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ere’s a sobering statistic that you’re not likely to come across often: Latin America accounts for about one-third of all the people murdered around the world every year. Further, just seven Latin American countries—Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela—account for one in every four homicides around the world. The region is home to at least 43 of the world’s 50 deadliest cities; its murder rate is three times the global average.
Crime and homicide are not the only problems in the region, though they shadow everything else. Latin America is awash in political corruption, international criminal gangs and drug cartels, authoritarian leaders, unstable and failing governments, and health and crime crises.
Here’s a sobering statistic that you’re not likely to come across often: Latin America accounts for about one-third of all the people murdered around the world every year.
Latin America offers a good laboratory test case for those in the West who doubt the value of our inheritance of rule of law, consensual governments, and democratic processes. Historically, Latin America has been dominated by non-ideological authoritarian governments, reliant on military strength. This strongman political style, especially when coupled with destructive economic policies and chaotic political cultures, led to underdeveloped economies throughout the region.
Almost two-thirds (62 percent) of the Latin Americans surveyed by Transparency International for its 2017 Global Corruption Barometer— more than 22,000 respondents, across 20 countries—said that corruption had risen where they lived over the previous year. More than half said their governments were failing to address it. A distressing one-third said they had had to pay a bribe for using a public service. Extrapolating from these data and the proportional responses, Transparency International concluded that “based on the estimated population size of these countries, this means that around 90 million people paid bribes.”
The problems run broad and deep. Leftist inclinations in Latin American countries undermine stability and create corruption as much as they empower those in need. Both Brazil’s and Venezuela’s leftist initiatives to assert state authority over national oil corporations led to bribery scandals in government and economic instability, which in turn led to political instability and insufficient resources for pressing problems, such as fighting the Zika virus. More broadly, hard-left governance, especially in economics, has brought outcomes ranging from hardship to outright ruin—the latter being the only appropriate term to describe the current state of Venezuela.
Even in the struggling Latin American region, no country suffers like Venezuela, a nation blessed with some of the world’s most plentiful oil reserves, but which has nevertheless become a basket case of dysfunction and looming disaster. The nation’s dissolution is a stark illustration of the wages of state socialism, an ideological system that should have been retired from use long ago. Everything in Venezuela is collapsing: incomes, economic output, health standards, sanitation, and the currency. The economy is among the world’s worst-performing, shrinking dramatically year by year. Inflation was estimated at 46,000 percent in 2018, and the IMF projected that it could reach 1 million percent. More than 1.5 million have fled the country in 2018 alone. The nation faces potential default on a crushing foreign debt. More than 90 percent of Venezuelans say that they cannot afford to buy enough food. And yet the government of Nicolas Maduro is more concerned with clamping down on street protestors and other political dissidents than with helping the nation’s suffering people.
Leftist inclinations in Latin American countries undermine stability and create corruption as much as they empower those in need.
The situation is dire. Close observers continue to call for free elections to choose a new government, but the Maduro government has already invalidated multiple elections, even when overwhelming majorities voted their opposition to his rule. The Trump administration’s targeted sanctions against some of Venezuela’s leaders have exacted some costs, but they will not be enough. I doubt that sanctions of even aggressive political reform can save Venezuela now. I’m inclined to agree with Ricardo Hausmann, a former minister of planning for Venezuela, that the country’s National Assembly should impeach Maduro, appoint a new government, and call for military assistance from a regional coalition of willing partners (which may or may not include the United States). The time has come for dramatic action, because, as Hausmann writes, conditions in Venezuela now “constitute a crime against humanity that must be stopped on moral grounds.”
Brazil has recently emerged from the worst-ever recession, in which its GDP growth plummeted from 7.5 percent in 2010 to -3.8 percent in 2015. The country still faces a major pension crisis and may even have to contend with another outbreak of the Zika virus. “There is this idea that Zika is gone, the emergency has been lifted,” said Amanda Klasing of Human Rights Watch. “But the risk for another outbreak is there.”
As political scandal goes, Brazil’s most notable one involves Petrobras, a multinational oil corporation once named the leading ethical enterprise in its field by Geneva-based Covalence Ethical Ranking. The Brazilian government owns more than 50 percent of the common stock and thus maintains voting rights. The investigation into Petrobras, dubbed “Operation Car Wash,” looked into allegations that Brazil’s biggest construction firms overcharged Petrobras for building contracts, then provided kickbacks to the Petrobras executives and complicit politicians.
