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Crime: A Catalyst for Change in Latin America?
November 12, 2007

In his recent book, Saving the Americas: The Dangerous Decline of Latin America and What the U.S. Must Do, longtime Miami Herald reporter Andrés Oppenheimer remarks that what is new in the social dynamic that has long prevented change in the Southern Hemisphere is the critical and violent upsurge in crime.

The alarming increase in crime across the region has shaken the elites of all political stripes from their historical indifference to the plight of the poor. The poor are no longer content to simply stay put and behave in their rural villages or urban shanty towns, but are instead, due to the disintegration of families caused by emigration and poverty, increasingly turning to life on the streets, drugs and crime, so much so that the general level of security is at an all-time low.

Businessmen are moving their families to Miami to keep them safe from kidnappings, robberies and murder. Those who remain in their native countries increasingly live in walled estates that far exceed the insularity of their predecessors by including not just homes but stores, restaurants, swimming pools and other amenities so the residents never need to venture outside the walls.

The murder rate in Latin America is the highest in the world, violent youth gangs are growing in numbers, and their ties to narcotrafficantes and other organized crime elements are becoming more entrenched. There is a very real and serious risk that the weak governments of the region will surrender whole areas of their countries to control by gangs or other organized crime (or terrorist) organizations.

In short, the elites are now affected by the plight of the poor in ways they never were before. And the manner in which they respond to the problem will determine whether Latin America enjoys an economic, political and social resurgence, or whether it slips into irrelevance because crime, and the disorder and uncertainty it creates, will effectively bar the influx of investment capital already turning more and more to relatively stable Southeast Asia.

Oppenheimer does not address adequately, to my mind, the role that former military officers and other socially and economically well-connected parties play in organized crime in the region. (This is far better explored in Francisco Goldman's The Art of Political Murder: Who Killed the Archbishop, though it is restricted to Guatemala.) But he does point to the ideological linchpin that will decide how the crime issue is addressed. That is the simple question: Does poverty cause crime, or does crime cause poverty?

I see this is a trick question, as though one can step outside time and assess previous conditions and current ones as equal, dismissing cause and effect. The poverty that has existed for centuries has indeed spawned a recent turn to crime by disenfranchised youths, many of whom grew up in the U.S. and all of whom are assaulted by media depictions of unattainable opulence and indulgence their forebears never had to contend with, combined with, in many places, even harsher living conditions and a much dimmer prospect of making a decent living. And many of the young have responded with anomie and rage, i.e., crime. That crime has now alienated investors, entrenching the poverty, creating an intractable cycle. The correct answer to the question then, is that poverty causes crime, which in turn creates more poverty. But by cutting the syllogism in half, one provides an excuse to the region's elites to ignore cures for poverty and instead turn to what they have historically preferred: repressive actions against their own disenfranchised populations in the name of establishing order.

So what to do? Investment groups urge that governments reduce the crime first, and the governments are happy to oblige, because such a strategy serves the historical elites who have always resisted any and all programs that promise genuine reform. (Privatization, championed as reform, has in fact in many places only enhanced the power of these elites, and widened the gap between the wealthy and the destitute—quoting Oppenheimer: "state-run monopolies were turned over to government cronies and transformed into private fiefdoms.") Antonio Saca, president of El Salvador, can say with a straight face that his Super Mano Dura (Super Firm Hand) policies are not just justified but are the wave of the future, since anyone with a tattoo could be a killer, no matter how young, and so deserves the full force of the law. This isn't the rule of law, it's the rule of official thuggery, which has historically kept Latin America a political and economic backwater. But if politicians of the left can offer no more than the ranting bloviations of Hugo Chávez, a wave of repression will sweep the region that will likely equal if not exceed even what was seen during the regions civil unrest of the 1960-2000 period. And I fear, given our history in the region, that the U.S. will be complicit in that repression, tainting our image even further and dragging us down in the world's eyes.

I realize what I am about to say will sound Pollyannish if not impossible, but here goes: The center-left coalitions one sees emerging throughout the region need to focus on preserving if not expanding what tenuous civil rights guarantees their countries have managed to achieve, fight judicial corruption, build responsive institutions, and fight crime while also doing whatever they can, including short-term deficit spending (thus inciting the wrath of the World Bank and other international lenders) to finance health and welfare projects that truly serve the poorer communities under their jurisdiction. Without that two-prong approach, battling both crime and poverty at the same time, the reactionary forces always ready to seize control of the machinery of government and enact draconian if not murderous policies in the name of civil order—and for whom corruption is not a detriment, but often a reliable means of conducting business, at worst an irritant—will gladly step forward, pass laws that punish anti-government political participation as "terrorism," and spill as much blood as deemed necessary to cower the powerless and brutalize anyone who dares speak out against their authority, all in the name of "attracting investment."

It may be hard to resist that political wave regardless, because we're seeing worldwide a turn to what is now being referred to as "authoritarian capitalism." Russia, China, Vietnam all qualify for this designation, as do many emerging countries in the Third World. Japan's democracy has always been more illusion than reality, since it's been overwhelmingly dominated by a single party since its inception. The European democracies are facing increasing pressure to enhance the security apparatus due to their large, unassimilated Muslim populations. The United States itself, in the aftermath of 9/11, is increasingly compromising civil liberties and human rights for perceived safety. It is always easier to rally the people against a threat—whether that threat is perceived from above or below, internal or external—than to unify them in the name of reasoned compromise, broad-based consensus, principled sacrifice, and gradual reform. However, I do not believe, as Yeats suggested, that such a political course means that the best lack all conviction. But I do recognize that the worst are filled with a passionate intensity. And if they gain sway, it seems increasingly clear that the center will not hold.

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