Violence in Latin America explored from the perspective of its perpetrators

Mexican experts studied crime in Latin America from the perspective of the perpetrators with the aim of ceasing to analyze violence as an accumulation of figures - the number of dead or missing people, for example - and understanding it as acts carried out by human beings with specific motivations.

Under the question of what drives people to carry out these acts and normalize them, Dr. Laura H. Atuesta and Dr. Javier Treviño, academics from the Center for Economic Research and Teaching (CIDE) in Mexico's central region, shaped the book "Death is a Business. Miradas a la Violencia criminal en América Latina" (Death is a business. A look at criminal violence in Latin America), coordinated by them, which investigates the nature of the actions and those who commit the criminal acts.

"The aim of the book is to explore violence from the perspective of the perpetrators, understanding them as human beings who decide to commit violent acts," Atuesta said in an interview with Efe.

He explained that unlike most existing studies of violence, which use quantitative methodologies, "this book uses qualitative methodologies to explore the reasons why disturbing acts are committed.

Among the tools, the researchers used were in-depth interviews and ethnographic observation which allowed them to "get to know the people they were studying closely.

The specialist considered that unlike quantitative methods, which seek generalizations and statistics, "in-depth interviews and ethnographic observation allow the interviewed/observed to guide the research.

Atuesta said that these methods "allow the discovery of new paths, while the research is being carried out, as well as going beyond the script and the initial hypotheses.

The humanity behind the violence

The expert pointed out that "violence has a human side because violent acts are carried out by human beings," but sometimes "we dehumanize the phenomenon in order to explain to ourselves how irrational violent acts are.

She explained that by interviewing the criminals, asking them the reasons why they commit these violent acts, understanding the incentives that led them to create criminal careers and stay in them, they humanized violence.

"Although we don't share their motivations, we understand why they do it and how they feel about being involved in this criminal world," she explained.

As to why they chose as objects of study the phenomena of violence that appeared in Mexico, Colombia, and Peru, Atuesta explained that these three countries have intertwined histories and the public policies that have been implemented in one country have directly affected what happens in the others.

"For example, at the time the air bridge between Peru and Colombia was closed to stop coca exports, criminal organizations in Colombia were dedicated not only to producing cocaine but also to planting coca," she argued.

She said a similar thing happened when the air traffic on the Caribbean route used to traffic Colombian cocaine to the United States was closed. "Colombian drug traffickers sought allies in Mexico to bring the cocaine to the United States across the border from Mexico and this transformed the criminal organizations in Mexico," the academic said.

For the specialist, studying the phenomenon of violence in any Latin American country is interesting. "However, there are no countries that are more connected by their drug policies than Peru, Colombia, and Mexico," she stated.

Some conclusions

Atuesta explained that although all the chapters of the book describe different realities, four hypotheses were found in common.

The first, that adolescents are a population group that is affected by violence, not only as victims but also as perpetrators. "They are a group in most cases misunderstood and stigmatized by current public policies," she indicated.

The second is that the State plays a role in the violence, either as an absent or present actor.

"Many times it is their absence that causes the development of alternative orders and the creation of criminal groups. Other times it is their presence and their punitive and unjust policies that lead the population (mainly young people) into the criminal world," the specialist commented.

The third is that there is little evidence about the causality between drugs and crime: "This, in spite of being two phenomena that are observed simultaneously, it is not possible to speak of one of them causing the other.

In most cases, he said, "these are phenomena that are generated by external contexts such as poverty, marginalization, the family situation of those affected and their friendly and affective relationships, among others.

While the fourth pointed out that criminal organizations not only commit violent acts, but also seek to create alternative orders to the State.

"These alternative orders are based on rules, rituals, and norms that are respected and followed, often with the support of the population. And this generates governance that does not necessarily turn violent," she concluded.



A score of the most touristy Mexican beaches suffer the violence of drug trafficking, which begins to cause falls in the arrival of tourists.

