Do More Troops Mean Less Crime in Latin America?

Article excerpt

Honduras is the latest Latin American country to deploy soldiers to fight organized crime. But evidence suggests that this does little in the long term, and may even make things worse.

From Mexico to Brazil, sending the army to areas overrun by organized crime has become the default government response. However, this often does little to alter the criminal landscape in the long term, and may even make the situation worse.

The Honduran government is the latest to employ this measure, sending hundreds of troops to the northern province of Colon, where clashes over land have left at least 11 people dead. Scattered reports have linked the killings to criminal organizations who own vast African Palm plantations.

On Friday, the Guatemalan government decided to impose a "state of alarm" in the embattled northern state of Peten. This replaced the "state of siege" declared in May, when suspected Zetas gang members massacred 27 farmhands at a rival's ranch.

The state of alarm keeps in place the 1,000 extra troops sent in May. These troops are divided between the eastern and western halves of the state, which altogether cover one-third of the entire country.

When InSight Crime visited Peten in July, military officials said they had arrested 36 suspects, seized dozens of weapons, and cut the number of drug flights from 35 per month to two.

Explaining why it was continuing the emergency measures, the government said the homicide rate had dropped from 47 per 100,000 to 41 per 100,000 since the extra troops arrived. (See President Alvaro Colom's justification in video here.)

The army's presence, however, has not stopped the mayhem in the province. Earlier in August, gunmen killed five people in a bar in the same municipality where the 27 farmhands were massacred.

What's more, it's clear that Guatemala's government is scrambling. With just over 17,000 troops (and 20,000 police) to cover the entire country, it can only hope to contain - not stop - the massive flow of drugs through its borders which some say comes to 400 tons of cocaine per year.

To be sure, the heart of the problem is an issue of long-term strategy. The government does not appear to have any multi-year plan. It simply reacts to events rather than trying to get ahead of the criminals.

In addition, deploying army troops who are not trained to tackle law and order issues can lead to abuses and foster further distrust of the government. As a recent report from Al Jazeera illustrates, some wonder whether the use of forces with long histories of abuse, such as the feared Kaibils in Guatemala, is really the best solution to this situation.

However, none of these questions has impeded other governments from employing this stop-gap measure. In some places, the move has been politically popular. The state of siege Guatemala's government imposed in the neighboring province of Alta Verapaz, for example, was supported in that region.

As reported by InSight Crime via a local partner, most residents conceded that the measure would not do much to change the long-term trends, but they said it forced the criminals to stand aside, at least for a while, giving the population a chance to catch their breath. …