Editor's note:

The following lecture was delivered by Vanda Felbab-Brown to the Inter-American Defense College’s 2020 Seminar on Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law.

I want to focus on how COVID-19 has changed the structural environment in Latin America and what this means for human rights.  Also, what it means for crime and anti-crime policies and consequently on human rights issues. Let me first start with those structural changes. Globally, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an effect so far that surpasses what a regional war would cause in terms of suffering and destruction.  Globally, around 1.2 million people have died. We are heading in the northern hemisphere into a dire winter where death rates are expected to significantly increase. At the same time, about 150 million people globally have been knocked into extreme poverty, living on less than 1.9 dollars a day.

Latin America has been particularly hit hard, with the poverty levels rising dramatically. The entire region is experiencing a contraction of about 9 to 10% of GDP (Gross Domestic Product). That’s a contraction not seen since the Great Depression.  In particular Latin American countries, such as Mexico, the level of GDP contraction is unseen in decades and decades. Now I mentioned that 150 million people globally had been knocked into extreme poverty. What this means is that in 25 weeks of COVID, 25 years of antipoverty efforts have been eradicated by the pandemic. The pandemic wiped out a quarter of a century of poverty reduction efforts.

This is a massive crisis, not only because so many people have been pushed into poverty, but also because that poverty is likely to last a long time.  The way many people have been pushed into poverty has meant they had to liquidate all of their productive and human development assets. All across Latin America, we hear of families not being able to feed their children, having sold any kind of mobility assets such as motorcycles, having lost their housing. Many are living in some sort of improvised shack, even having to sell their cell phones. Of course, today when someone is forced to sell his or her cell phone, it means that the children have no access to virtual schooling, the parents are unable to look for employment or even access basic health care. Access to healthcare has been significantly contracted in various ways, including in terms of birth control.

For large populations, the poverty and economic devastation that COVID and related lockdowns have unleashed mean having to work in some form of the illegal economy. We have seen scores of young women entering into prostitution to feed their families.  And in the absence of adequate access to birth control, that can mean a lot of unwanted pregnancies. Significant population growth is very much associated with the constricted ability to curtail poverty and achieve poverty reduction measures.

Both men and women have been forced to join other illegal economies such as drug smuggling, local drug retail, or perhaps drug cultivation. For the first time in decades, both in Latin America and elsewhere, such as in Africa, we see the movement of people from urban areas to rural areas. That is very problematic, both in terms of rule of law development, government access and reach issues, but also from the perspective of dealing with pandemics.

How did COVID-19 originate?  The pandemic is a zoonotic disease with the virus being transmitted from a wild animal. We do not precisely know which one.  Perhaps a bat, although it’s not clear whether a bat was the original carrier or merely one of the intermediary species, but from a wild animal onto humans. And this presumably occurred in China, most likely it could have happened in Wuhan. It could have occurred outside of Wuhan, but nonetheless, the phenomenon of zoonotic illnesses is a phenomenon that happens about every three years as humans increasingly encroach into wild spaces and come into contact with those spaces, particularly tropical forests through deforestation for cattle ranching, deforestation for soybean production, deforestation for timber, or for poaching and wildlife trafficking, or perhaps for the cultivation of crops such as coca, African oil palm, or mining.  These activities constrict the space that wild animals have to exist. This in the first place increases the spread of viruses among wild species; eventually, this can lead to a jump to livestock and to humans.

So why did I say that the movement of people into rural spaces as a way to cope with the lack of job opportunities in urban spaces in places like Ecuador and Peru is problematic? Because it increases the risk of another pandemic.  What it likely means is that many people will not be able to find sufficient livelihoods in subsistence agriculture and they will be entering the forest with the goal of exploitation.  This could mean poaching and trafficking of wildlife, or mining, logging, perhaps deforestation for timber or new agricultural production. So the immediate coping mechanisms for many people can have very serious repercussions for the speed with which the next zoonotic illness will emerge and can escalate into an epidemic or pandemic.