Drug Trafficking Jeopardizes Tourism in Mexico. Photo: Agencies
Drug Trafficking Jeopardizes Tourism in Mexico. Photo: Agencies

In the sand where The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe or Elvis Presley once walked, today several military men are patrolling among the bathers, rifle in hand, dressed in boots and bulletproof vests under a sultry sun. Acapulco went from a tourist paradise to a hell of violence years ago. The once favorite destination for celebrities has become a narco-trafficking oasis. This South Pacific city has remained among the four most dangerous cities in the world since 2011: a homicide rate of 110.5 per 100,000 inhabitants last year, when it ranked second only behind Tijuana.

Twenty of the most touristic beaches throughout Mexico suffer the same ballast in recent years. In Cancun, there has been a 15-fold increase in the number of murders in the last four years and it is already one of the 50 most violent cities on the planet. Playa del Carmen follows in its footsteps and in general the entire Riviera Maya, in the state of Quintana Roo, where homicides doubled last year.

Increased crime in tourist areas

"Quintana Roo occupies a strategic geographical situation, because speedboats arrive that throw drugs into the sea from Panama and Honduras, and at the same time consumption has expanded," journalist Héctor Valdez told DW. He had to leave his home in Tulum to travel to the Mexican capital after several attempts to attack his alleged collusion of politicians and authorities with organized crime.

Police presence on the Mexican beaches
Police presence on the Mexican beaches

"Before, elitist tourism came, reduced, but lately there is more massive tourism and more prone to drug consumption," says the displaced reporter, citing as an example the spring breakers, young Americans who celebrate the end of high school with a trip to the Mexican coast.

In addition, the tourist areas are especially attractive for organized crime "because they are very dynamic centers, with notable flows of foreign currency that do not even force the money to be laundered," Unam professor Javier Oliva told DW, adding that "as happens throughout the territory, the fragmentation of criminal groups after the beheading of some of their leaders, such as Chapo Guzmán, led to an upsurge in the dispute over the squares for drug trafficking. In Acapulco, up to 16 gangs are fighting over this control, which triggers rates of violence.

Tourism begins to suffer

This insecurity has begun to resent a tourism sector that represents 8.9% of the country's GDP and generates nine million formal jobs. In Cancun, hotel occupancy fell by 3.1% in June this year compared to the previous year, according to data from the Association of Hotels of Cancun, and hotel rates fell between 15 and 25% this summer to avoid a greater fall. The arrival of U.S. visitors to Mexico fell by 6.8% in April 2018 compared to the same month last year, according to official data. The worst fall in seven years and a trend that would have been maintained in recent months in light of the steady rise in violence figures.

Acapulco has been plagued by violence
Acapulco has been plagued by violence

To this impact on the number of tourists is added the diversification of crime. "The very inertia of criminal activity leads to drug trafficking and then extortion," says the security expert. Organized crime's so-called floor charges to small shops and restaurants have become recurrent in tourist destinations. That floor charge can range from 20,000 to 70,000 pesos a month (about 1,000 to 3,500 dollars), says Valdez.

Lack of concrete response from the government

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador said in April that "the fact that workers in the sector live well, that there are no marginalized colonies, that investments are made to ensure well-being and that there is security to achieve peace and tranquility, is tourism promotion," given the demand of hotel organizations to invest 125 million dollars annually in the sector. Since then the government has earmarked 600 million pesos in some marginal areas of tourist areas, such as Acapulco or Playa del Carmen.

However, "there is no concrete security plan for tourist areas other than the deployment of the National Guard at the national level," says Oliva, who stresses the need for "greater coordination with state and municipal governments, most of which have not yet shown a strong political will".

This deployment also occurs insufficiently and late, according to several analysts consulted. In Tulum, a coastal municipality of Quintana Roo of some 30,000 inhabitants, just 60 troops arrived last month, when violence has been on the rise for a year, according to journalist Valdez about his hometown.

Faced with this fragile government response, as has happened in several parts of Mexico, "in Tulum, groups of neighbors formed surveillance squads armed with sticks," explains Valdez. The initiative barely lasted three or four months, but many excesses were committed, because, in the end, we don't fight drug trafficking, but rather the thieves against those who are harassed".

By Mexicanist