Brazil: When Will the Government Act to Reduce Firearm Deaths Among Children?

By Beatriz Rey and Estevan Muniz*

Brazilian police
Police in a city in Brazil./ dfactory/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Gun-related violence against Brazilian children and teenagers has been alarmingly high for years – rising to 9,818 in 2017 and 8,253 in 2018 – but the Brazilian government has paid little attention to the issue. Seventy percent of the over 140,000 children and teenagers (0-19 years old) killed in firearm-related incidents between 2001 and 2018 were Black. While exact figures remain elusive, the independent Brazilian Public Security Forum estimates about one in almost five of the deaths – 2,884 children and teenagers in the two-year period 2017‑18 – resulted from police interventions.

  • The issue first appeared on the Congressional agenda in 1992, when legislators created a Parliamentary Inquiry Committee (CPI) in the Chamber of Deputies to investigate the high number of killings of children and teenagers. Of the eight bills proposed by the CPI, only two became law – one establishing restrictions on private security companies and one removing some immunities from military police who commit crimes against civilians. Neither law has directly impacted the killing of children and teenagers. Several other bills, including one that would have created a National Code for Gun Ownership, failed.
  • Legislators instituted another CPI in 2015 (in the Senate) to examine homicides among Black youths. Their work resulted in a single bill (PLS 240/2016) that proposed a National Plan to Combat the Killing of Young People. The plan aims to reduce the number of youth homicides to less than 10 for every 100,000 youths over the next 10 years and to prosecute up to 80 percent of crimes against them. The Senate approved the bill (now called PL 9796/2018) in 2018, but no Chamber vote has occurred.
  • An executive branch initiative, enacted by the administration of former President Lula da Silva in partnership with UNICEF and the Favelas Observatory in 2009, was the Program for the Reduction of Lethal Violence Against Adolescents and Youth (PRVL), which attempted to mobilize key societal actors, produce indicators of lethality, and analyze cases of successful mortality reduction. The PRVL is no longer active; it was discontinued during the Dilma Rousseff administration.

Squabbling between the left and right has led to inconsistent and short-lived policies that have failed to reduce gun violence. The two Cardoso administrations (1995-2002) took only incremental steps in addressing law and order issues. Fears of failure and popular blame made Lula (2003-11) reluctant to implement his own National Public Security Plan. He eventually enacted the National Plan of Public Security and Citizenship (PRONASCI) in his second term, but Rousseff (2011-16) discontinued it – reflecting the lack of a coherent proposal from the left in the face of lobbying from the Armed Forces, police associations, and police chiefs within an institutional legacy of the dictatorship (1964‑85).

  • The lack of effective policy action is also due to the policymakers’ cognitive and institutional constraints. Leaders can only focus on a limited set of issues at once, and building majorities in legislatures on contentious issues has proven beyond them. Earlier this year a few legislators attempted to schedule a vote on the bill creating a National Plan to Combat the Killing of Young People (PL 9796/2018) in the Chamber of Deputies – where it’s been stuck since 2018 – but the COVID‑19 pandemic shifted all attention away.

After years of government failure to protect the lives of thousands of children and teenagers, civic action might be the only feasible way to tackle the issue. Mobilization has achieved successes in other areas such as education, where civil society groups recently pressed deputies and the executive branch to approve the National Fund for Basic Education (Fundeb).  

  • A window of opportunity currently exists to push the Senate-approved draft bill – PL 9796/2018 – to the Chamber floor. It enjoys broad civil society support and, unlike proposals from the 1992 CPI, offers comprehensive national guidelines, goals, and strategies for the federal government, states, and municipalities. In this sense, bill 9796/2018 provides a consensus-based roadmap for future political negotiation.
  • While a lack of data on the link between police violence and race makes it hard to target policy solutions for Black children and teenagers, progress on the broader issue of police violence will especially affect this vulnerable segment of the Brazilian population. The renewed focus on race and police violence in Brazil presents the opportunity for popular mobilization to bring necessary attention to the issue. Reigniting this policy conversation could represent a first step towards preventing future deaths.

September 23, 2020

* Beatriz Rey is a CLALS Research Fellow. Estevan Muniz is a journalist at TV Globo and a filmmaker. This is an adaptation of an article first published by the Wilson Center.

El Salvador: Unwilling to Face Up to the Past

By Héctor Silva Ávalos*

Mural of the martyrs of the UCA

Mural of the martyrs of the UCA/ GuanacoSolido503/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

The trial of Salvadoran Colonel Inocente Orlando Montano, which began last week in Madrid, provides El Salvador a historic opportunity to learn from the past and reduce impunity in the future, but the government and elites appear unlikely to seize it. Montano is the only defendant in the trial for the murders of six Jesuit priests, five of them Spanish nationals, and two domestic staff on the campus of the Central American University in November 1989. The eight were killed by a Salvadoran Army unit trained by U.S. advisors in what was the last massacre of El Salvador’s civil war (1980-1992) and the first great cover-up by the Salvadoran judicial system of the post-war period, starting with evidence-tampering and later other obstructionism by then-President Freddy Cristiani.

