Latin American Crime and the Issue of Inequality*

By Holmqvist, Göran | Ibero-americana, July 1, 2000 | Go to article overview
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Latin American Crime and the Issue of Inequality*

Holmqvist, Göran, Ibero-americana


Crime is an increasingly worrying social phenomenon in the developing world in general, and in Latin America in particular. As shown in Figure 1[double dagger], the crime rate (measured by homicide/100 000, as reported to the UN crime surveys by national police authorities) has virtually exploded since mid 1980s in Latin America, Sub-Saharan Africa and Eastern Europe. Latin America clearly stands out as an exceptional case. Annually in Latin America, approximately 140 000 people are murdered (Londoño & Guerrero 1999:27). Using other sources does not really change this picture. Figure 2 confirms the exceptional position of Latin America, where the source in mortality statistics is collected from national health authorities instead of the police. Indicators of crime other than homicide are less reliable for international comparison, but estimates point in the direction of Latin America being way above the average for any other region of the world (Bourguignon 1999, Table 1). It has been estimated that 28 million Latin American families are victims of theft or robbery every year (Londoño & Guerrero 1999:3).

Crime and violence are now viewed as a development issue of importance, which was probably not the case two decades ago. Development agencies such as the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) have quite recently initiated ambitious research projects on crime and violence. Projects directed to the judicial system or police authorities have increased their share in the project portfolio of multilateral as well as bilateral development cooperation agencies. More importantly, crime is becoming a major concern in the daily life of an increasing number of citizens in the developing world, manifesting itself in national political agendas, in higher crime related expenditures and, not the least, in human suffering.

There are several reasons to regard crime as a social phenomenon with strong and complex ties to the development process in general. In Latin America, crime is a potential threat to what most people would regard as encouraging development trends, especially after "the lost decade" of the 1980s, in terms of demoralization and resumed growth. The following examples may illustrate how continuous progress in these areas are being made more difficult by the increasing crime levels:

Crime and Political Development

In El Salvador, concern over violence and crime is becoming the number one electoral issue as reflected in public opinion polls, replacing economic issues and peace (IUOP 1998:4). Similar trends have been noted in the opinion polls in other countries (Londoño & Guerrero 1999:6). For obvious reasons this is likely to affect the political agenda as well as the choice of candidates, paving the way for populism and "strong men". In the news media one often reads about the resurgence of a phenomenon that resembles the death squads of the 1980s, but only now under the banner of 'social cleansing' (limpieza social) with delinquents as their major target rather than political opponents - Guatemala, El Salvador, Brazil, Colombia are some examples. Public opinion polls indicate that an alarmingly large portion of the population in crime stricken urban areas under some circumstances justify social cleansing and the use of torture by the police (Ibid.:36)2. Reports from offices of the Human Rights Ombudsman reveal that one of the most important categories of abuse stems from charges made by victims of crime, or victims of abuse by the police or the judiciary when dealing with crime. In Honduras, the army on several occasions has been called out to the streets to assist the police in crime prevention, while the process of "demilitarization" of the police forces has been affected by delays. All these examples illustrate how crime is a potential obstacle to good governance, rule of law, less authoritarian rule, respect for human rights and a modernized role of the military forces.

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