On the surface, the future looks bleak for Latin America. In an era of slow economic growth, with deeply polarized societies and increasingly entrenched violence, the continent’s leaders face some daunting challenges. Latin America is grappling with a surge in homicide, which has made it the world’s most dangerous region.
The illicit drug trade is booming, organized crime is proving to be more agile than most states, and anti-corruption efforts have been rolled back across the continent, undermining democracy. There are, however, glimmers of hope if you look closer. Amid the carnage, solutions and experiments are emerging that could slow the violence and reduce the killing. According to data from the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank, 17 of the 20 most violent countries in the world by murder rate are in Latin America and the Caribbean. Marginalized communities across the region still live under the control of organized crime and nonstate armed groups. In countries like El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras, residents are held hostage by “invisible borders” that define gang turf. Trapped in their neighborhoods, they are unable to move freely, and crossing into rival territory nearly always carries a death sentence. People become victims of elaborate extortion rackets, forced to pay monthly fees to gangs and cartels, or face execution. In Brazil, under newly sworn-in President Jair Bolsonaro, the government is attempting to reassert the state’s monopoly on violence amid a sharp rise in crime.
The new governor of the state of Rio de Janeiro has said he will implement shoot-to-kill policing tactics, and troops have been deployed to tackle a spike in gang violence in the northeastern city of Fortaleza. In Colombia, a new presidential decree plans to relax gun laws and allow civilians to bear arms, if they have the permission of the military. This is a highly controversial proposal; armed self-defense groups that were briefly legalized in the 1990s ended up committing tens of thousands of murders—many of them against communities accused of supporting the FARC guerrillas—in just a decade. Across Central America, where as many as 95 percent of crimes go unpunished in some areas, so-called mano dura or iron fist policing has been pursued since the early 2000s in an attempt to curb rampant gang-fueled violence. The iron fist includes expanding police powers and enacting harsher punishments.
In El Salvador, anyone can be arrested and charged with belonging to a gang, just for having a tattoo, and in Honduras, carrying more than the equivalent of $15 can lead to charges of extortion. This approach has been widely criticized for human rights abuses and for failing to achieve what it set out to: reduce murders and other violent crime. There are alternatives to the iron fist. In Argentina, a community policing program and improved data collection contributed to the dismantling of one of the country’s most violent criminal groups, known as Los Monos. Similarly, in the Colombian city of Cali, authorities have started to map homicide data to establish which neighborhoods are most affected by violence. Young people considered to be at risk are then given individual caseworkers. This new program resulted in a 41 percent reduction in murders in 2018, according to local authorities.
On Jan. 3, the city celebrated its first ever 24-hour period without a single murder since records began. Strategies like those adopted in Cali are known as “tertiary prevention.” This coming year will test Latin American policymakers as much of the continent struggles to contain record levels of violence. Hard-liners will continue to support militarizing what remain problems of crime and public security, especially with tougher punitive measures, while those on the political left will favor a softer approach focused on rehabilitation, reintegration and decriminalization. But amid this zero-sum approach, hybrid strategies have emerged.