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A Stain Spreads Across Latin America

Crime: Irrefutable numbers show big increases. Stronger institutions, open democracy can reverse the trend.

April 25, 1999|SERGIO MUNOZ | Sergio Munoz is a Times editorial writer

Complaining to a Venezuelan friend of mine on how crime has soared in Mexico, I was shocked to hear her insist things were much worse in Venezuela. "Everyone I know there has been mugged," she said, "and that includes me. They put a gun to my temple and demanded a few bucks."

Similar things have happened whenever I chat with friends from other Latin American countries. It is as if each one wants to take credit for the worst crime horror stories. And if personal experiences aren't enough, they can add dreadful personal testimony from friends and relatives who have also been mugged or kidnapped.

Unfortunately, this perception that the quality of life in Latin America has seriously deteriorated in terms of public safety is accurate. There is more violent crime in Latin America than in any other region in the world and double the number of homicides than in the United States.

In Mexico, for example, where the vast majority of crimes go unreported, the number of crimes reported to the police grew 36% from 1994 to 1995 and 14% more in 1996. In Buenos Aires, crime grew a whopping 41% between 1994 and 1996, and violence in some tough neighborhoods is so rampant that cops don't dare venture in them. "It is a violent ecological cleansing of the criminal fauna," says a top cop in the city.

According to a report issued by the Colombian Senate in 1997, "85% of all murders in Colombia are attributable to common criminals, while armed conflict is responsible for 14% of the violent deaths." In Lima, Peru, statistics indicate violent crime has tripled since 1992.

While all this is happening in Latin America, statistics compiled by the FBI indicate that crime in the United States has declined 17% since 1991.

One may argue that statistics do not tell the whole story and that is certainly true. But the testimonials of people who have suffered the consequences of crime are hard to refute. I know hundreds of people who live in Latin America who have either been victims of crime or have a friend or a relative who has. I've lived in Los Angeles for 21 years and I don't know anyone who has been mugged or kidnapped.

Trying to understand the disparity in the trends, I talked to David Ronfeldt, a Rand Corp. expert on both Latin America and communications in the computer age. Ronfeldt believes the problem of public safety in Latin America is related to the transition from an authoritarian regime to more democratic governments and the widespread expansion of Latin America's adoption of free market economies.

"In the past, the cops knew who the criminals were, where they were and how to control them. Also there was a lot of criminal police protection under the old authoritarian regime. Now the lid has been taken off," Ronfelft said.

I suspect Ronfeldt is right, at least in Mexico, the Latin American country I know best. The bands of thugs that were trained and sponsored by government officials to repress students and union leaders back in the 1970s became the soldiers of the drug dealers in the '80s. Now, in the '90s, many of them head sophisticated criminal organizations that rob banks, kidnap for ransom and mug people.

In most cases, these gangs work with police officers.

He is convinced that criminal organizations have developed communication systems across borders that are much more sophisticated than those of many states in Latin American.

I suspect this is also correct. Organized crime is a transnational phenomenon and its networks are hemispheric. While some countries have had some firm internal controls, like Brazil and Argentina after the military regimes of the '70s and '80s, collectively the Latin American states have not been able to establish a hemispheric police force that could compete with international criminal mafias.

The failure of the states to win the war on crime is also a reflection of the tremendous institutional weaknesses in Latin America. No war can be won where judiciary systems are obsolete, inefficient or corrupt; where the legislative powers are either blindly subservient to executive branches or radically opposed to them; or where economies favor the haves, leading to widespread poverty.

There is no short-term solution to the crime problem, but the long-term remedy seems obvious: The region must strengthen its institutions as well as push for observing the rule of law and having an open, democratic society. Raising the level of professionalism in the police forces wouldn't hurt either.

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