Latin America's Security Challenges Two Centuries On
Latin America's Security Challenges Two Centuries On
Landmark Amazon Summit Needs to Grapple with Crime as well as Climate
Landmark Amazon Summit Needs to Grapple with Crime as well as Climate
Op-Ed / Latin America & Caribbean 6 minutes

Latin America's Security Challenges Two Centuries On

Exuding self confidence and optimism, much of Latin America is focused on celebrating 200 years of independence from Spain and Portugal. However, against this celebratory backdrop numerous security challenges are begging for answers – and soon – if Latin America is to succeed in its third century of Republican history. 

There is no doubt that two centuries after independence most Latin American countries have advanced their nation-building quest. Recent opinion polls conducted by Latinobarómetro, a Chilean non-governmental organization, reveal that a majority of Latin Americans are confident about the future, exhibit high levels of optimism and have faith in their own countries. At the same time, there is evidence which indicates that the region was less affected by the global financial crisis of 2008-2009 than, for instance, the United States and Europe. This is no small feat, considering Latin America’s past record of economic crises and vulnerability to external shocks.

Furthermore, during the past decade, Latin America has produced powerful and respected democratic leaders, such as Presidents Michelle Bachelet of Chile and Luiz Inácio 'Lula' da Silva of Brazil. The region’s politics have also become more inclusive, as evidenced by the 2005 election and 2009 reelection of indigenous President Evo Morales in Bolivia or the rise of El Salvador's President Mauricio Funes, of the former insurgent organization Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN), in 2009. Again, given the continent’s history of military dictatorships and other forms of undemocratic rule, the significance of these political developments must not be minimized.

These achievements notwithstanding, it is not all coming up roses in Latin America. The region faces multiple challenges that have to be urgently addressed by Latin Americans and their international partners. Next to still very high Gini coefficients that reveal extreme levels of social inequality and poverty, Latin America suffers from pronounced crime, rule-of-law and security governance problems. With the exception of Argentina, Chile and Uruguay, the region is today the world’s crime and homicide capital. And a deeply troubling picture of regional tensions has been drawn, especially in the Andean region, where anti-crime, counter-drug and security cooperation between countries is either inefficient or nonexistent.

Crime, violence and impunity

With respect to homicide and crime, international figures leave no room for doubt: In 2009, the 10 countries with the world's highest murder rates were, in descending order, Honduras, El Salvador, Venezuela, Guatemala, Colombia and Brazil (next to Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago in the Caribbean and South Africa). Statistically, the so-called Northern Triangle in Central America, made up of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, is today the deadliest zone on the globe. But levels of homicide have also increased substantially in Venezuela in recent years; and while the situation in Colombia has improved – and is paradoxically less catastrophic than in neighboring Venezuela, which does not suffer from an internal armed conflict – the country still has one of the world's highest homicide rates.

There are many factors that have to be considered when analyzing the extremely high occurrence of homicide in Latin America. Much of it has to do with drug trafficking and other transnational organized crime – and the manifest shortcomings of decades of US-driven counter-drug policy in the region. Despite large anti-drug efforts during the administrations of Presidents Andrés Pastrana (1998-2002) and Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) and the multi-billion dollar ‘Plan Colombia’ underway since 2000, Colombia continues to be the world’s largest cocaine depot. To make matters worse, according to the 2010 report of the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, both Peru and Bolivia are again increasing their participation in the production of coca leaf and cocaine trafficking.

Today, violent struggles over trafficking routes and Andean cocaine stocks have spread across Latin America. The battles take place between ever more sophisticated, transnational and well-armed crime and drug syndicates, including Colombian and other insurgent groups. The three source countries (Bolivia, Colombia and Peru) are heavily affected, but some of the transit countries, especially Guatemala, Mexico and Venezuela, are under even more pressure. Youth gangs known as maras are running extortion rackets and are increasingly involved in the micro-trafficking of drugs in Central America’s Northern Triangle and Mexico.

