Honduras: The Need to Differentiate among the Gangs

By Steven Dudley

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Photo Credit: InSight Crime

Honduras street gangs – often inaccurately lumped into a single category – are a complex, deep-rooted social and criminal phenomenon that is driving violence and migration in record numbers. InSight Crime, after investigating them for most of 2015, found that the catch-all term “maras” is at once ominous and ill-defined. The two largest gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 – have similar criminal revenue streams, but different approaches to obtaining those proceeds. Recognizing these differences is an important part of undermining their power and influence.

  • Extortion is a critical source of funding for both groups. This includes the public transportation system and taxi cooperatives in the largest urban areas, which account for a huge percentage of the gangs’ earnings. InSight Crime talked to one member of a bus cooperative that was paying four gangs extortion fees and was being pestered by a fifth.
  • The groups’ approach to local extortion targets – small businesses, shops, or local delivery services – is different. The MS13 does not extort where they operate; the Barrio 18 does, with huge implications for the gangs’ relations with the neighborhood’s residents and local police. The Barrio 18 is seen as predatory; the MS13 is often seen as a protector.
  • The MS13 is more focused on local drug sales, which allows it to forgo the easy extortion proceeds. Because it meddles less with residents, the MS13 has better relations with the local police, who, in turn, target the Barrio 18 with more resources and vigor. This also positions MS13 for better relations with community leaders and politicians, and it reportedly can, in some cases, act as the unofficial social services operator in cases of child or spousal abuse. In one area InSight Crime visited, the MS13 gives accused abusers a warning after the first report, a beating after the second, and banishment (or worse) after the third.
  • While they may operate under a single umbrella, the MS13 and the Barrio 18 also vary widely in sophistication and reach, wherewithal, and infrastructure. They are semi-autonomous and prone to violent spasms that have wide-reaching implications for the communities in which they operate. The Barrio 18 appears to be less disciplined and less focused on bigger goals than the elements of the MS13 InSight Crime studied. Barrio 18 members give the impression that their struggle is more about human survival than expansion in the underworld. They live by “codes,” such as “respect the barrio,” that are evoked as a pretext for nearly any action, violent or otherwise, against outsiders and fellow gang members alike.
  • The violent ethos that guides the Barrio 18 and the MS13 is shared by their rivals, who include offshoots of the two main gangs, vigilantes, and soccer hooligans. Almost all live from the same income sources – extortion and local drug peddling. Some days they are allies; other days they are enemies.

The repercussions of oversimplifying the situation – treating all gangs as the same – are not trivial. Honduras continues to struggle with record levels of violence, and the United States is grappling with record levels of asylum applicants from gang-riddled countries like Honduras. There are times for a hammer, with criminal groups that only seem to understand force. But there are also moments when negotiation, accommodation, and social programs are more persuasive, and long-lasting, than simply sending in more troops and arresting more youths with tattoos. The trick is to know the difference, but we can only do that if we start to see these groups as complex and dynamic organizations with different criminal economies, social relations, and political ambitions.

December 14, 2015

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSightCrime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS. The full report “Gangs in Honduras” is available in English here and in Spanish here.

Colombia’s National Policing Model: Real Success?

By Kenneth Sebastian Leon*

Photo Credit: Policía Nacional de los colombianos / Flickr / Creatives Commons

Photo Credit: Policía Nacional de los colombianos / Flickr / Creatives Commons

Colombia’s new policing model – called the National Quadrant Surveillance Model, or MNVCC – has been implemented for almost five years, but assessments of its impact vary widely. Commonly referred to as “Plan Cuadrantes” or “Modelo Cuadrantes,” it was introduced in 2010 as a law enforcement operational strategy for the Colombian National Police (CNP) combining elements of the “hot spots” and community policing models.  The MNVCC emphasizes modern technological and data-driven methods for deploying patrol officers according to locale-specific needs, while also prioritizing community-citizen relations.  The model applies spatial geographic informations system (GIS) technology to public safety-related data to define geographic quadrants for allocating personnel and resources .  In areas of high crime density, for example, the quadrants are smaller to allow for a higher concentration of deployed officers.  Community policing aims to improve relations and collaboration between police officers and the citizens they serve.  On the street, the MNVCC model specifies that six officers be assigned per quadrant, and that all officers be visible, approachable, and recognizable to the residents and commercial establishments.

