More people in Latin America die as a result of criminal violence than in anywhere else in the world. While 8 percent of the world’s population lives in Latin America and the Caribbean, the region accounts for roughly one-third of the world’s homicide cases. Latin America's per capita homicide rate is 23.4 per 100,000 people, nearly double the rate in Africa, a region sometimes mistakenly believed to be the most violent continent.
As is widely known, organized crime, particularly crime involving drug trafficking, is one of the most important sources of the violence in the region, with serious implications for physical security and general human well-being, particularly for those living in poor communities. Some recent research has noted the worrying sign of close links between political elites and organized crime—a situation that does not bode well for either the quality of democracy or for substantial improvement over the long-term—despite some recent improvements in specific cases.
The Social Roots of Criminal Violence
Latin America’s problem of high levels of criminal violence is a development issue and it cannot be solved by focusing primarily on policing, law enforcement, and political reforms. More than forty years ago, Johan Galtung advanced the notion of structural violence, a term that described a state’s actions and inactions that produce psychological and material deprivation. While structural violence may engender violent collective political action, it can also produce high rates of crime due to the social discord it creates. This perspective is supported by a growing body of scholarly literature that associates inequality with criminal violence, particularly in Latin America. This does not mean that high levels of inequality and exclusion will inevitably lead to criminal violence. There is however, substantial evidence that these forms of exclusion have been powerful conditioning factors in many Latin American countries.
Latin America’s unequal social reality, including high degrees of asset concentration as well as income inequality, is widely recognized. For most of the 20th century, Latin America stood out as the most unequal region in the world. In addition, despite high economic growth rates, poverty rates remained substantial. Landlessness, poverty, inequality, political exclusion all gave rise to guerrilla organizations throughout the region by the mid-1960s. With brutal military dictatorships putting an end to social unrest through the 1980s, poverty rose sharply with the debt crisis, ushering in what became known as the “lost decade.” Inequality also increased substantially during these years. Through the 1970s and 1980s civil wars raged in Central America, as guerrillas, allied with popular organizations, demanded improvements in wealth distribution, particularly land redistribution. Formal peace agreements eventually came to these beleaguered countries, but peace and physical security for the majority of their populations did not. Criminal violence and criminal gangs now replaced civil war as the leading cause of deaths in these countries.
The Colombian Case: The Links between Political and Criminal Violence
Colombia, whose exclusionary political arrangements and land concentration in the 1950s, gave rise to a variety of guerrilla organizations by the 1960s, featured one of the longest standing guerrilla struggles in the region. This civil war resulted in over 200,000 deaths and anywhere between three and five million displaced persons. The main guerrilla organization, the FARC, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, only recently (August 24) reached a peace agreement with the government. While the early objectives of the FARC (and other Colombian guerrilla organizations) involved social justice goals, the activities of these organizations, particularly the FARC, became inextricably intertwined with various forms of criminal activity. Drug trafficking and kidnapping, through the resources they generated, both contributed enormously to the resiliency of the FARC and to the level of violence. It is important to bear in mind, however, that the link between political and criminal violence was also propelled forward by the debt crisis, the rise in poverty, and the comparative advantage in drug production for small farmers, who could earn much more from growing drug crops than from traditional crops. The drug trade also provided employment for unemployed youth. The rise in U.S. demand, along with the illegality of drug production and trafficking, presented the opportunity for enormous profits, while fuelling rising levels of violence, as the FARC provided protection for small farmers from the government’s U.S. funded eradication program.
Lessons from Central America
In the case of Central American countries, the failure to address the material needs of populations, combined with the violence of the revolutionary struggles and the availability of arms, has shaped the emergence of criminal youth gangs. Most of the Central American peace accords did not include measures that could effectively tackle these countries' high levels of poverty and inequality. In addition, right wing political forces quickly maneuvered themselves into positions of political control from which they launched neoliberal reforms—reforms enthusiastically encouraged, if not required by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. These reforms exacerbated problems of poverty and inequality. In Nicaragua, for example, neoliberal reforms had produced, by 1995, an unemployment rate that was ten times that of 1984 with roughly half of the country’s workers unemployed or underemployed by 1998. An estimated 80 percent of the population in the countryside was out of work. Sharp reductions in public social spending was an additional factor in rising inequality. The deterioration in living conditions fuelled a sharp rise in gang and criminal violence as an abundance of ex-combatants, faced with the absence of legitimate employment opportunities, and with access to arms, took up illegal activities. Similar processes characterized the post-conflict realities of El Salvador. While Guatemala’s peace agreement included a socio-economic accord, which included such provisions as increased social spending on health, education and housing, and a promise to address the country’s long standing land distribution problem, tough political resistance from powerful interests blocked implementation.
The recent peace agreement between the FARC and the Colombian government, which must now be ratified by voters, may face similar challenges. To its credit, the agreement includes investment commitments in infrastructure, education, health coverage, and economic opportunities, to benefit the poor in the remote areas formerly controlled by the FARC. At the same time, the political right in Colombia is powerful, and is currently mobilizing against the agreement, with opposition focused on the measures negotiated by the FARC. This is worrisome. If we are to learn anything from the Central American cases, it is that lasting peace and security requires a strenuous and effective effort toward inclusive development—an effort that addresses poverty, inequality, and political exclusion--the very problems that gave rise to political conflict in the first place.