thirdly, the partial failure of Central American states´ effort in countering the Mara youth gangs´ penetration into the state apparatus and society is likely to worsen the control over the transit zones used by both Mexican and Colombian crime organizations to traffic drugs from the Andean region to the North.

Fourthly, the Colombian state is facing a substantial challenge after the demobilization of the FARC is finalized. The state is not likely to be able to fill the vacuum the FARC will leave behind in the country side. Hence, an abrupt increase in violence as a cause of full-scale war between rivalling organized crime groups in order to seize control over new drug trafficking territories and routes should be expected, particularly considering that increase in violence has been observed in other post-conflict areas, such as Northern Ireland, South Africa, and the Balkans, among others. Especially remote areas that traditionally have suffered from a low state presence are at risk. Given Colombia´s extreme topography with mountain chains, rivers and rainforest, the Armed Forces and the National Police will face large difficulties when fighting illegal armed groups that benefit strategically from decades of having survived in these local circumstances.

Photo (c) Fundación Televisora Venezolana Social 2017

Due to the dramatic deterioration of the political scenario in Venezuela and the lack of disposition of the Maduro government to negotiate with the opposition, an increase in political violence is to be expected. Photo (c) Fundación Televisora Venezolana Social 2017

Fifthly, the drug trafficking phenomenon is extremely dynamic and during recent years it is benefitting from new established contacts and drug routes throughout the entire region. Brazil has become a new hub for drugs being smuggled via Northern Africa into its final destination: Europe. Even Bolivia and Chile, countries that had historically avoided the complexity of organized crime activity before, are now reporting increased organized crime behaviour and drug smuggling through their territories. These nations are confronting new challenges and it is uncertain if they will be able to formulate effective answers. This is especially so due to the fact that organized crime seeks to penetrate society through strategies such as purchasing property in money laundering schemes and search for new markets to dispose of illegal products.

How is such a complex and urgent threat to be countered? Latin American countries must drastically increase their law enforcement cooperation and depoliticise security management. The de-politicization of the security management is necessary in order to promote the cooperation between nations with opposing political regimes. In a scenario of globalization and international networks of crime organizations, regional collaboration aside of politics is indispensable. An example that evidences this is the relation between Colombia and Venezuela where extradition of captured FARC members in Venezuelan territory has been impossible, while in cases where drug traffickers have been captured the Venezuelan government has been more than willing to extradite them to the Colombian authorities.

Regional security cooperation is therefore not likely to take place due to the profound differences between Latin American governments and their sitting presidents. However, regional police cooperation should follow in the footsteps of the Colombian National Police and heavily support AMERIPOL´s efforts. Furthermore a synchronization of national security agendas is imperative to establish a collective approach to the transnational character of organized crime and drug trafficking. Foreign donors, such as the United States and the European Union should devote their financial and law enforcement aid to provide training, assistance, and to support the strengthening of local government.

Photo (c) El Pais Internacional 2017

Foreign donors, such as the United States and the European Union should devote their financial and law enforcement aid to provide training, assistance, and to support the strengthening of local government. Photo (c) El Pais Internacional 2017

Last but not least, any effort of improving public security should include an endurable local approach which activates municipal governments. This will help to institutionalize the local public security management, to stimulate police-local government cooperation and to incorporate the citizens in security management on a community level. Without the trust and support from the public, police and state authorities will lack the legitimacy to effectively counter violence and crime.

Political leadership is key in promoting such change: without proactive leadership no progress should be expected to occur. This because without political leadership (such as governors and mayors) the security management will be left in its entirety to state security agencies and the traditional repressive modus operandi that has failed thus far will continue.

The stakes are high, as a failure to formulate and implement effective reforms will allow for a further militarization of the public security sector, a process that is already underway and which leads to military solutions to public security issues such as co-opting of police tasks. A perfect example of this are the recent pacification attempts of Rio de Janeiro´s favelas. An intensification of violence is therefore expected to happen while the citizens are being caught in the cross-fires.

Dr. H. Solheim

Department of Latin American Studies

Leiden University    

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[1] Pion-Berlin, D. and H. Trinkunas (2011) ´Latin America´s Growing Security Gap´. Journal of Democracy, 22(1), pp. 39-53.

[2] Insight Crime’s website: www.insightcrime.org. Source consulted on 11 May 2017.