On June 4, the New York Times published a note entitled "Why they kill in Latin America". According to journalists Alejandra Sánchez Insunza and José Luis Pardo Vieras, Latin America occupies the first place in the world for the three kinds of homicides listed by the United Nations: criminal, interpersonal and socio-political. The Inter-American Development Bank --IDB -- points out that 50% of the crimes in Latin American cities are committed in barely 1.6% of their streets.
The greater part of assassinations are concentrated in 7 of the 20 countries of the region: Brazil, Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador and Mexico, to a great extent linked to drug-trafficking.
Although drug trafficking exacerbates the problems, rather than being their cause, this is an illegal business where murder is the habitual form of decision-making and for the resolution of problems. Nevertheless, countries such as Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica, that are on the narcotics route to the United States, have the lowest rates of Central America. The same is true of Peru and Bolivia, two of the three world producers of cocaine. Brazil, the most violent country in the world, has a drug market that is scarcely connected with the United States and centred on its own internal consumption.
These seven countries have common problems but also their own specific characteristics. In Mexico, the war on drug trafficking has become the second most lethal conflict in the world, only surpassed by Syria. In Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, gang wars have made it the world region with the highest homicide rates. In Colombia, the deaths associated with the guerrilla conflict fell by over a third in a decade, while other forms of violence left more than 12 thousand deaths in 2016. In Brazil, the dispute over territorial control is growing, both in the city and the countryside. In total, 144,000 persons are murdered annually in Latin America.
Every year the Mexican NGO Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia Penal publishes the "list of the 50 most violent cities in the world", almost completely occupied by Latin American cities (43 in 2016).
In Latin America 400 persons end up in the morgue every day, four every fifteen minutes. With barely 8% of the world population, Latin America is the most unequal and violent continent of the planet.
From the angle of the geopolitics of security, a new paradigm of security, this quantitative description of violence in Latin America deserves some considerations and clarifications.
1. To take as synonymous formats the homicide rates per each 100 thousand inhabitants and the generic rate of insecurity is a simplification that impacts negatively on the perception of insecurity among the population and puts demands on the political decision–makers for security centered on homicides instead of strategies to guarantee security in everyday life. Ordinary citizens are preoccupied by robbery, household assaults with violence, automobile theft and eventual kidnappings, depending on the characteristics of each country. The homicide rate, taken as a key indicator of insecurity, does not express the complexity of the real situation.
2. Drug trafficking descriptively explains homicides but much less general insecurity, while governments show an inclination for the slogan “the war on drugs” as a catalyzer of the whole set of security policies. But the homicides due to drug trafficking imply a growing and generalized illegality on the part of the State, and everything cannot be reduced to simple struggles among gangs or market disputes.
3. It is often affirmed that the cause of violence is “face to face” inequality. This is demonstrated with the case of Argentina and Uruguay, countries with less inequality and less violence. The United States, the most unequal country in the first world, has four cities that are among the most dangerous (Saint Louis, Baltimore, New Orleans and Detroit). Nevertheless Venezuela is the least unequal country of the region and the most violent, with 7 cities among the 50 most dangerous in the world, and Caracas as the first in global ranking. Less poverty and less inequality do not mean less violence. There are problems of conditions of institutions and the State that are present and must be considered.
4. In Latin America, violence has been a historically constructed process: since the civil wars following national independence, to the assassination of Eliezer Gaitán, and to Operation Marquetalia, in Colombia; as a derivation of US external policy of the 1980s in Central America or the war against drugs of Nixon in Mexico. In the Southern Cone (Argentine, Uruguay and Brazil) military dictatorships gave rise to corrupt illegal and criminal police and military institutions that still subsist. With or without the United States, the international system operates as the backdrop to Latin American violence.
5. In the seven countries mentioned the State is the main actor generating insecurity and violence. Mexico, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have declared a “war” on drug trafficking, through Plan Colombia and the Mérida Initiative. In Brazil, the criminal role of the security forces is the generator of the high rate of police assassinations (the easy trigger), surpassing deaths due to drug trafficking. To say that Latin America is the most violent region of the world without mentioning the State component is to measure the problem only at the level of statistics.
6. The indicators of violence lack political usefulness if they are mentioned globally and not locally. Mexico has a national rate of homicides=danger of 16, while Guachochi (Sierra de Chihuahua) has a rate of 116.7 (for 2015) and in the Coyoacán district, in Mexico City, it is 3.7. The local perspective allows us to appreciate the close and changing “danger”, with precise political indicators that can call for citizen empowerment. Included in general orientation criteria, security policies should be predominantly local, including local governance of security.
7. Territoriality is the main component of security analyses, within which quantitative inputs are a necessary instrument for understanding the reality, but do not automatically define it. In security terms, reality should be signified through the incorporation of the territorial -or geopolitical- dimension. Homicides, as seen within an integral panorama of security that includes all the issues at stake, are part of a territoriality that permanently circulates to and fro between State and society, that is, between the institutions of security and the criminal organizations. There is no crime without the State yet if there is a State there is no crime. Recuperating the state institutions through the occupation of territory increases security and improves the indicators, in a region where only 1.6% of urban territory is lost. This is little territory but it is much territoriality.
Violence in Latin America is not a simple and accumulative tale but rather the expression of a region of intermediate development, sharing a border with the United States, and where two emerging powers exist (Brazil and Mexico), full of inequalities and struggles for the distribution of income.
(Translated for ALAI by Jordan Bishop)
Miguel Angel Barrios, Professor of history and Master of Sociology. Doctor in Education. Doctor in Political Science.
Norberto Emmerich, Doctor in Political Science and graduate in International Relations.