There is no consensus on how well the model is working.  Fundacion Ideas Para La Paz (FiP), a research and policy institution contracted by the CNP, in 2012 released an evaluation of the first eight cities (including Bogotá and Medellín) that found an 18 percent decrease in homicides, 11 percent in personal assaults, and 22 percent in vehicle thefts.  Another research organization specializing in measuring and monitoring quality of life indicators in major cities in Colombia and abroad, Cómo Vamos, assessed in 2013 that Bogotá ranks second to last nationwide in perception of safety – with only 21 percent of residents feeling safe in the city.  A survey conducted last year by El Centro de Estudio y Análisis en Convivencia y Seguridad Ciudadana found that 71 percent of respondents in the capital are either “very dissatisfied” or “dissatisfied” with the police service.  It also calculated that both total number and population rates of homicide increased between 2013 and 2014.  CNP officials privately maintain that the MNVCC is successful and that these contradictory reports are a matter of perception.  Indeed, a CNP general told El Tiempo newspaper that the perception is caused by “increases in reporting to the police, and that shows increased trust in the police.”

While the data on MNVCC effectiveness obviously need further research, anecdotal information does yield some positive lessons from a community policing perspective.  Smartphone apps and the CNP website provide users with a “find your quadrant” feature, linking them to local-level officers and patrol stations, and WhatsApp messaging allows citizens to connect directly with “quadrant officers.”  Additionally, a Puerta-a-puerta initiative provides information that helps the citizen more effectively reach out to law enforcement.  Call boxes at strategic points in neighborhoods, and a Frente a la Comunidad  neighborhood watch-style program distributes radios to contact local police.  Despite discrepancies in crime statistics and perception surveys, the sixth year of the MNVCC model appears to be creating an infrastructure and a culture in targeted communities that could – with further investments and adjustments – mark a strategic watershed in Colombian policing. 

October 2, 2015

*Kenneth Sebastian Leon is a PhD student in American University’s Department of Justice, Law, and Criminology with a dual emphasis in sociolegal studies and criminology.

Colombia: Historic Progress, Historic Challenges

By Fulton Armstrong

Colombia Peace

The leadership shown by Colombian President Santos and FARC Commander “Timochenko” – encouraged by the Vatican and the governments of Cuba, Norway, and the United States – will be tested as challenges to completion and implementation of a final accord are certain to be intense.  The President and FARC leader announced last week that they’d resolved the thorny issue of justice for guerrilla and government commanders accused of serious crimes and set a deadline of 23 March 2016 to sign a peace agreement.  The most important – and controversial – provision covers “transitional justice” for a range of offenses, including crimes against humanity.  Most of the estimated 6,000 rank-and-file FARC combatants will get amnesty, while commanders will choose between confessing their crimes and serving five- to eight-year terms performing labor in institutions other than prisons, or refusing to cooperate at the risk of much longer terms in prison.  (The same procedures will be established for government military officers accused of atrocities and those guilty of financing the paramilitary fighters who ravaged the countryside through the mid-2000s.)  The FARC also agreed that guerrillas would begin handing in their weapons when the final accord is signed.  Negotiators had previously agreed on rural development strategies, political participation, and counterdrug policies.

Almost universally, the agreement has been hailed as an historic achievement.  The announcement in Havana capped three years of talks facilitated by “guarantors” Cuba and Norway and later supported by the United States, represented by former Assistant Secretary of State Bernard Aronson.  During a mass in Cuba several days earlier, Pope Francis had implored the two sides to strike a deal, noting that “we do not have the right to allow ourselves yet another failure on this path of peace and reconciliation.”  U.S. Secretary of State Kerry called the Havana accord a “major breakthrough” and pledged that Aronson would stay closely engaged.

