Crime & Justice

Organized crime gaining ground in Latin America amid gov’t inaction

By Esneyder Negrete

Americas Desk, Apr 11 (EFE).- A majority of Latin American countries are facing a public safety crisis that has grown worse in recent months, with organized crime showing alarming signs of gaining ground amid government inaction and a lack of effective public policy solutions.

Drug-fueled violence is a common denominator in many countries across the region and a major driver of high murder rates.

But the trafficking of people, arms and migrants, an increase in extortion rackets and other scourges have further exacerbated these nations’ public safety woes – now a top-of-mind issue for ordinary citizens and voters.

It is clear that Latin America is “suffering a setback in terms of security,” and that problem was made worse by the coronavirus pandemic, Jairo Libreros, an international politics expert and professor of security and national defense at Bogota’s Externado University of Colombia, told Efe.

Although countries like Brazil, Panama, El Salvador, Argentina and Venezuela registered a decline in homicides in 2022, crime remains a major headache for authorities across the region.

In Venezuela, extortion, people trafficking, femicides and sexual abuse are on the rise, while Panama has seen shocking and previously unheard-of violent incidents, including the dismemberment of victims and a mob-style hit inside a school last October that claimed the life of a 15-year-old boy in the northern province of Colon.

Costa Rica, which has long been one of the safest countries in Latin America, registered 656 homicides last year, up 11 percent from 2021 and a record high.

According to figures from that country’s Judicial Investigation Department, six of every 10 homicides committed in that Central American nation in 2022 were related to a “settling of scores” among drug gangs.

In Chile, the perception on the street is that crime has spiraled to an unmanageable level. Authorities, meanwhile, say the number of crimes is no higher than in previous years, although they acknowledge that the perpetrators have become more violent.

“In simple terms, if you go out today on the street, it’s less likely that someone will rob you compared to 10 years ago. But it’s much more likely that the robber will have a gun and be prepared to use it,” Interior Minister Carolina Toha said, urging people not to politicize the problem.

Some countries have taken extreme measures to battle crime.

In Ecuador, 10 states of emergency have been declared in the less than two years since conservative President Guillermo Lasso took office.

Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, for his part, has seen his popularity soar at home – even while facing widespread international condemnation – after authorities rounded up tens of thousands of suspected street gang members under a state of emergency that has been renewed repeatedly over the past year.

In Honduras, a state of emergency also has been in place since December. Initially limited to the two largest cities, Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula, it has since been extended to 123 of the country’s 298 municipalities and attracted the concern of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights.

UN agencies and human rights organizations also have criticized the militarization of law enforcement in some countries, such as Mexico, where more than 92,000 soldiers have been deployed to carry out public safety functions.

Elsewhere, a “police saturation” strategy pursued in Argentina, which consists in putting officers on virtually every street corner, and the recent lifting in Ecuador of a 12-year-old ban on the carrying of firearms by civilians are not real long-term solutions, the director of Argentina’s Center for the Study of Crime and Insecurity in Latin America, Marcelo Bergman, told Efe.

According to Libreros, these are “failed strategies” that have already proved “perverse and toxic” when employed in Latin American countries, Europe and the United States and do not get at the root of the problem.

In Brazil, center-left President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, who was inaugurated for a third term early this year, has brought back a security strategy he employed between 2003 and 2010 that consists of boosting the state’s presence in the outskirts of cities via the implementation of social programs.

More police reform is needed to ensure a greater strategic role for civilian government agencies, academia and civil society organizations, according to Liberos, who cautioned against giving officers more freedom to exercise the use of force, as has occurred in Chile with the recently enacted, controversial “Nain-Retamal” law.

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