Crime in Latin America: Democracy Losing this Fight

Kevin Casas-Zamora
Kevin Casas-Zamora Former Brookings Expert, Director, Programa Estado de Derecho, Diálogo Interamericano

August 5, 2008

The loud cheers that have met the Brazilian film Elite Squad (Tropa de Elite), soon to be released in this country, provide as good an image of attitudes toward the rule of law in Latin America as any sociological treatise. The film is a disturbing semi-fictional account of the activities of a police battalion in charge of fighting drug traffickers in the slums of Rio. It has become a phenomenon in Brazil, where 11 million people have seen the film, either at the cinema or through illegal copies.

Captain Nascimento, the film’s main character, has become a folk hero rivaling soccer stars on account of his uncompromising approach toward criminals, which includes a hearty dose of torture and execution. Judging by the reaction of the public — which happens to be Brazilian, but could be Guatemalan, Salvadoran or Venezuelan — when it comes to fighting crime in the streets, civil liberties are out, the ”iron fist” — mano dura — is in.

Homicides soar

Disturbing as it may be, the popularity of Captain Nascimento is not unfathomable. In the course of this decade, approximately 1.2 million people have been killed in Latin America and the Caribbean as a result of crime. In 2000, the last year for which comparable U.N. data for all regions in the world are available, the region had 27.5 murders per 100,000 people, three times as much as the world as a whole and more than four times the current rate of the United States.

Each year, 200 million people — one third of the region’s population — are victims, directly or through their immediate family, of a criminal deed. The costs of this epidemic are staggering. The most rigorous estimate of the economic impact of crime in the region measured it a few years ago at $250 billion annually, larger than Argentina’s economy.

The perception that the authorities are unable to protect citizens’ fundamental rights is damaging support for democratic institutions in Latin America and creating a breeding ground for authoritarian attitudes. In El Salvador, for instance, at the beginning of the decade, when levels of violence were lower than today, 55 percent of the population was willing to support a coup d’etat if it helped to reduce crime.

More remarkably, a U.N. study published in 2006 showed that in solidly democratic Costa Rica, support for an authoritarian regime reaches alarming proportions among those who feel most threatened by crime. The Latin American population — as frightened as it is eager for public order — is heeding carefully and often rewarding at the ballot box populist rhetoric that offers the ”iron fist” and a cavalier attitude toward the rule of law.

This is unfortunate, for the record of ”iron fist” solutions to crime is poor. Once more, El Salvador offers a poignant reminder. There, repressive legislative packages to deal with crime in 2003 and 2004 did nothing for security. The number of murders practically doubled between 2003 and 2006, while murder rates jumped from 33 to 55 per 100,000 people, the highest figure in the world.

This is not surprising. At best, the ”iron fist” deals with today’s criminals of today, but not with tomorrow’s offenders.

Sustainable solutions to crime in Latin America require far more than coercion. They demand a comprehensive policy that gives priority to reforming notoriously corrupt and inefficacious police forces, introducing modern technology and information systems to sustain policy decisions, strengthening social ties and the organization of communities and, above all, investing a lot more in education, health, housing and opportunities for the youth.

Bogotá much safer

Such is the road to success traveled by Colombian cities such as Bogotá and Medellín, which have slashed violence levels in little more than a decade. With 80 murders per 100,000 people, Bogotá was one of the world’s most dangerous cities in 1994; in 2006, with 18 murders, it was one of the safest capitals in the Western hemisphere. Balancing ”zero tolerance” for crime with ”zero tolerance” for social exclusion offers a way forward even in dire circumstances.

The cheers for Captain Nascimento are an ominous sign. Latin American democracies must deal seriously and effectively with the mounting casualties of violence, lest the next casualty is democracy itself.