Latin American peace accords – most ending wars much shorter than the five decades of Colombia’s – provide ample evidence that the road ahead, however historic, will not be without difficult challenges.   

  • The accord will require a constitutional amendment, and President Santos will have to submit it for congressional approval and a national referendum. Former President Uribe, who leads Centro Democrático, has already declared war on it, calling it “a coup against democracy” that will lead to a “new dictatorship backed by guns and explosives.”  (Uribe also attacked Kerry’s statement as “deplorable.”)  Public discussion of details of guerrilla abuses, including forced youth recruitment and sexual violence, will play into opponents’ hand.
  • Colombian Prosecutor General Alejandro Ordóñez, an Uribe ally, said last week that any accord that does not entail prison terms for FARC commanders guilty of crimes would be “legally and politically untenable.” He claimed that it would violate victims’ rights and international law, which requires that punishment for war crimes be “proportional to the crimes committed.”  Human Rights Watch also condemned the provision and predicted the International Criminal Court would do so as well. 
  • Fulfilling commitments in the agreement to address the longstanding lack of government infrastructure in huge expanses of the country, help even modestly the resettlement of the more than 5 million persons displaced by violence, and expand programs to alleviate poverty and income inequality will have price tag beyond Colombia’s current ability to pay. Informal estimates of the 10-year cost are $30 billion.  The willingness of Colombian elites, who only grudgingly paid a war tax, to help foot the bill is far from certain.
  • The FARC’s ability to enforce discipline among its rank and file is also untested. There are reports that some commanders oppose any agreement.  Moreover, like demobilized paramilitary combatants, many combatants know no life other than rural combat and will be tempted to keep their weapons and join criminal networks that continue to terrorize rural communities.
  • The outstanding U.S. warrants for the extradition on drug-trafficking charges of reportedly dozens of FARC commanders may require some finessing, but Colombia’s peace commissioner, Sergio Jaramillo, suggested confidence that Washington will not demand extraditions if, as is almost certain, they would be a deal-breaker.

September 29, 2015

Can the Republicans Close Their Gap with Latinos?

By Eric Hershberg and Robert Albro

Photo credits: Iprimages, Michael Vadon, Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo credits: Iprimages, Michael Vadon, Gage Skidmore / Flickr / Creative Commons

Remarks about immigration made by flamboyant New York billionaire and aspiring presidential candidate Donald Trump have embarrassed many Republicans – and angered many Latinos – but also opened the way for several of his competitors to appear more moderate on the issue.  Echoing comments he made in a televised debate on 6 August, Trump on Sunday issued a policy paper claiming, “For many years, Mexico’s leaders have been … using illegal immigration to export the crime and poverty in their own country (as well as in other Latin American countries).”  He demands that Mexico pay for an impenetrable wall along the border and that Washington deport many migrants, beef up border patrols and narrow opportunities for legal immigration.  Although Trump has often claimed he could win the Latino vote, a poll by Huffington Post/YouGov in June found that 82 percent of Latinos don’t take Trump seriously as a candidate, and subsequent surveys indicate that his rhetoric has damaged the Republicans’ image among them.  (Other polls indicate that Democrats’ immigration proposals, in contrast, have the support of some 60 percent of Latinos.)  The views of the country’s fastest-growing demographic group are significant when considering their prominence in “swing” states such as Florida (24 percent of the population and 14.6 of registered voters), Colorado (21 and 14.2), Nevada (27 and 16) and Virginia (8 and 5).

Most of the 15 other major Republican candidates have tried to ignore Trump’s remarks and the immigration issue overall.  Texas Senator Ted Cruz said he “salutes” Trump and, eschewing “Republican-on-Republican violence,” refused to criticize his views.  But two others – former Florida governor Jeb Bush and Ohio governor John Kasich – have staked out somewhat more moderate positions.