The fact that we are right now dealing with COVID does not mean that another zoonotic epidemic cannot emerge very rapidly, including in Latin America.  In addition to its vast impact on poverty and development levels of populations, COVID has also had vast impact on revenues of governments.  It has dramatically shrunk GDPs and government revenues, which has reduced the capacity for government expenditures on everything from economic assistance programs immediately during the lockdowns to more long-term economic investment such as in police forces or justice reform.  This also affects other basic public security issues as well as a myriad of other issues, such as urban development, rural development, and infrastructure. Governments are facing significantly increased public insecurity, frustration, and social strife with a very significantly decreased capacity to respond to them, particularly through development means.

Who benefits from this dramatic picture? Well, not human rights. Human rights in Latin America are under greater threat than they have generally been over the past two decades. Those who benefit are criminal actors or vast corporations with significant power to persuade governments to cope with the particular inauspicious economic situation by giving them a great leeway and waving all kinds of restrictions, particularly on extractive activities. Criminal groups across the region and militant groups worldwide have adapted to COVID and have exploited COVID to their purposes.

With the exception of only three groups globally, one of which is in Colombia, the ELN, no militant group has significantly decreased its armed activity, despite the call by the UN Secretary General to have COVID-related ceasefires. In most of the world, the vast majority of illegal groups responded by augmenting their militant activity or at least maintaining it at a highly intense level. But they did other things as well.  Often, criminal groups, such as drug traffickers in Mexico, as well as militant groups like the Taliban in Afghanistan, have responded with the provision of immediate handouts to ease the economic hardship that COVID has caused.  In some cases, such as in El Salvador or Brazil, gangs have also taken it upon themselves to enforce lockdowns. Criminal groups across the region have distributed small amounts of cash, sanitizer soaps and food provisions.  In other words, the criminal groups have been very conscious of using the pandemic to increase their political capital. This is something that I want to emphasize.  There is often a notion that only politically motivated actors with ideology have political effects. I argue that is not the case. Even criminal groups that do not seek to topple governments and do not have leftist or Islamist ideologies often have very profound political effects. Their ability to control both bullets and money on the streets makes them political actors, even if they do not seek to topple governments or spark revolution.  They often seek to establish enough multifaceted power to resist government responses and build support from local populations. Groups vary in the extent to which they do this.  The Sinaloa Cartel in Mexico has been far more conscious of building up political capital than for example the Zetas or the Jalisco New Generation.  Various FARC dissident groups might be more conscious of it than various criminal groups that emerged out of the paramilitaries in Colombia.  Many groups often seek to attain at least some political capital with a range of strategies.

Criminal groups have also been able to capitalize on COVID by strengthening their economic portfolios. For some groups, this could mean that immediate extortion income has gone down. This is particularly true for example for Mara Salvatrucha and Calle 18 in Central America, which often rely on hand-to-mouth extortion practices and often have limited reserve financial resources.  When COVID generated lockdowns and removed people from the streets, extortion opportunities went down.

But some of the extortion has recovered as economies reopened. Moreover, many criminal groups have become very adroit in moving their criminal activities online. We have seen that very dramatically in Europe, in places like Italy. But to some extent, we are also seeing that in Latin America, such as in Brazil, where some of the major criminal groups such as PCC have long had a robust online cybercriminal presence. But the fact that many local businesses have gone bankrupt under the pandemic also means that criminal groups have to develop financial portfolios they can use to take over the bankrupt businesses.  They can often put up fronts for legal companies able to take over bankrupt businesses.

One of the longer-term effects of COVID is that there is very likely to be an increased presence of criminal groups, including major drug trafficking organizations, in presumably legal sectors of the economy, in legal companies, legal agriculture, but also construction and other legal domains. What does that mean for human rights? It essentially means that many of the challenges of human rights in Latin America have become magnified.  Threats to human rights in the region over the past two or three decades have come from two sources:

Once source is the violent actors, the criminal groups and the militant groups like the FARC and ELN.  They have long perpetrated all manner of human rights violations, from extrajudicial killings and murders to rape and gender violence, robberies, extortion, muzzling of freedom of expression, freedom of association.  This is something that we see in Colombia very prominently.  These criminal groups have taken advantage of COVID to tighten their hold on local populations.  They have muzzled local leaders.  The spate of killings of local leaders in Colombia precedes the pandemic at the rate of hundreds per year and continues to be very intense.  But these groups are now also preventing the movement of people out of territories.  We see similar issues in Central America.  Many of these practices preceded COVID, but COVID has allowed these groups to further tighten control.

