Security in Latin America, a challenge for the future of the region

Although the phenomena of insecurity and violence are widespread in Latin America, the solutions to these problems are archaic and limited. This year's UN reports urge leaders in the region to put security back on the table.

In 2018, Latin America was ranked as the most violent region on the planet. Photo: AFP
In 2018, Latin America was ranked as the most violent region on the planet. Photo: AFP

The numbers for the region are not encouraging economically, let alone in terms of security. In early July 2019, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) released an alarming report on the number of homicidal violence in 2017 worldwide, which leaves a worrying message about the phenomena of insecurity and violence in Latin America.

The victims of homicidal violence were five times the number killed by armed conflicts during that same period of time in the world, and the critical points of that violence are concentrated in both Central and South America. The homicide rate in Africa was lower than in the Americas, where the murder rate per 100,000 inhabitants can average up to 62.1 homicides.

The link between organized crime and violent deaths, according to the report, is an alarming constant in the world. In 2017 it accounted for 19% of homicides worldwide, a figure even higher than that of armed conflict and terrorism combined. According to UNODC, organized crime "destabilizes countries, undermines socio-economic development and erodes the rule of law. UNODC Executive Director Yury Fedotov notes that, if the trend continues, "the targets of the Sustainable Development Goal will be significantly reduced".

Men account for more than 50% of victims. In all regions, the report says, homicide victims increase with age and it is people aged 15-29 who are most at risk of homicide globally. Firearms are much more prevalent in murders in the Americas than elsewhere in the world. "

On the other hand, femicide cases are often ignored and although the homicides of women and girls represent a lower rate than that of men in the total figure, it is she who bears a greater burden because the homicides are perpetrated by couples or relatives. "Murders carried out by intimate partners are rarely spontaneous or random," UNODC says.

The report stresses that addressing this issue requires strengthening the rule of law and investing in public services, particularly education to reduce violent crime. But it also points to the need to produce specific policies against criminal networks, including community participation and police reforms, which are commonplace in the nations of the region.

In Uruguay, for example, security reform has been promoted, including the creation of a specialized National Guard to strengthen police work. The measure, which will be voted on Sunday during the election day in which the president will also be elected, has been highly criticized by thousands of Uruguayans, because they see it with repressive tints.

If anything has been revealed by recent and diverse reports on insecurity in Latin America, it is that the issue has been very distant from the focus of discussion of the leaders of the region who, frequently, promote the same archaic measures to solve the central problem. The reaction of the region's governments has generally been to resort to repressive policies, called "mano dura" (heavy hand), often giving the armed forces public security tasks.

This is despite the fact that, in terms of doctrine, public security should be the responsibility of civilian authorities and the police, which is the institution that is (or should be) trained and equipped for tasks that require close contact with the citizenry. On the contrary, the formation and training of the armed forces means that giving them public security responsibilities implies serious risks of human rights abuses and excessive use of force.

This tendency of Latin American governments to use the military in internal security tasks has been evident in recent days with the decision of President Sebastián Piñera in Chile to take the army out into the street in the face of the widespread outbreak of protests in several cities in the country. It has also been observed in the case of Ecuador, where broad social sectors are marching against the economic measures of President Lenin Moreno, and in Mexico where a failed operation to detain Chapo Guzmán's son resulted in at least 8 deaths, 16 injuries and the escape of 49 prisoners from a local prison.

The events of the last few days in Quito and Santiago de Chile reconfirm not only the growing social unrest in the face of governments that do not fulfil their functions of guaranteeing access to public goods and services, including security, to all their citizens.

These facts also show that broad social sectors do not find institutional mechanisms to deal with their demands and discontent before the authorities. And in view of their inability to solve these demands, governments find in the armed forces the only guarantee of governability in times of crisis.

Precisely to discuss these phenomena of insecurity and violence, and the results of the public security policies that Latin American governments have implemented to address them, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, through its office in Colombia, Fescol, organized the first Congress on Inclusive and Sustainable Security, with the participation of experts, policy makers and representatives of social organizations, from 16 countries in Latin America, the United States, Spain and Germany. The Spanish Minister of Foreign Affairs, Josep Borrell, made a speech during the event, pointing out the importance of discussing these phenomena and their implications for democracy in the region, particularly from progressive perspectives that go beyond heavy-handed responses.

Along the same lines, one of the main conclusions of the event was the need to expand the spaces for discussion on these issues, to include all sectors and social groups that may have something to contribute to the conversation, to build more comprehensive responses that address not only the manifestations of violence and insecurity but also their underlying causes.

Source: El Espectador

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