  • In the 31 years since, successive presidents, attorneys general, and supreme courts have failed to prosecute the Salvadoran military high command for ordering the murder of the Jesuits and their helpers. Not even the two FMLN presidents, who governed from 2009 to 2019, took judicial action despite promises to seek justice for them. President Mauricio Funes, the first of them, actually protected a group of former high-ranking military officers that a Spanish Justice alleges were masterminds of the massacre.
  • Despite the country’s political progress since the war, the failure to bring the perpetrators to account has bred a system in which even younger Salvadorans have been raised believing that it is best not to mess with the wounds of the past. People are afraid to condemn impunity, which remains one of the country’s most enduring and democracy-threatening challenges.

President Nayib Bukele, who was elected last year as an outsider committed to ending the corruption of both the FMLN and its conservative counterpart, ARENA (1989‑2009), appears reluctant to grasp the Madrid trial as a way to promote accountability and end impunity. He so far has not made a public statement about it and in recent months has increasingly relied on the corrupt and authoritarian institutions whose legacy is on trial. Some of the police officers, lawyers, and politicians that were part of the cover-up are still active in El Salvador. Some police officials who obstructed the Jesuit investigation are now high-ranking officers in the Policía Nacional Civil (PNC) and, according to a variety of evidence, continue to promote a culture of impunity.

  • Bukele and his ARENA and FMLN counterparts in Congress are occupied in a never-ending confrontation over the COVID‑19 pandemic and resulting economic crisis. Moreover, the President’s security agenda, focused on crushing the gangs, has followed the path of his predecessors, giving the military enhanced powers and nudging the civilian police force back to its military roots. Bukele’s chief of police recently appeared in public wearing a military uniform, possibly violating laws passed in 1992 in fulfillment of the Peace Accords.

These political compromises and alliances and competing priorities seem likely to keep El Salvador from embracing the historic opportunity presented by the Madrid trial – not just to bring justice to the victims of the UCA massacre, but to address the entrenched culture of impunity that has marked Salvadoran politics and its justice system for decades.

  • The United States, the Organization of American States (OAS), and others advocating human rights and transparency also seem likely to miss the opportunity the trial gives them to promote their stated values. The views of political players in Washington today reflect the same schizophrenia visible in the 1980s – with Democrats on Capitol Hill pushing for investigations into the massacres while the Republican Administrations allied themselves with the government and military. (The George H.W. Bush Administration even acquiesced in the harassment of witnesses, including a U.S. military official, who offered important information about the Salvadoran Army’s role in the Jesuit murders.) During the Obama Administration, the State Department gave key support to the extradition of Montano to Spain. Washington risks, once again, overlooking its own responsibilities in these horrible crimes of the past and the damage done to Central America’s fragile democracies.

June 16, 2020

* Héctor Silva Ávalos is a senior researcher and editor at InSight Crime and former CLALS fellow.

U.S.-Central America-Mexico: Migrant Caravan Shaking up Relations

By Fulton Armstrong

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas

Honduran migrants meet with Mexican police in Chiapas. / Pedro Pardo / AFP Photo / Creative Commons

The underlying drivers of Central American migration remain the same as always – the lack of economic opportunity and strong institutions to protect citizens from violence and other threats – but the Trump administration’s accusations and threats in reaction to the caravan of migrants heading toward the United States is moving relations into uncharted territory, just two weeks after the parties congratulated themselves for progress made at a summit in Washington.

  • Honduran, Guatemalan, and now Mexican authorities have been unable to stop the peaceful caravan of 5,000-7,000 people without violating their rights and causing ugly incidents with high political costs at home. After shows of force, Guatemalan and Mexican border guards allowed them to pass, and local businesses and churches have spontaneously provided food, water, and shelter in each town.  Mexico originally said it would allow only those with current passports and identification to apply for refugee status, but, citing obligations under international agreements and national law, relented.  The migrants are now in Chiapas.

At a meeting with U.S. Vice President Pence and Secretary of State Pompeo on October 11, leaders from Central America’s three “Northern Triangle” countries – Honduran President Hernández, Guatemalan President Morales, and Salvadoran Vice President Ortiz – and Mexican Foreign Minister Videgaray trumpeted the progress that they had made in slowing the flow of migrants from the region to the United States since launching the Alianza para la Prosperidad in 2014.  CLALS research, other studies, and many press reports show, however, that the underlying drivers of migration remain essentially unchanged.