In August 2016, the Brazilian Senate impeached President Dilma Rousse on charges of manipulating the federal budget in an effort to conceal the nation’s mounting economic problems. Rousse was also chairman of Petrobras between 2003 and 2010, the period during which the corruption took place and when the company’s state ownership under Lula de Silva was finalized. All told, more than $3 billion was found to be given as bribes to more than 40 high-ranking politicians.
Though Rousse allegedly had a role in the Petrobras scheme, her impeachment was due to her misrepresentation of economic health during the 2014 campaign. For example, Rousse’s administration effectively borrowed $11 billion from state banks (about 1 percent of Brazil’s economy) to fund popular social programs. Rousse argued that her predecessors had also manipulated the state budget and stated two days before her impeachment, “I am the victim of a process that is rooted in injustice, and legal and political fraud.” The contentious proceedings increased social and economic instability. The IMF reported in October 2016 that “confidence appears to have bottomed out in Brazil.” The reemergence of modest economic growth in 2017 offers some hope that perhaps the worst of the economic pain has passed. Time will tell.
Latin America offers a good laboratory test case for those in the West who doubt the value of our inheritance of rule of law, consensual governments, and democratic processes.
In Mexico, surveys have shown that citizens place a high priority on fighting the country’s endemic and massive problem of political corruption—but also that few have genuine expectations that their politicians will ever reform themselves. President Enrique Peña Nieto’s government, deeply unpopular, has been embroiled in a series of scandals, the most prominent one involving Pemex, Mexico’s national oil company, and its ties to a Brazilian conglomerate, Odebrecht. The corruption problems make it harder to battle the country’s lethal criminal culture. Armed violence in Mexico’s Northern Triangle killed 34,000 people in 2016, according to one survey—a higher body count than occurred in Afghanistan during the same time. Much of the violence focuses around the drug trade and is generated by a problem that has Mexico and other Latin American countries deep in its clutches: the phenomenon of international criminal gangs. In Mexico, conflict between the cartels of Los Zetas, Caballeros Templarios, and Sinaloa—headed by the world’s most-wanted man, El Chapo, until his 2016 capture—cost 44,000 lives during Nieto’s presidency alone (Mexican presidents are limited to one six-year term). The tenure of Nieto’s predecessor in office, Felipe Calderón, was even worse, with human rights organizations estimating more than 100,000 deaths.
What makes international criminal gangs so imposing at this point in history is that they have evolved their model of operations; they now operate across vast, increasingly non-hierarchical networks that include public and elected officials as collaborators. These “gray” agents of officialdom—whether in law enforcement, the judiciary, or the government—make cracking down against the criminal organizations even more complicated and difficult. The criminal networks’ success at infiltrating official institutions, along with their increasingly dispersed, cross-national scope, explains why El Chapo told Sean Penn in a controversial Rolling Stone interview, “The day I don’t exist, it’s not going to decrease in any way at all…. drug trafficking does not depend on just one person. It depends on a lot of people.”
In its July 2018 elections, Mexico handed Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador the presidency in a landslide victory, preparing the country for the most left-wing government in its democratic history. Obrador is a 64-year-old former Mexico City mayor who promises huge increases in spending on social programs and has promised to confront the nation’s rampant drug cartels. But Obrador is also a nationalist, with some similarities to Trump, and the two presidents, at least early on, have pledged to work together. Of course, the issues between the two nations remain contentious. Trump campaigned on controlling the United States’ southern border and deporting undocumented immigrants, heavily composed of Mexicans fleeing desperate conditions. But any dramatic American effort at large-scale deportation would subject thousands of people to the depredations of criminal gangs. Strengthening the American-Mexican partnership and coming to a mutual understanding on border security is clearly the most constructive approach—challenging as it is to achieve, logistically and politically.
Problems of a very broad nature run across the Latin American region and expand beyond the scope of what I can address here. In keeping with the corruption theme, though, I’d like to call attention to the culture of corruption’s special character in Latin America, especially as it pertains to the problem I cited above: the reign of terror of international criminal gangs, which, in turn, both feeds o of and reinforces that culture.
