Fending off the iron fist: crime and the left in Latin America

Ivan Briscoe
20 April 2006

An exploding crime wave is confronting Latin America's new generation of leftwing leaders with difficult political choices, says Ivan Briscoe.The script for a typical Latin American security scandal was closely observed in Venezuela in the aftermath of a gruesome incident in the first week of April 2006. Four dead bodies – three teenage brothers and their driver, strewn on fields not far from Caracas after a forty–one day kidnap ended in their murder – provoke a mass public display of indignation. Off–duty police officers are immediately linked to the botched kidnapping. An interloping photographer is gunned down. And as for every identically crafted crime across the continent, in Argentina, Brazil or Mexico, the same primitive cry is made by members of the public: the time has come for mano dura, or an iron fist.

Ivan Briscoe is editor of the English edition of El País, Madrid. His outstanding commentary and analysis about Latin America and Spain on openDemocracy include:

"Argentina: how politicians survive while people starve"
(April 2003)

"Beyond the zero sum: from Chávez to Lula" (July 2003)

"A victory for Spain, not al–Qaida" (March 2004)

"Dreaming of Spain: migration and Morocco" (May 2004)

"The invisible majority: Venezuela after the referéndum"
(August 2004)

"All change in Venezuela's revolution? " (January 2005)

"Taking liberties: a review of Naomi Klein" (November 2004)

"Nèstor Kirchner's Argentina: a journey from hell" (May 2005)

"The new Latin choir: democracy vs injustice in Latin America"
(October 2005)

"The summit of the Americas' free–trade farewell"
(November 2005)

"The time of the underdog: rage and race in Latin America" (December 2005)

"Venezuela: a revolution in contraflow"
(February 2006)

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It is a demand that manifestly unsettles the continent's new left–leaning governments and presidential hopefuls. Grounding their political appeal on the repair of social divides and re–establishment of a functioning public sector, they refuse to join in the chorus for swift and arbitrary repression, and tend to suffer for it. "The fight against crime is much more than a matter of police and robbers", asserts Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador in his manifesto ahead of the 2 July presidential election. When 300,000 marched in the capital in 2004 against a wave of kidnappings, the then mayor of Mexico City treated the protest as a political insult.

Yet the unease caused by violent crime, compulsively spread by media expert in voyeurism and panic, has proved impossible to shirk. In the absence of economic crises or the threat of a coup, it is this issue that most plainly serves the democratic aspirations of the right. For there is doubt: Latin America is plagued with crime. Its murder rates are the highest in the world, and most have soared in a very short time. Caracas, now reported to be one of the world's leading cities for murder, saw its homicide rate more than double from 1990 to 1994; it has continued to rise ever since. Huge stretches of cities – up to 25% of the urban space of Bogotá or Buenos Aires, according to a recent estimate by Dirk Kruijt – are lawless domains, gang–run, rife with the drug trade and subsistence living.

Most of this crime afflicts the poor: they are the closest, easiest targets. But the entrance of these gangs into wealthier territory invariably wins the public eye, no more so that when it is a kidnapping, the one crime that would seem to scratch every social sore. In common with the abduction and murder of Axel Blumberg in Argentina in 2004, or the crisis faced by López Obrador, the particular atrocity against a family unit, across the income divide, with the aim of fleecing a bank account, evokes at all points the disintegration of a fragile social compact. It is no surprise that the military dictatorship which seized power in Argentina in 1976 did so against a background of general kidnapping mayhem – around 1,000 people were abducted and killed in 1975 – and was congratulated for it at the time.

The collapse of trust

Nowadays, the ideologues of the iron fist continue to use the same fear and appeals for order. Roberto Madrazo, of Mexico's PRI, peppers his speeches with promises of a police crackdown. One of Argentina's chief exponents of this approach, former policeman Luis Patti, still awaits his seat in congress, having been challenged by other deputies over his role in torture and murders in the dictatorship and beyond. Patti's worldview, simple as it is, rejects the basic sympathies and collective ideals of the left; these projects are hopeless, he says, because the chasm between the innocent and the lawless is one of core personal morality, of vocation toward sin, and thus nothing to do with jobs or money.

"It's absolutely false to link unemployment and poverty with crime", he declared in an interview when still a mayor in Buenos Aires province. "In a shantytown, how many people are criminals? You find that 90% of people go to work, and only 10% rob." His message on the billboards was simple: "vote in self–defence".

Yet even in an urban landscape of rising crime, fuelled by inequality and the rapid spread from the 1980s of narcotic micro–economies, support for the unsheathed gun has waned; this has been a vital, often understated factor in the rise of the left. Had trust in the police or military as a means to restore public order prevailed, then Latin America might now feature much greater political variegation. As it is, this trust has simply collapsed.