  • The Alianza may eventually foment economic growth and jobs, but multidimensional poverty and high underemployment continue to drive many to flee their homeland. An analysis by the Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales (ICEFI) shows that about 6.2 million children, adolescents, and young adults in the Northern Triangle lack access to an educational system.  Homicide rates have declined, but the region remains one of the most violent in the world.  UN estimates show a steady increase in the number of gang members in all three countries, up to 20,000 each in El Salvador and Guatemala.  The gangs often fill voids left by government institutions that are underfunded and, often, weakened by corrupt officials’ embezzlement.  While violence has long been a driver of migration from urban areas, it is now causing new patterns of migration from rural areas as well.  Domestic violence and abuse, which UN data indicate affects up to 40 percent of girls and 16 percent of boys, is another problem some parents want children to escape.
  • President Trump has not acknowledged these drivers, and instead has portrayed the migrants in the caravan as an “onslaught” of criminals. (He also claimed that “unknown Middle Easterners” are among them but later admitted “there’s no proof of anything.”)  He apparently calculates that stirring up fear helps his allies in the U.S. Congress as midterm elections approach, as well as his campaign for a new wall on the U.S.-Mexico border.  He has threatened the Northern Triangle governments and Mexico for not stopping the migrants, tweeting Monday that he will “now begin cutting off, or substantially reducing, the massive foreign aid routinely given to [them]” because “they did nothing for us. Nothing.”  Mexican officials, relieved that the confrontation over the NAFTA renegotiation was resolved, now fear another major disruption in bilateral relations.

The migrant caravan is testing the administration’s relations with its closest allies in Central America.  Trump’s jettisoning of the nice talk from Pence’s recent summit will not in itself harm ties; the Central Americans and Mexicans are aware of his impulsive streak and may calculate that they can weather the windstorm.  His accusations and threats to suspend aid, however, reveal a fundamental misunderstanding of the underlying drivers of the migration, and he seems unaware that his partners have been unwilling to undertake the political and economic reforms needed to address those drivers except in minor ways that U.S. aid enables.  Trump apparently thinks his partners should use force – even the military if needed (as he’s threatened on the U.S. border) – to stop the flight of humans from the miserable conditions in which they live.  He also apparently judges that the more migrants are made to suffer, such as through the separation of family members who manage to cross the border, the less likely they are to try.  The caravan’s provocations and Trump’s reactions could blow up the game that has allowed both sides to pretend the problem will go away with token programs, intimidation, and a wall.

October 24, 2018

Peru: Wildlife Trafficking Poses Complex Challenges

By Ana Marrugo*

A large parrot shows its multi-colored wings

A red and green macaw takes flight in Manú National Park, Peru. / Bill Bouton / Wikimedia Commons

Peru – the fifth most “megadiverse” country in the world – is losing precious wildlife because of weak trafficking laws and even weaker enforcement of them.  Home to 10 percent of existing species of flora, Peru ranks between second and fifth worldwide in the number of species of birds, mammals, amphibians, and reptiles within its borders.  The illegal trafficking of wildlife, however, is threatening Peru’s biodiversity.  It now places second in the hemisphere in volume of trafficked wildlife, trailing only Mexico.

  • Growing threats are pushing species into endangered status at a rapid rate. In 2004-14, according to Peruvian government estimates, the percentage of endangered species increased rapidly: from 14.1 to 24.5 percent of mammals; 9.2 to 35.2 percent of amphibians; and up by 50 percent of reptiles.
  • Trafficking is one source of pressure on dwindling wildlife populations. The most-trafficked species in Peru are birds, especially the white-winged parakeet and the red and green macaw, and some small primates sold as pets or to illegal zoos.  Bigger animals, such as the Andean bear, vicuñas, monkeys, and various cats, are sold for their meat.  Animal parts and reptiles and amphibians are sold for medicinal or reputedly magic uses, and reptile skins for the fashion and leather industries.  Cattle ranching, agriculture, logging, and infrastructure construction also put major pressures on animal life.
  • Peru’s National Forest and Wildlife Service (SERFOR) estimates that three quarters of the country’s most frequently trafficked species are for domestic rather than international markets. Indigenous people and peasants in the Amazon region – seeking profits far above those that can be generated from agriculture – capture animals and sell them to middlemen who then sell them to retailers in local markets or to international collectors.

Investigations of traffickers are rare, and prosecutions almost nonexistent.  The director of Neotropical Primate Conservation told reporters that “few” of the 150 cases she reported to SERFOR, prosecutors, and regional authorities – including a trafficker caught carrying thousands of parakeets – have been investigated, and “almost all cases” are retired without ever reaching a judge.  The first conviction (and one of the few known), finalized in 2016, resulted when police caught two brothers red-handed driving a car carrying an ocelot to a local market.  Offenders are usually released after paying a minor fine.

  • Getting good information is a challenge. Most estimates come from seizures of exported animals, leaving unaccounted the large portion of illegal wildlife sold in local markets, and most research focuses only on particular species.  The flow to local markets of Titicaca frog juice (thought to have extraordinary health benefits), monkey meat (for traditional cuisine), and Andean bear parts (thought to have magical properties) has been impossible to track.  Internationally, owl monkeys are sent clandestinely to Colombia for malaria research, and Chinese markets sell dried seahorse powder and an array of other substances for medicine – without leaving a trace in Peru.
  • Corruption is a perennial problem. Low-paid officers take bribes to provide protection and forged documentation permitting the transport of illegally sourced animals.  Forestry and Wildlife Law 29763 delegates virtually all responsibility for environmental crimes to local governments with poor resources and serious conflicts of interest, including officials’ collusion in the trade and local inhabitants’ dependence on it for income.

