A Special Breed of Bandit: At Their Summit in Chile, Bill Clinton and Other Heads of State Ignored Latin America's Most Pressing Problem

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At their summit in Chile, Bill Clinton and other heads of state ignored Latin America's most pressing problem

For Latin America's new breed of bandits, there is no such thing as a bad time for crime. If there were, then the thief in Santiago wouldn't have targeted President Clinton's social secretary on the eve of the Summit of the Americas. The Chilean capital is always patrolled heavily by police; last week it was crawling with hundreds of extra uniformed carabineros and visiting foreign agents, all checking and reinforcing security on routes designated for Clinton and 33 other global leaders. That didn't stop a thief from brazenly snatching the Clinton aide's purse in broad daylight--and then melting into the crowd.

When the president arrived in Chile last week, he praised the stunning transformation of Latin America and the Caribbean. The civil wars are mostly over. Democracy has replaced dictatorship in all but one of the region's countries, Cuba. And Latin American economies, leavened by free trade and privatization, have rebounded from the "lost decade" of the 1980s with eight years of robust growth, averaging 5 percent a year. But amid all the smiles and toasts, a troubling question went unanswered: if everything is so great, why are Latin American citizens more fearful than ever? "The No. 1 crisis in the entire region is the crisis of personal security," says Eduardo Gamarra, a professor at Florida International University. But it was not, he points out, "the subject of a single formal discussion at the summit."

Nobody doubts that the four main topics on the summit agenda--poverty, trade, democracy and education--are vital to the region's future. Summit organizers stress that, unlike crime, these "second generation" development issues (those that follow "first generation" economic reforms) strike at the root of the region's social problems. But the crisis in security is warping the region's social and economic development. And it consistently ranks as the top public concern in opinion polls throughout Latin America. It's easy to see why: Latin America now averages 30 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, six times the world average, three times the rate in the United States and twice that of Africa and the Middle East. The fear of common crime--theft, assault, kidnapping--affects nearly everyone.

And the situation is only getting worse. Fueled by a widening gap between rich and poor, an ineffectual legal system and a surplus of weapons left over from cold-war conflicts, crime is rising in nearly every country in Latin America. …