  • Bush stresses the need for more aggressive border enforcement and a crackdown on undocumented residents of “sanctuary cities,” but he also called for an immigration policy that included “documented status” – but not citizenship – for an unspecified number of them. Having a Mexican-born wife and mixed-race children also sets him apart.
  • Kasich last week noted that undocumented migrants are “people who are contributing significantly” to the United States. He said, “A lot of these people who are here are some of the hardest-working, God-fearing, family-oriented people you can ever meet,” and he said he favors a pathway to legal status for people already in the country, adding that such provisions could be part of an immigration reform package.
  • Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who was ostracized by his Republican colleagues in 2013 for proposing reforms along the same lines, has appeared reluctant to criticize Trump, Bush or Kasich – making him possibly the biggest loser on the issue for now.

The elections are still 14 months off, and electoral dynamics change.  Latinos don’t figure in the Republican primaries, and it’s too early to speculate how their voices will play until next year – at which point Donald Trump probably will be seeking celebrity through other endeavors.  Republican strategists have already said that their candidates won’t try hard to court Latinos – and risk alienating the roughly 20 percent of their base in swing states who hold hard-core anti-immigration positions.  Nonetheless, Bush and Kasich’s rhetoric, while still vague on actual policies, may give the party a chance to claim to Latinos that not all Republicans are out to get them.  No Republican on the front line today appears likely to attract majority support among Latinos, but a moderate-sounding approach to immigration could take the rough edges off the party’s image, reduce Latino opposition to it and diminish the issue as a Democratic Party advantage.

August 18, 2015

Brazil: Jailing the Youth

By Paula Orlando*

Brazilian Penitentiary System.  Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

Brazilian Penitentiary System. Photo Credit: Marcelo Freixo / Flickr / Creative Commons

A push for legislation to lower the age of criminal responsibility to 16 years could worsen court backlogs and overcrowding in Brazil’s notorious prisons.  According to the International Center for Prison Studies (ICPS), the country’s jails now hold the fourth largest prison population in the world, behind the United States, China, and Russia.  The Brazilian inmate population has doubled in the past ten years – from 296,919 people in 2005 to over 615,000 now – boosted by arrests of young and black people.  The Map of Incarceration, a study released this month by researchers at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR), shows that prisoners are increasingly between the ages of 18 and 29 (54.8 percent) and black (60.85 percent), with a growing presence of females (from 4.35 percent in 2005 to 6.17 percent in 2012).  The study also notes that the main reasons for arrest are crimes against property and “involvement in drug trafficking.”  Further, on average 38 percent – or four in every ten inmates – are awaiting trial.  According to a report by the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the wait times may vary from months to years – sometimes longer than the actual sentence for the crime committed.  Of the total jail population, over 18 percent would be eligible for alternative sentences, but they either haven’t gone to trial yet or the judges have opted for heavier sentences.

A group of hardline conservative legislators – the “bullet caucus” – is pushing aggressively for a law that would lower the age of criminal responsibility from 18 to 16 and consequently place more youth in the already overcrowded adult jails.  Currently, the Child and Adolescent Statute (ECA) establishes that those between 12 and 17 years of age who committed a crime should be sent to juvenile centers, and for a maximum of three years.  The proposal to lower the age has received overwhelming popular support. This support is generally based on the perception that minors commit more violent crimes because they are not currently accountable as adults – and that harsher sentences would deter them.  However, official data shows that, among those in the juvenile system, only 9 percent committed violent crimes.  On the other hand, homicide is the leading cause of death of young people between the ages of 15 and 29.  Out of the 56,000 yearly homicides, 30,000 victims are young.  By crossing data from the Ministry of Justice and the 2014 Map of Violence, the report also debunks the popular perception that more arrests lead to safer cities.  On the contrary, just as incarceration grows, homicide rates have also steadily risen in the country.  According to press reports and other observers, there’s a good chance the legislation will move forward in the next few weeks.