Overall weak justice systems and often very high levels of impunity facilitate this crime explosion. To control the situation, a number of Latin American governments have resorted to outside help. Guatemala, for instance, established the UN-sanctioned International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2006 to resuscitate its agonizing justice apparatus, reduce impunity and control high-level corruption and clandestine/criminal networks. While CICIG has been instrumental in tackling several high-profile cases, such as the murder of prominent attorney Rodrigo Rosenberg in 2009 and the arrest of former President Alfonso Portillo in 2010, it has been facing enormous challenges implementing structural reform and strengthening Guatemala’s justice sector. In June, the commission’s director, Spanish judge Carlos Castresana, resigned in frustration.

Regional tensions

Another factor propelling Latin America’s monumental problems of crime and violence is the existing disarray in regional relations. Consider, for example, the Andean region. Since the Colombian armed forces’ strike against a base camp of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) inside Ecuador in March 2008 and the signing of a new US-Colombian defense cooperation agreement (DCA) in 2009, Colombia has not had functioning diplomatic relations with its two most important neighbors – Venezuela and Ecuador. While relations between Bogotá, on the one hand, and Caracas and Quito on the other have been tense, drug-trafficking and other criminal organizations, including Colombia’s insurgents, have expanded their cross-border activities. Lacking a coherent and effective anti-crime and counter-drug policy, and regardless of President Hugo Chávez’s purchase of high-tech, mostly Russian-built weapons systems in the past years, Venezuela is today a virtually open space for illegal and criminal activities of all sorts.

Anti-crime and counter-drug cooperation between Mexico and Central America is also problematic. Under current President Felipe Calderón, Mexico is trying to deal with drug violence through heavy-handed, militarized law enforcement and within the framework of the Mérida Initiative, a three-year $1.4 billion Mexican-US security cooperation program that started in 2007. However, the drug war in Mexico is pushing the local cartels, especially Los Zetas and the Sinaloa group, into the weak and vulnerable Central American countries to the south. With more than twice as many murders per 100,000 inhabitants than in Mexico, the situation in Guatemala is particularly critical. The Mérida program, which on paper also covers Central America, is proving ineffective and insufficient to prevent the spread of drug-related violence in the isthmus.

Under the leadership of Lula, South America has made efforts to improve regional governance, including in the area of security, through the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR). UNASUR was established in 2008 and is comprised of 12 countries, of which Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Paraguay, Surinam and Uruguay have yet to ratify the founding treaty. The new regional body has contributed to overcoming a serious crisis in Bolivia in 2008 and to smoothing over regional tensions that developed over the 2009 DCA between Colombia and the US. But UNASUR still has to develop its capacity to address transnational threats, especially drug-trafficking and other cross-border crime, and help mend relations between member states with different or antagonistic policy perspectives, such as Colombia and Venezuela or Bolivia and Peru, through improved security and other governance mechanisms.

Considering that Brazil’s foreign policy is today focused above all on furthering the country’s global reach, building regional governance will inevitably be a slow process. In addition, under US President Barack Obama, US policy toward the region has been characterized by a measure of indifference. It does not seem likely that Washington will play a more constructive role in improving regional and hemispheric relations in the foreseeable future, although it should be noted that when compared to the George W Bush administration, relations between most Latin American countries and the US have improved, at least at a rhetorical level.

Ending two hundred years of solitude

Two centuries after independence began sweeping across Latin America, the continent’s nations have undoubtedly achieved much by way of establishing democratic political regimes and developing more assertive relations with the rest of the world. But weak regional cooperation and integration and a number of entrenched structural problems, including pronounced difficulties to uphold the rule-of-law and control organized crime and domestic violence, continue to afflict the continent. Those problems have to be addressed urgently and in an integrated manner, so as to allow Latin America to conclude its transition from being the “furthermost West” or “forgotten continent” – as Alain Rouquié and Michael Reid, respectively, would put it – to becoming an integral part of the international community of democratic nations.

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