The second source of threats to human rights has comes from government actors, from police forces and military forces. Latin America suffers from one of the highest crime rates in the world, and much of that crime is highly violent.   It’s significant to note the comparison with East Asia, where the level of drug production, trafficking, and consumption is at least as high as in Latin America and potentially much higher.  Certainly consumption rates in East Asia might surpass those in Latin America, although places like Brazil and Argentina have become major significant demand markets as well, with per capita consumption of cocaine at least on par or perhaps even surpassing the United States.

But violence levels in East Asia are remarkably low.  Drug traffickers in that region are very non-violent.  Some of the major drug trafficking groups that operate from China, Japan, Myanmar, Laos all the way across to Australia are not known by their names.  The reason is because they are by and large very non-violent.  So in most of East Asia homicide rates are 1-2 per hundred thousand.  In Latin America we would talk about tens, maybe high tens, per hundred thousand.  To the extent that East Asian drug markets are violent, they are violent because the state is the source of the violence. The most egregious and notorious case is that of the Philippines under President Rodrigo Duterte, whose rule essentially amounts to government-sponsored murders at extraordinarily high rates and government sponsorship of militia to perpetrate murders at an extraordinarily high rate in the name of fighting drugs. And although the Philippines case is extreme, this is also something that is well established in Latin America.

In countries like Brazil, police units, whether military police or other police units, have often engaged in high levels of extrajudicial killings, often with significant impunity even though such murders might be dressed up as encounter killings and portrayed as self-defense. Police brutality and incompetence, corruption and cooption by some criminal groups have happened in very large numbers of countries in the region from Central America to Mexico to the Southern Cone.

Latin American governments have often responded by sending military forces to take on policing, to redress the deep deficiencies of police forces, the high proclivity toward violence and brutality, as well as the susceptibility to corruption and cooption and lack of effectiveness in suppressing crime.  But military forces have struggled, and they have not been immune from the challenges that policing poses. Military forces are not well suited for policing because they are trained for fighting an armed enemy and defeating an armed enemy. That is a very different proposition than policing street crime in a city.

Military forces have often been thrust into dealing with highly violent criminal groups as well as with street level crime without having a clear mandate, without having clearly defined rules of engagement, often lacking the skills, particularly skills for policing approaches that mitigate violence and have the chance to build reasonably good relations between local populations and the police, such as community policing. The term community policing is frequently used and applied in Latin America as it is elsewhere in the world. But the term has become co-opted to mean essentially a cover for any kind of policing that goes underneath it.  So sometimes police forces that continue engaging in exactly the same level of kicking down the doors say they are doing community policing. The term can mean a wide variety of approaches, including highly negative and counterproductive ones that violate human rights.

Now I speak about the problems and challenges of police reform in Latin America. Of course, I must say that this is an issue that is deeply challenging in the United States. Many of you have watched the continuing protests against police brutality in the United States, particularly against the excessive use of force and inappropriate use of force against African Americans and other minorities. The United States has long struggled and gone through police reform.  There  have been many iterations of police reform in the 60s and then in the 80s and early 1990s, many of which achieved significant progress. Our police forces prior to the 60s and really the Kennedy and Johnson era were often highly corrupt and very much engaged in criminality. The image of Al Capone having the police officer in his pocket in the 30s in Chicago characterized large parts of the United States. And it was really Bobby Kennedy and the Kennedy and Johnson administrations that did a lot of police cleanup, reduced police complicity in corruption and criminality, through the use of FBI oversight, putting police departments into receivership under the Justice Department, creating and empowering internal affairs units, and often dismantling them and cleaning them up.