Since the bill amends the Brazilian Constitution, it must pass both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate with at least two-thirds of the votes.  In addition to increasing youth incarcerations, if passed, the initiative will undermine the 1990 Child and Adolescent Statute, considered a landmark by children’s rights advocates.  It will further remove the state from its responsibility for the protection and education of the youth, essentially eliminating any chance of youths’ rehabilitation while broadening the “school-to-prison pipeline” that envelopes many.   Moreover, passage of this reform, under the banner of law and order, will strengthen the ultra-conservative sectors – including some religious leaders and representatives of agribusiness – who already dominate the Brazilian Congress in an open crusade against social welfare policies and minority rights. 

 June 29, 2015

*Paula Orlando is a CLALS fellow and a PhD candidate at the School of Communication at American University.

Social Science that Matters: Pérez Sáinz on Latin America’s Inequalities

By Eric Hershberg

Image courtesy of FLACSO-Costa Rica

Latin America has made important advances dealing with income inequality over the past decade, but sustaining this modest progress requires a deeper grasp of its underlying causes.  Since Princeton sociologists Miguel Centeno and Kelly Hoffman in 2003 published their provocative article “The Lopsided Continent” probing Latin America’s infelicitous distinction as the region with the most unequal income distribution, the GINI coefficients – indicators of the gap between rich and poor – have declined in a number of Latin American countries.  Most of the advances, which admittedly appear tenuous and were slowed by the Great Recession of 2008-2009, can be traced to the expansion of secondary education and, particularly in countries governed by the left, unprecedented investments in social programs that have benefited the most disadvantaged sectors of the population.  Even now, however, income distribution in the region remains as unequal as anywhere on the planet – sapping productivity by depriving populations of opportunities to upgrade skills that could be deployed in knowledge-intensive economic activities.  Inequality also provokes social dislocations that undermine the welfare of the poor and non-poor alike, place burdens on over-extended state institutions and generate pathologies, such as crime, that undermine economic performance.  Moreover, the task of sustaining democratic political regimes is rendered much more difficult.

A new book by Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz, a sociologist at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, takes a fresh look at the dynamics of unequal power that influence how the fruits of economic activity become concentrated in some individuals and social groups – and remain beyond the reach of large swathes of a country’s inhabitants.  MERCADOS Y BÁRBAROS: La persistencia de las desigualdades de excedente en América Latina is in my view a landmark contribution to the sociological literature, and it identifies four intertwined processes that account for the disempowerment of important segments of the population, often characterized by subordinate status associated with gender, race, ethnicity or region.

  • The prevalence of precarious employment in labor markets, as a result of which people are condemned to toil endlessly but never enjoy the benefits of having a stable job.
  • The impossibility for most small-landholders or petty entrepreneurs to accumulate capital that might enable them to invest in the future of themselves, their families and their communities.
  • The weakness or absence of state institutions that might contribute to forging social citizenship encompassing all of a country’s inhabitants, the result of which is that vulnerable individuals and communities are left to fend entirely for themselves.
  • The overwhelming weight in Latin America of social categorizations – motivated by pervasive sexism, racism, ethnocentrism and xenophobia – that define excluded populations as less deserving of rights and opportunities than others.

If societies are to be expected to invest in social science, then it is reasonable to expect that social scientists strive to illuminate the underlying roots of their greatest challenges, such as the yawning inequalities in Latin America, and the sources of their persistence over time.  Through his historically informed and empirically rich analysis, drawing on theoretical insights from Marxian traditions and from the work of sociologists such as the late Charles Tilly, Pérez Sáinz has made an invaluable contribution to intellectual debates about inequality which should inform efforts to consolidate the modest gains we have seen in Latin America and thus help the region outgrow its enduring legacy of debilitating inequality.