International attention in wildlife trafficking has been limited.  Unlike the illegal timber trade, this trade does not involve hundreds of millions of dollars, nor does it harm the commercial interests of the nation or its trading partners.  Major industries have not been linked to this criminal enterprise as they have in the trafficking of narcotics and timber.  Thus, international support to tackle the demand side of the market appears likely to remain feeble.  At the local level authorities rely on educational programs to teach people about the environmental impacts of wildlife trafficking, ecosystem protection and the importance of denouncing environmental crimes.  Nevertheless, wildlife trade continues to be an important source of income for impoverished communities, as well as for traffickers who frequently count on ties to corrupt officials to ensure that they can evade prosecution.

  • The impact of wildlife trafficking is not as immediately obvious as logging, and it is therefore harder to marshal political pressure for comprehensive solutions. SERFOR is expanding port controls, but piecemeal efforts have had little impact.  Since most of the trafficked animals remain in Peru and neighboring countries, efforts to discourage local demand and increase cross border cooperation would seem to offer hope – if governments get serious about addressing the problem.

June 29, 2018

* Ana Marrugo is pursuing an M.A. in Public Anthropology at American University.  She is on the team dedicated to new two-year project by CLALS and InSight Crime investigating the clandestine wildlife trafficking and logging industries throughout the region.

Nicaragua:  Tensions Mount

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

1024px-Protestas_en_Managua,_Nicaragua_de_2018_(1)

Protesters convene in Managua, Nicaragua last month. / Voice of America / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

President Daniel Ortega’s increasing reliance on turbas, the masked and hooded supporters mobilized to beat back protests, suggests he’s confident that he can tough out the challenge posed by growing demands that he and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo, resign, or, at a minimum, agree to early elections – increasing the prospect of a prolonged, unequal struggle ahead.  According to Nicaraguan press reports, turbas and police sharpshooters killed at least 15 marchers in May 30 Mother’s Day protests.  Approximately 100 protesters have been killed in street protests since April 18.  A delegation of the Inter-American Human Rights Commission of the OAS issued a preliminary report after four days of in-country hearings expressing “shock” at the extent and depth of human rights violations.

  • An attempt at national dialogue mediated by the Nicaraguan Catholic Bishops Conference (CEN) was initially suspended after the government delegation, headed by Foreign Minister Denis Moncada, claimed an agenda proposed by the bishops was the route to a golpe de estado, and was once again suspended after the Mothers’ Day killings. Death threats have been issued over social media against Cardinal Leopoldo Brenes and the Auxiliary Bishop of Managua, Silvio Báez.  Báez in particular has pushed for discussion of democracy in the dialogue.  The government has firmly refused to discuss protesters’ demand – endorsed implicitly by the Church – for an expedited election calendar (sooner than the currently scheduled presidential election of 2021).  Bishop Abelardo Mata, the Secretary of the CEN, has taken the position that Daniel and Rosario must go – as popular anger is such their own lives may be at risk.

The protesters, who are generally university students, have refused to respond with force to the turbas’ aggression, although there have been isolated reports of burned vehicles and occasional use of home-made mortars.  They have established tranques (roadblocks) on national highways leading into and out of major cities, including Managua.  Initially opened every hour or two so that traffic could move – and even suspended when a tentative agreement with the government was reached – the tranques have been stiffened to include total blockages of traffic on major routes in response to turba attacks.  Some roadblocks have been thrown up by peasants still angry about the government’s now-defunct deal with Chinese investors to build the “Grand Canal” across the country.  Independent media reports indicate that citizens are blaming Ortega and Murillo for the resulting inconvenience, and previously unpoliticized people are calling for them to step down.

  • While resisting violence, protesters are not engaged in “civil disobedience” a la Gandhi or Martin Luther King, as no one willingly goes to jail. To be taken away by the turbas or the Policía Nacional is to greatly increase the probability that one’s body will turn up in the morgue, according to local observers.  Timely intervention by individual priests has saved some lives, but the Catholic Church increasingly finds itself threatened too.

The Catholic Church’s leadership has been key and benefits from the quiet but crucial support of the business community, including the strongest private sector organization, COSEP.  Many of the dynamics in today’s confrontation are similar to those leading to the collapse of the Somoza government 40 years ago, with one glaring difference: the lack of an opposition martyr on a par with revered journalist Pedro Joaquín Chamorro, who was assassinated in January 1978, 16 months before President Somoza fled into exile.  Ortega is clearly willing to escalate the intimidation of his opponents, but – should an oppositionist of Chamorro’s stature assume leadership of the current protests – the president would probably not wish to see him martyred, assuming the president still controls the forces he has unleashed. Given recent events, it is unclear if the president wishes to see any dialogue reconvened.  If he does, he will probably need to look outside the country for mediation, as the CEN has increasingly sided with protesters over the government.