Taking a cue from Patti, Argentina's former president Carlos Menem vowed to "flood the streets" with troops and police in his re–election campaign of 2003. His message, however, coincided with a three–year trial that suggested the flooding might be violent enough to wash away both sides of the moral divide. The trial was that of five men, four of them former police officers, charged with providing the van used to hold the explosives that on 18 July 1994, decimated the AMIA Jewish centre in Buenos Aires. A total of eighty–five people were killed. The ensuing investigation, scarred from its beginning by incompetence, cover–ups, and even an alleged $10 million pay–off from Tehran to then President Menem, scrabbled for evidence in a demi monde of impenetrable murkiness. And in its middle, or so it was argued, stood the police.

Eventually the accused were released, even if grave doubts persist as to their innocence. But the same schema of police disgrace has been copied in almost every other Latin nation, with the same corrosive effect on the right's ardour. In Brazil, the reputation of the police reached rock–bottom some time ago: "Police violence is one of Brazil's most systemic, widespread and longstanding human rights concerns", declares Human Rights Watch. In March 2005, officers incensed by police reforms gunned down twenty–nine residents of Rio's Baixada Fluminense district, recalling the infamous death squads of the 1980s. Residents of northern Mexican cities such as Nuevo Laredo or Ciudad Juárez, meanwhile, know far too much already about the corrupted, drug–linked savagery of a criminal force dressed up in uniform.

The task of reform

Into the political space created by this demise in the reputation of security forces, the left has flowed. The rise of Evo Morales in Bolivia, for instance, was preceded by the downfall in October 2003 of Gonzalo Sánchez de Lozada, hounded from the presidency by a public infuriated by the killing of around seventy protesters during a month of demonstrations. Eight months earlier, one of history's rare shoot–outs between soldiers and police officers, the latter demanding a wage hike, had paralysed the centre of La Paz.

Also in openDemocracy on the Latin America's social convulsions:

Arthur Ituassu, "Brazil's gun law: another brick in the wall"
(October 2005)

Celia Szusterman, "Argentina: the state we're in"
(October 2005)

Justin Vogler, "Latin America: woman's hour" (March 2006)

Sergio Aguayo Quezada, "Mexico: a banana republic" (April 2006)

In place of the iron fist, the left proposes to focus on the social causes that have driven rises in violent crime. At the same time, these rulers aim to instigate a new model of policing, one that substitutes haphazard gunfire by visible law enforcement, greater community involvement, respect for human rights and zero tolerance for corruption. Every country, it would seem, has introduced its own initiatives: Brazil has a new national security plan, and is pushing for increased federal integration of state police forces; the human–rights group Provea reports that in Venezuela, no less than 10 separate police reform processes are underway (some stemming from the former opposition role played by these forces), while 1,400 officers were sacked during 2004.

Yet the security legacy these countries face is no easier to erase than that of inherited inequality, vast landed estates or institutional atrophy. Long–lived dictatorships, or even democracies that feared the threat of a uprising from below, gave their police forces the means and liberty to intimidate and cow suspected troublemakers. Brutality, carried out with impunity by police officers acting without control, became the norm.

The extraordinary tale of Luis Urquiza is a depressing illustration of just how deep these professional methods have sunk in, and how hard it may prove to eradicate them. Though himself a police officer, Urquiza was detained in the Argentine city of Córdoba shortly after the military dictatorship took power; his colleagues, it appeared, disliked the fact that he had a university degree in psychology. "I knew exactly who was torturing me," he explains in a recent interview about his biography, La sombra azul (the blue shadow), written by journalist Mariano Saravia. "Sometimes I had a bandage around my eyes, but still I recognized their voices. And when they hurt me, they'd ask me if I knew who they were."

Exiled in Denmark, Urquiza returned home in the 1990s with the aim of denouncing the torturers, whom he had no problem in identifying. All of them, he recounts, remained in senior police posts; his efforts at justice were rewarded with death threats. Ten years on, the journalistic investigation has met with the painted swastikas, police surveillance, and portentous dead birds. Most of the officers concerned are now in private security firms.

But even though the need for police reform is clear, visceral reactions to criminal outrage are still commonplace. Bipolar variation between condemnation of police brutality and contempt for felons is the vogue, made more complex by the presence of officers in the very gangs that kidnap and murder. Reforming governments, aware of intense sensitivities to crime, know they must respond: Chávez's ministers were quick to promise action after the Faddoul Diab murders, and appear to have met their pledges.

The language of these governments has been tough; a visible police presence on the streets has been a hallmark of leftwing rule. But the battle against the inherited vices of security forces has also spawned political meddling and authoritarian diktat. Rather than wait for slow changes in police methodology, the favoured tactic has been mass sackings – boosting the ranks of kidnap gangs, and thus security crises, without making any great difference to policing style. And while crime festers, it is certainly not difficult to find chavista officials who would like to see the military deployed across the shantytowns.

Even so, these rulers also recognise that the mentality of a crime–poisoned society directly menaces their greater political project. The right and its devotion for the police may be in retreat, but reformers face the arduous task of charting their way through atomised societies and rotten security forces without losing their souls.

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