So the first set of major reforms in the U.S. was really about making the police less corrupt. Then the 80s revealed issues that we are struggling with today.  That decade saw the first effort to address excessive police brutality and discrimination against minorities. The first efforts to integrate African Americans into police forces in a very robust way and subsequently Hispanic and Asian populations really emerged in the 80s and early 1990s, often in response to protests against police brutality and discrimination against minority groups.  But still today it’s a work in progress and the past several years have been enormously challenging and have revealed how much more police reform still needs to be pushed forth.

I would highlight that in addition to the preexisting problems, the U.S. military involvement abroad has been a major factor in increased resort to force by police departments in the United States, not as a last resort but as a first response. There are two reasons for this, one of which is that many soldiers after they finish their tours abroad in  wars will join the police force and bring military skills and military tendencies to policing.  The other reason is the transfer of weapons from the Defense Department to U.S. police departments.  By the way, I should have said that the U.S. police forces are highly complex.  They involve thousands of entities with few federal units like the Federal Bureau of Investigation and many local police departments and also state-level departments.  So  police reform is enormously challenging.  I wanted to highlight that even here in the United States we struggle with the issue of human rights and civil liberties, particularly when military soldiers become a very significant portion of police forces, which is of course the tendency in Latin America.

Now I have enormous sympathy for the many soldiers in Latin America who are deployed to conduct policing. This is often not what they chose, what they signed up for, or what they have training for.Nonetheless, whoever is the source of violence and human rights abuses, extrajudicial killings, rapes, unauthorized searches of people or houses, must be subject to accountability. That is something that we have not seen systematically in Latin America.  Much as the criminals get away with murder in some places like Mexico at enormously high rates, 98% impunity for homicides, so often do the government actors — police officers, and soldiers –- get away with murder and extrajudicial killing and other human rights abuses. That is not good for the health and the thriving of military forces. It is not good for policing.  And it certainly prevents what is required for effective anti-crime approaches: that local populations come to trust the government and come to trust the government’s security agents. Thus, violations of human rights are not effective for suppressing crime and bringing stability.

Now I fear very much that we will see two outcomes, two policy outcomes, of COVID. I fear that the first outcome of shrunk revenues for governments will be that with reduced revenues they will have less funding for police forces and less appetite for police reform. They will be deploying military forces more, and they will often be authorizing the use of violence against protesters, against frustrated, impoverished people protesting against lockdowns, protesting against economic hardship, protesting what they see as government abandonment as they have to cope with the crisis. The system might be very rife with opportunities for severe human rights abuses and repressive mechanisms.  This is something that we should all guard against and avoid.  It will not increase stability in any country, nor will it help in dealing with the pandemic.  I fear that the social strife, violent protests, heavy handed responses against protests, may simply reinforce populist, demagogic, authoritarian politicians, like we are unfortunately suffering in the United States.  This will only lead to a significant, multifaceted degradation of human rights.

The second policy outcome I fear is that we will see highly magnified destruction of the environment that will speed up the arrival of the next zoonotic pandemic. I already spoke about the poor people now entering rural spaces and wild forest spaces to cope with poverty.  But there is also significant likelihood that powerful vested interests, such as logging industries and  mining industries, will be very seductive in their pleas to governments to weaken environmental regulations and extract resources at much greater rates, to use primary commodities to offset the economic constriction caused by COVID. We have seen such a tendency in Brazil before COVID. I expect it will be magnified by COVID.  Certainly the level of deforestation and illegal fires have not decreased in Brazil, and we see it dramatically also elsewhere in the world, such as in Central Africa and Indonesia.

But I go back to what I said was the source of the pandemic: the increased contact between humans and animals in ever shrinking wild spaces and ever shrinking native ecosystems and habitats. And so there is quite a high possibility that a zoonotic pandemic could emerge in Latin America. We have seen the zika virus, already a terrible illness. But by and large, Latin America expects that zoonotic illnesses will start in Asia and only gradually make their way to Latin America.  That happened with Covid, although the speed of transmission globally was rapid.  Latin America is very poorly positioned and prepared to detect the outbreak of a zoonotic illness in the region itself.  Yet one consequence of the region’s response to COVID might be precisely to speed up the arrival of another zoonotic disease and perhaps even, catastrophically, another pandemic. That would be terrible for the global economy. It would be terrible for the stability of governments and the safety of citizens, as well as human rights.