  •  If the crisis drags on and on, Ortega could conceivably agree to early elections, but the opposition would still be leery of any deal that did not include a wholly new Consejo Supremo Electoral and a commitment to allow all parties to register, which are demands that probably cross a red line for Ortega. As Nicaragua mourns its dead, the anger is unlikely to subside – and an unequal struggle between the government and a generally nonviolent opposition is likely to fester if not explode.

June 1, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Nicaragua: Approaching an Inflection Point?

By Kenneth M. Coleman*

Protesters burn a large pink metal tree

On Saturday, April 21, 2018, Nicaraguan protesters burned an “Árbol de la Vida” (Tree of Life), one of several monumental statues that are considered representations of President Daniel Ortega’s government. / Jan Martínez Ahrens / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The street protests that wracked Nicaragua last week may or may not recede after President Daniel Ortega backed off a controversial increase in social security taxes, but the damage to his image of invincibility will linger and could turn out to be a watershed in his and his wife’s grand plan for one-party rule.  Ortega mobilized the police, which have teamed up with young thugs over the years to intimidate those who protest government policies, to repress what started last week as peaceful protests against the increased taxes but evolved into a challenge of the authoritarian nature of the regime.  The government closed four television stations that were covering the street protests; shock troops from his party’s Juventud Sandinista burned down a radio station in León; and journalists faced harassment, one having been killed.  Local press estimates 20-30 deaths, with surely well over a hundred injured.

The street protesters were not alone in their struggle.  The Superior Council of Private Enterprise (COSEP) and American Chamber of Commerce in Nicaragua (AMCHAM) – which for years had become silent accomplices in the efforts of Ortega and his wife, Rosario Murillo, to consolidate their power – called for solidarity with the popular protests.  For the first time in the current Ortega era (2007-2018), they openly called for street marches to resume today.  More importantly, they used hard language – condemning the use of fuerzas de choque by the government – and issued a set of conditions before a “dialogue” with the government can begin.  Specifically, they demanded that students, university communities, and the Bishops Conference of the Catholic Church be included in any dialogue, surrendering their previous role as privileged interlocutor with the government.  (The Catholic Church provided respite and support – both moral and physical – to student protesters.)

Mass movements can start from little sparks and grow into society-wide convulsions.  The outcome of these new confrontations with the Ortega-Murillo government cannot be foreseen at this point, but the parallels with other governments on their last legs are striking.  The use of excessive force by Mexican police in 1968 triggered massive street protests that directly questioned the legitimacy of a seemingly well-established Mexican one-party state – legitimacy that was ultimately resurrected only by opening the system to genuinely democratic competition.  While the process took two decades, it did lead to an opposition victory in the 1990 presidential election.  In Nicaragua, the fall of Anastasio Somoza in 1979 accelerated when the business community eventually abandoned his dictatorship.

  •  Ortega’s party, the Frente Sandinista de Liberación Nacional (FSLN), for many years has been able to isolate, contain, and discredit those abandoning it, including a former Sandinista Vice President and former members of its National Directorate. Grumbling within the party is already growing louder because of a succession plan bringing Rosario Murillo to power upon the illness or death of Ortega in a manner that far exceeds her status as vice president.  Local press reports indicate that one police commander and her unit of 50 officers have been jailed due to their unwillingness to confront and repress protesters in the streets.  The excessive application of force against peaceful protesters last week and, potentially, in coming days might lead to a more serious rupture, making last week’s events a potential inflection point for Nicaragua – with potentially dire consequences for Ortega and Murillo’s political ambitions.

April 23, 2018

* Kenneth M. Coleman is a political scientist at the Association of American Universities who directed the 2014 AmericasBarometer national survey in Nicaragua.

Brazil: Will Marielle’s Murder Help Build Consensus on How to Reduce Violence?

By Marcus Rocha*

A woman with a microphone stands in front of a crowd

Marielle Franco campaigning in 2016. / Mídia NINJA / Wikimedia

The murder in March of Marielle Franco – a popular 38-year-old black, gay city councilor in Rio de Janeiro – has stirred outrage across Brazil, but debate over how to increase security has been stifled by political agendas and fake news.  Marielle and her driver were shot dead on March 14 in what press reports characterized as a professional hit job.  Some commentators have speculated it may have been retaliation for her outspoken criticism of the police and military deployments in the cities and favelas.  One of her final posts on Twitter called attention to police violence, citing the case of a young man gunned down by authorities while leaving church.

  • Tens of thousands of mourners took to the streets in Rio and other cities to protest. MC Carol, a black funk singer from favelas near Rio, reflects the popular anger with her immediate hit song entitled “Marielle Franco,” in which she sings:  “You [the system] want to kill us, control us / But you won’t silence us / even bleeding we gonna make it / marching and screaming / I’m Marielle, Claudia, I’m Marisa.”  (Original Portuguese below.)  Claudia and Marisa were women killed during police operations in favelas.