Narco-Crime and Terror and International Criminal Gangs
Narco-crime and corruption is endemic throughout Latin America and exerts power from the lowest municipal levels of government and police to the presidencies. Crime breeds instability and violence, which discourage foreign spending and investment, limiting alternatives to a drug-based economy.
Narco groups act as a sort of totalitarian government supplement. They murder dissidents and engage in cover-ups. Meanwhile, politicians are either threatened by the narco groups or are forced to engage in cover-ups so that their authority is not undermined. Many of these countries rely on the drug economy to support their own, either because they are reliant on a drug crop (coca, as in Peru and Bolivia) or because the illegal money supports their local businesses. Very often prosecutions do not lead to real sentences. A culture of impunity reigns.
Crime breeds instability and violence, which discourage foreign spending and investment, limiting alternatives to a drug-based economy.
That’s exemplified in a phrase popular in Brazil that captures the dominance of corruption and the way that citizens accept it. In Portuguese, it is rouba, mas faz (“He robs, but he gets things done”). This phrase has enough recognition in the region that, according to urban legend, a well-known congressman and former mayor of the city of Sao Paulo, Paulo Maluf, took [email protected] as his email address. In 2000, 47 percent of Brazilian voters surveyed said they would prefer a mayor who was “not totally honest” as long as he “resolved the municipality’s problems.” In surveys carried out in 2002 and 2007, 40 percent of respondents agreed with the statement that “a politician who carries out a lot of public works, even if he robs a little, is better than a politician who carries out few public works and does not rob at all.” is acceptance of corruption is echoed throughout Latin America.
The criminal networks play a huge role in this Latin American corruption and dysfunction. Usually, criminal groups seek control over municipal security forces and the judiciary—the institutions charged with defending against organized crime. But police and anti-narcotics groups are bribed either to act as enforcers or to look the other way. Airport and seaport officials are bribed to ignore trafficking activity. Attorneys and judges are bribed or intimidated to prevent investigation. Gang members run their business from jails, which act as informal networks for criminals.
The reach of criminal organizations in Latin America is such that in Peru, it is widely assumed that the last four elected presidents owe their elections to them. Worse, even when cartel leaders are killed or captured, it often spurs in fighting among rival groups and public violence.
With the sway that criminality holds, it should be no surprise that policing in Latin America, as in Africa, is deeply compromised. In Mexico, a 2014 report from the Secretary General of National Public Safety found that in total, 42,214 state and federal police officers were deemed un t for service—and yet, 17 Mexican states hadn’t even dismissed police who failed vetting tests. Many of these states are hotspots for organized crime.
For millions of Mexicans the emblematic case of official corruption, at the governmental and law enforcement level, remains the disappearance of 43 students in Guerrero. In September 2014, municipal police officers shot at three buses of students from a rural teaching college who had reportedly come into town soliciting donations. The college had been linked in the past to anti-cartel protests and resistance of cartel extortion. After the shooting, with six people dead, the police were seen corralling the surviving students into patrol cars. Some of the officers later confessed to turning students over to members of a local drug cartel who, according to the Mexican government, killed them, burned their bodies at a dump in Cocula, and dumped their remains in a river. Mexican authorities claimed that Iguala’s then mayor Jose Luis Abarca masterminded the operation. Abarca’s wife, Maria de los Angeles Pineda, had ties to drug traffickers. Abarca’s ruthlessness and corruption ran deep. He allegedly shot his political rival, Arturo Hernandez. Hernandez’s wife, Iguala city councilwoman So a Mendoza, said a witness saw the mayor shoot her husband and gave a statement to state prosecutors; they did nothing. Abarca and his wife fled Iguala and were found in Mexico City one month later.
However, the government’s official version doesn’t square with evidence that the Mexican army was monitoring the movements of the students’ buses. Public outrage over the missing students has fed broad discontent with a host of other national issues, such as wealth inequality and federal corruption. The case became a proxy for protest against a corrupt system. The tragedy—and mystery—of the Guerrero students is representative, historian Lorenzo Meyer said, of “the product of decomposition of state structures in Mexico for a long time.”