December 4, 2014

Invisibility and Violence in Brazil

By Paula Orlando

Anistia Internacional Brasil / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Anistia Internacional Brasil / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Staggering statistics of violence in Brazil continue to make headlines in the country and abroad, but the invisibility of the victims and indifference toward them blunt the impact of the numbers.  According to the 2014 Map of Violence published by FLACSO-Brazil sociologist Julio Jacobo Waiselfisz, 30,000 people between the ages of 15 and 29 – 77 percent of whom are black – are murdered in Brazil every year.  Additionally, the annual report of the widely respected Brazilian Public Security Forum indicates that in 2008-2013 the police killed at a rate of six people per day, while a research group at the Federal University of Sao Carlos (UFSCAR) found recently that 61 percent of those killed by the police in Sao Paolo State are black.  The absence of popular outrage over these facts is being addressed by a range of initiatives, and social media – of which Brazilians are avid users – are an important tool to this end.

  • Amnesty International’s newly launched campaign, Jovem Negro Vivo, uses social media to raise consciousness about the rates of violence and societal responses to it. One of the main parts of the campaign is a video showing a black teen traveling through his neighborhood and city, successively encountering other invisible people.  At the end, the teen faces a similar fate – death and invisibility.  The campaign questions the trivialization of violent deaths and society’s silence about it.  The campaign asks: “84 homicides per day.  Do you care?” And adds: “More shocking than this reality, just indifference.”
  • Rede Jovem, an internationally acclaimed NGO created in 2000, is conducting Projeto Wikimapa with collaborative technologies to identify neighborhoods, streets and services in communities that are invisible – that is, not shown on official maps – even though many are heavily populated. A number of local projects are redrawing the maps of various cities, including Belo Horizonte, Rio de Janeiro, and Sao Paulo.  The resulting maps, which can be accessed on the Web and handheld devices, expose communities’ rich social structures to the world.  Some of this work is presented in a new released documentary, Todo mapa tem um discurso – “Every map has a discourse.”

In a society in which significant numbers of communities and individuals are still invisible to the state and fellow citizens, violence is not surprising.  During the recent and run-off campaigns Dilma Rousseff met with grassroots leaders who demanded urgent action to end systematic violence against poor youth and police abuse.  She promised them that she would push further implementation of specific youth programs such as Juventude Viva, while also recognizing the need to continue confronting racism and start taking serious measures against police abuse.  Human rights organizations and community activists have pledged to hold her to her word.  Communication and technology tools – which activists used during protests last year to gather evidence of police abuse through crowdsourcing – can provide a boost to citizens and activists in reclaiming public spaces and demanding better social services. Creating inclusive and participatory maps, for example, facilitates postal service, the allocation of resources, and the implementation of programs such as cultural and after-school activities that help protect vulnerable youth.  Further, the use of collaborative media technologies has the potential – over time – to reduce invisibility and bring society closer to dealing with the tragedy of the violent deaths of thousands of people every year.

November 25, 2014

Colombia’s Peace Talks: One Step at a Time

By Aaron T. Bell

Number 10 / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Number 10 / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The peace talks in Havana between the Colombian government and the FARC guerrillas have continued to show slow but steady progress since President Juan Manuel Santos, who has staked considerable political capital on ending the 50-year conflict, began his second term three months ago.  Two years of negotiations have produced preliminary agreements on agricultural development, political participation, and resolving the illicit drug trade.  In August, negotiators turned their attention to compensating victims of the conflict, while a sub-commission staffed by top military figures from both sides has been developing recommendations for implementing a bilateral ceasefire and disarming combatants.  A recent ruling by the Constitutional Court has paved the way for the government to hold a public referendum on the peace accords once a final agreement between the two sides has been reached.

The challenges facing the successful negotiation and implementation of peace accords are significant.  At home, former president Álvaro Uribe and his allies continue to harangue President Santos, accusing the government of showing too much leniency in negotiations and most recently denouncing the participation in Havana of the FARC commanders accused of human rights abuses as an affront to their victims. Santos clashed publicly with the Inspector General (procurador general) as well after the President secretly approved trips to Cuba by the FARC’s leader, “Timochenko.”  For its part, the FARC has expressed reservations over immediate disarmament, still haunted by the deaths of thousands of members of its mid-1980s political party.  Also at issue is the fate of those guerrilla leaders who face active arrest warrants or have been tried in absentia for humans right abuses; the FARC has adamantly resisted the possibility of jail time for its members.  The government is also concerned that 10-20 percent of the FARC members will shift loyalties to organized criminal gangs after the war ends.  Severing ties between drug trafficking and the FARC supporters will require, among other things, a serious commitment to rural development to foster social inclusion for farmers who rely on coca plants for their livelihood.