There is no consensus, however, over the meaning of Marielle’s death within a broader agenda of solutions to curb violence in Rio de Janeiro amid an escalation in federal intervention in the state, now entering its second month.  Proponents of President Michel Temer’s push to mobilize the military and other federal assets claim the Councilor’s murder justified the policy.  Opponents argue that Marielle’s assassination and other high-profile murders underscore that the mobilization has not worked, and, indeed, the deaths have fueled widespread skepticism.

  • A poll conducted by Folha de São Paulo newspaper shows these mixed feelings. Seventy-nine percent of interviewees say they support the federal intervention, but 71 percent believe that nothing has changed since it started.  Moreover, 22 percent of people living in affected communities fear the police more than they do drug dealers (16 percent).  Some 15 percent have more fear of milícias– the gangs, which often include former and current police that control much of people’s lives in these communities – and 13 percent of general criminals.  Of those polled, 28 percent say fear all of them equally.  Criminal activities like car theft and robbery have shown no sign of decline.
  • Complicating discussion of Marielle’s murder has been the torrent of fake news about her. Through Facebook pages and Whatsapp messages, far-right groups have spread unsubstantiated allegations that she had links to organized crime.  One Facebook page shows a woman and a man, supposedly Marielle and Marcinho VP, a famous drug dealer, as a couple.  Marco Feliciano, a rightwing preacher turned lawmaker, said during a radio program that Marielle’s death was “just another number” and offered a crude joke.  “They shot a leftist in the head in Rio de Janeiro,” he said.  “It took a week to die because the bullet didn’t find the brain.”  Brazilian justice directed Facebook and YouTube to remove some of the offensive profiles and videos, but fake news is still being shared through social networks.

President Temer’s official announcement that he intends to run for reelection in October deepens the political dimension of his militarized solution to the violence problem.  The federal intervention in Rio de Janeiro has become a key issue on his agenda, but the lack of results is undermining his efforts to shore up his historically low, single-digit approval ratings.  Investigations into Marielle’s murder haven’t identified any suspects yet, and there’s no discussion about changes to security laws or any other measure other than putting more army troops in the streets.  Despite the general outrage, the window for change opened after Marielle’s murder is closing fast.  The Brazilian political system is looking straight to general elections in October, and the speed and depth of the politicization of the assassination, aggravated by fake news, suggest prospects for serious discussion are nil.

[Excerpt from MC Carol’s “Marielle Franco”]

Vocês querem nos matar, nos controlar
Vocês não vão nos calar
Mesmo sangrando a gente vai tá lá
Pra marchar e gritar
Eu sou Marielle, Cláudia, eu sou Marisa

April 5, 2018

*Marcus Rocha is a CLALS Research Fellow.

Presidential Elections in Mexico: Tough Campaign, Tougher Challenges Ahead

By Daniela Stevens*

Andrés Manuel López Obrador stands at a microphone

Frontrunner candidate in Mexico’s 2018 presidential elections, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, speaks to the press. / ANDES / Micaela Ayala V / Flickr / Creative Commons

Campaigning for Mexico’s July 1 presidential election officially begins next week, and no candidate appears to have an insurmountable advantage over the others.  Polls vary, but Andrés Manuel López Obrador (MORENA) appears to be the frontrunner, with 35 to 44 percent of support.  He is followed by PAN-PRD coalition candidate Ricardo Anaya, who has between 24 and 31 percent of the vote.  The PRI candidate, José Antonio Meade, seems a third option, at about 20 to 26 percent, and Margarita Zavala, the only independent candidate who officially obtained registry, lags far behind.  It is too early to see if voters will base their decisions on party loyalty or on perceptions of the candidates.

  • López Obrador (widely known by his initials, “AMLO”) has broad name recognition – 84 percent of Mexicans are familiar with him for better or for worse – but Anaya, Meade, and Zavala have an important opportunity to build new images and attract voters. Indeed, AMLO sometimes seems to be in a race against himself; his rhetoric is often harsh, and his disregard for international free trade alienates a large sector of the business world and the media.  His mixed signals regarding a “review” of the contracts made in conjunction with energy reforms have fostered distrust and uncertainty.
  • Ricardo Anaya’s strategy appears likely to be open confrontation with PRI candidate Meade, aiming to attract PRI voters who see him as the candidate best positioned to prevent an AMLO victory. Anaya’s focus has been on winning the endorsement of key figures in states that constitute large electoral strongholds, such as Jalisco.  However, Anaya’s alleged involvement in a money laundering scandal stands to undermine his support.   PRI Secretary General Claudia Ruiz Massieu tried to tar him in an international context last week by giving the OAS a file with evidence she claimed substantiates the charges against him.  Anaya has cried foul.
  • José Antonio Meade, a highly skilled and seasoned technocrat associated with both PRI and PAN presidencies, is being held back by his association with the very unpopular incumbent President Enrique Peña Nieto. He is trying to cast himself as a PRI “sympathizer,” rather than as a party “militant” responsible for recent years’ weak performance.  To distance himself from his party’s image of electoral fraud, corruption, and crony capitalism, he has emphasized his commitment to transform the PRI.  The party is cooperating, framing him as a “citizen candidate.”

While candidates are immersed in the customary personal attacks against each other, violence appears to be playing into electoral politics with renewed intensity.  The Second Report of Political Violence in Mexico, prepared by the risk assessment firm Etellekt, documents 141 attacks against politicians and public servants since the start of the pre-campaign period last September.  Over 50 of these attacks have been assassinations of officials, incumbents, and candidates at all levels of government.  Violence is worst in Guerrero, Veracruz, the State of México, and Puebla, all states with significant organized crime.

Public insecurity is certain to join organized crime, corruption, inequality, and redistribution of income as central in the Mexican landscape as elections approach, and each candidate will pledge to make those issues his or her top priority.  As in other Latin American countries, the election also appears likely to signal the deepening discredit and low representation of the traditional party system.  Voters could very well select a candidate who, while not an outsider, presents him- or herself as committed to attacking the corruption of the major parties.  While running on a law-and-order slate, the candidates will also likely promise new approaches on the “war on drugs” that, led by both PAN and PRI, has devastated the country – with little or no prospect of avoiding the same pitfalls as predecessors.  Winning the election on July 1 will not be easy for any of the declared candidates; governing once in office will be even harder.

March 23, 2018

* Daniela Stevens is a Ph.D. candidate in Political Science in the School of Public Affairs at American University.

Brazil: Growing Federal Role in Security

By Marcus Rocha*

A man in a military uniform and a man in civilian dress shake hands

Brazilian President Temer (right) and General Villas Bôas (left) shake hands. / Romério Cunha / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian President Temer is increasing the armed forces’ role in security matters, especially in Rio de Janeiro, in what appears to be a populist measure to increase his odds in the October election should he decide to run.  Although General Villas Bôas, commanding general of Brazilian Army, has cautioned about the limitations on the military’s ability to carry out civilian security operations, the Army has generally accepted the mission and used it as pretext for more funding and more legal protection from prosecution.  Governments have increased the use of the Armed Forces for security in Rio on a number of occasions in the last 26 years, including during international conferences, a Papal visit, and surges in drug violence in the favelas.  Preparing for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics, then-President Dilma Rousseff also favored using the military over state police for many security functions.  Military units have usually operated under Decretos de Garantia de Lei e Ordem to circumvent Constitutional prohibitions on their role in civilian policing.

  • This approach has been criticized for both its fiscal and human costs. During a 15-month period beginning in 2014, when the Armed Forces occupied Favela da Maré (a group of 16 communities in Rio), the operation used 85 percent of both the military personnel and of the $200 million budget used during Brazil’s 11 years of involvement in Haiti peacekeeping under MINUSTAH.  Violations against slum residents were reported, and polls showed that most of the inhabitants of Maré did not feel safer with the Army in the streets.
  • Congress last year approved a law initially proposed in 2003 allowing cases of civilians killed by the military in such operations to be tried in special military courts – fueling popular concern that the extra protections for troops would give them a “license to kill.” Army commander Villas Bôas had lobbied for the law.  The internal security mission gives the military leverage for resources, but generals acknowledge that soldiers aren’t trained to deal with security in urban areas.  Villas Bôas has said publicly that his forces “don’t like this kind of deployment”; are concerned it hurts their image; and lament that affected areas return to status quo after they depart.  Villas Bôas has spoken also of “fears of the contamination” of troops by organized crime.

Temer’s moves go beyond his predecessors’ in that federal authority, rather than supplementing local officials, is subordinating them for the first time under the 1988 Constitution.  The interventor assumes the governor’s authority for the entire state’s security, with power to command both civilian and military units.

  • Temer has also announced the creation of a new Ministry of Public Security focused only on security – an issue normally under the states’ exclusive purview. While the ministry would provide more federal funds and coordination to anticrime initiatives, specialists note that the move also would give the President increased influence over the anti-corruption investigations that have rattled his Administration (among many others).  The Brazilian Federal Police, now under the Ministry of Justice and widely speculated to move to the newly created Ministry, is a key player in the years-long Lava Jato  Temer’s announcement has prompted fear – including among Lava Jato investigators, according to press – that changes in the chain of command could undermine efforts against corruption under the guise of focusing the resources in public security.