In spite of these challenges, both sides have displayed a serious commitment to negotiating an end to decades of war.  The FARC has used past ceasefires to rebuild and organize its military strength, hence the government’s delay this time in negotiating an end to hostilities.  But attacks on infrastructure and security services are down from 2013, and members of the FARC have by and large respected several self-imposed ceasefires announced by the central command, most recently during this summer’s elections.  Santos has gone out on a limb by allowing wanted criminals to travel to the negotiations, but that decision is consistent with other policies.  When war crimes victims were invited to tell their stories to negotiators, Santos brushed outside critics and ensured that victims of the FARC, state, and paramilitaries were all equally represented.  Public support for the peace process looked shaky in September but has rebounded, as new polls from Gallup released last week shows over 60 percent of Colombians favor talks.  The government public release in early October of the preliminary agreements appears to have helped, silence critics who accused the government of selling out to guerrilla demands behind closed doors.  There is still considerable work to do in reaching an agreement, selling it to the public, then putting it into practice, and public support may waver if the process drags on into next year.  But, the environment has never looked as favorable for peace in Colombia as it does today.

November 13, 2014

El Salvador Security Challenges: Shaky Response So Far

By Héctor Silva Ávalos

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Globovisión / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

After five and a half months in office, Salvadoran President Sánchez Cerén is still groping for ways to address the country’s pressing security concerns.  According to official figures, the homicide rate has rebounded to 11 per day – compared to five or six per day for four months last year during a gang truce sponsored by President Funes and his Security Minister, General  Munguía.  Highly unpopular among Salvadorans and despised by the United States – the key partner in security issues – the truce turned out to be the most effective homicide reduction policy since the end of the Civil War.  For Sánchez Cerén, however, the failure to renew the truce has proven to be politically toxic as violence has once again surged.  Inside sources say that the new government has engaged in a quiet dialogue with gang leaders but refuses to publicly embrace it as a mainstay of its approach to security.  Instead, Public Security Minister Benito Lara is pushing a model of community policing that has yet to prove effective and will be difficult to implement nationally.  Low morale within police ranks, the unwillingness of citizens to cooperate with police in gang-plagued territories and, as always, the lack of meaningful resources to address social investment in poor and violent communities are undermining the policy.

Two main elements of a successful approach – funding and political courage – are lacking.  Truce implementation was supposed to be followed by a comprehensive social investment program called Comunidades libres de violencia (Communities Free of Violence), but it never got funded.  Sánchez Cerén, moreover, has shown reluctance to take on the security issue.  The United States, for its part, has provided millions of dollars in assistance under its Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) for vetted units of special investigators, transnational law enforcement initiatives to combat gangs, police equipment and training, and prison management, but institutional weaknesses remain acute and violence has continued to climb.  Moreover, many critics say the programs are flawed by a failure to condition aid on concrete government steps to end security forces’ impunity, corruption, and secret cooperation with organized crime.