Temer’s actions suggest greater concern about polls than improved security.  With national elections just seven months away, he has single-digit approval ratings and has been unable to push through signature initiatives, such as pension reform.  Of the three top concerns in the polls – health care, corruption, and security – he has chosen the latter as the centerpiece of his agenda for the election, even though he has said he will not run.  Temer may find confirmation of his strategy in a drop in the crime rate during Carnival this month, but the use of the Armed Forces against drug-trafficking, organized crime, gangs, and other security challenges has proved dubious at best in Colombia, Mexico, and elsewhere.  In Rio de Janeiro, mafias made up of former Army, civilian police, and firemen dominate the drug trade and even services like gas, light and cable TV.  The increased use of the military also has potentially profound consequences for human rights, military professionalization, the development of civilian institutions, and the broader embrace of rule of law.  Increased federal intervention in Rio and elsewhere responds to short-term political interests with long-term outcomes that will only make things worse.

February 26, 2018

*Marcus Rocha is a CLALS Research Fellow.

MS13: Criminal Patterns Defy Traditional Solutions

By Steven Dudley and Héctor Silva*

Gang members gather behind bars

Incarcerated members of the MS13 in Sonsonate, El Salvador. / FBI / Creative Commons

The Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) is one of the world’s largest and most violent street gangs and – despite decades of law enforcement action in two hemispheres – it remains a persistent threat.  In a report based on three years of research released this week by CLALS and InSight Crime (click here for full report), we estimate that the MS13 has between 50,000 and 70,000 members concentrated in mostly urban areas in Central America or other countries with a large Central American diaspora.  In the United States, its strongest base is in the Los Angeles and Washington, DC metropolitan areas, but it is expanding beyond urban areas in California and along the Eastern seaboard from Boston to North Carolina.  The failure to understand the gang’s roots, organizational contours, and everyday dynamics have long hindered efforts to combat it.

  • The MS13 is a social organization first, and a criminal organization second. It creates a collective identity that is constructed and reinforced by shared experiences, often involving acts of violence and expressions of social control.  The MS13 draws on a mythic notion of community, with an ideology based on its bloody fight with its chief rival, the Barrio 18 (18th Street) gang.  In Los Angeles and El Salvador, gang “cliques” have developed some degree of social legitimacy by prohibiting predatory activities (such as domestic violence) in areas of influence where the state provides no protection.
  • The MS13 is a diffuse, networked phenomenon with no single leader or leadership structure that directs the entire gang. It’s a federation with layers of leaders who interact, obey, and react to each other differently depending on circumstances.
  • Internal discipline is often ruthless, but the gang has guidelines more than fixed or static rules. Haphazard enforcement leads to constant internal and external conflicts and feeds violence wherever the gang operates.  Gang-related murders (of which MS13 represents a fraction) are thought to represent around 13 percent of all homicides in the United States, and upwards of 40 percent of the homicides in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala.  The violence at the heart of the MS13 builds cohesion and camaraderie among the dispossessed men and boys who comprise it and it has enhanced the gang’s brand name, allowing it to expand in size and geographic reach.  However, that extraordinary violence has also undermined its ability to enter more sophisticated, money-making criminal economies because partners see it as an unreliable and highly visible target.
  • The MS13 is a transnational gang, but it is not a transnational criminal organization (TCO), as it only plays a part-time role in drug-trafficking, human smuggling, and international criminal schemes. Its growing involvement in petty drug dealing, prostitution, car theft, human smuggling, and, particularly in Central America, extortion schemes nearly always depends on its ability to control local territories rather than to command trafficking networks that span jurisdictions.  Significantly, we’ve found no evidence that it is involved in encouraging or managing the flow of migrants from Central America through Mexico and into the United States.

The U.S. government has placed MS13 at the center of several policies that do not give sufficient weight to these key characteristics.  The gang’s violent activities have also become the focus of special gang units and inter-agency task forces across the United States, including the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and other agencies involved with federal, state, and local law enforcement.

Policymakers in the United States and Central America have devoted many millions of dollars to law enforcement programs aimed in part at eliminating MS13, but they have generally been reluctant to address the underlying causes of the group’s growth – exclusion and the lack of opportunity – that push youths into its arms.  Gang recruitment will continue to flourish until societies create a space in which young people find community, potentially created by NGOs, schools, churches, parents, and other members of the community.  In the United States, moreover, lumping all members with the most violent offenders, casting immigrants as criminals, and isolating gang-riddled communities inspires fear and reduces cooperation with local authorities.  The U.S. and Central American governments also empower MS13 by making it a political actor, either by negotiating truces with it (as San Salvador has) or by making it a center-point of immigration policies that have little to do with its fortunes (as Washington does).  The gang will prosper until governments base policies and programs on a realistic evaluation of its strengths, origins, and internal dynamics.

February 13, 2018

* Steven Dudley is co-director of InSight Crime and a CLALS Fellow, and Héctor Silva is a CLALS Fellow.  Their three-year research project was supported by the National Institute of Justice of the U.S. Department of Justice, but the report’s conclusions are their own.  The report will be the subject of a discussion entitled Inside MS13: Separating Fact from Fiction at the Inter-American Dialogue (Washington, DC) on Friday, February 16.  Click here for details.