The days in which iron-fist approaches and fanfare-hyping law enforcement activity represented a credible security strategy have passed.  Salvadoran politicians can no longer talk their way out of the security chaos by selling mano dura fantasies.  The truce under President Funes helped gang leaders consolidate their influence and hone their political skills to the point that a solution to reduce homicides without gang leaders’ imprimatur is plainly not possible.  As President, Sánchez Cerén has the opportunity to provide strong leadership, while addressing the public’s concerns, to pursue talks under clear conditions and with credible consequences for gang violations.  In return for a gang promise to reduce homicides, stop recruitment in vulnerable areas, and end gang rapes, the President could credibly offer to allow them greater sway in prisons and to support social programs in affected communities.  He can also commit to find the necessary resources.  The elites will resist paying, but a mini-summit of the three Presidents of Central America’s northern tier and U.S. Vice President Biden hosted by the Inter-American Development Bank this week affords Sánchez Cerén a chance to make a bilateral pitch for help to Biden and a multilateral pitch to the IDB.  He will have to steel himself for the political hits that will ensue, but without strong leadership, security in El Salvador will only continue to deteriorate.   The former guerrilla leader must know that there is no easy solution at hand, but as President – validated by a democratic election – he has the responsibility and holds the power to act.

November 11, 2014

Uruguay: Another Center-Left Victory

By Aaron Bell

Frente Amplio Uruguay / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

Frente Amplio Uruguay / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

The Frente Amplio (FA) emerged from Sunday’s general elections in Uruguay looking stronger than observers had forecast – and signaling Latin Americans’ confidence in the center-left.  Despite a rough campaign season, which included polls showing the FA’s support stuck in the low 40s, and public sniping between the party’s leaders – candidate Tabaré Vázquez and current president José Mujica – just days before the election, the FA gained last-minute momentum in the polls and won 47.9 percent of the vote.  As expected, Vázquez received less than the outright majority needed to avoid a second round of voting on November 30 against the candidate of the Partido Nacional (PN), Luis Lacalle Pou, who won 31 percent of the vote.  But the FA preserved its majority in the lower chamber of parliament, and it can have the edge in the senate if Vázquez wins in November, as his vice president, Raúl Séndic, would hold the deciding vote.  The Partido Colorado (PC) candidate, Pedro Bordaberry, won only 12.9 percent of the vote and placed third in every department.

The elections revolved around Vázquez and Lacalle Pou’s leadership identity and policies; neither candidate argued for substantial structural changes.  In exit interviews, those who voted for the FA credited it with positive changes in its decade at the helm.  The 41-year-old Lacalle Pou has run as a youthful leadership alternative to the 74-year-old former president Vázquez, and he promised fresh ideas for taking on crime and education, considered leading concerns for Uruguayan voters.  While exit interviews suggest that this message appealed to his party’s voters, it did not translate into substantial youth support.  Polling by Factum prior to the election showed that 51 percent of voters aged 18-37 preferred the FA.  Public security has been the leading concern for Uruguayan voters, and both traditional center-right parties, the PN and PC, supported a referendum (also held on Sunday) that would have lowered the age of criminal responsibility for major crimes from 18 to 16.  But long-term polling trends have shown a decrease in the number of Uruguayans prioritizing security from its peak last year, and indeed the referendum failed with 47 percent of the vote; almost the entirety of undecided voters ultimately chose to oppose it.

The FA now has momentum and is well positioned to win the second round and enjoy the support of a parliamentary majority.  A likely PN-PC voting bloc in the second round once held a slight lead over the FA but now appears likely to fall short because of tensions between them.  The PC’s underwhelming performance at the polls has been compounded by Bordaberry’s decision on Sunday night to support Lacalle Pou without consulting PC officials, and his offensive off-the-cuff verbal attack on the Vázquez camp during a conversation with a PN official that same night, for which he has since apologized.  The left-leaning Partido Independiente, which came in fourth place with 3.1 percent of the vote, will make a decision on which candidate to support this week; their votes alone would be enough to push the FA over the top.  As a result, barring a major turn of events, it appears as though the incumbent pink tide will prevail in Uruguay – with implications, perhaps, beyond.  Indeed, a second-round FA victory will be the sixth this year for a left-leaning party, following the pattern set by Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Bolivia, and Brazil.  While the citizenry may be impatient with the pace of progress in Latin America following nearly a decade of left-leaning governance, voters seem to be eschewing the right and maintaining the modestly but consistently leftward tilt that has characterized the region’s politics for much of the 21st century.

October 30, 2014