Envío Digital
Central American University - UCA  
  Number 250 | Mayo 2002


Latin America

Crime Is on the Rise in our Lands

Crime is growing every day in each of our countries, creating serious dilemmas and jeopardizing our future. We have at least two choices: punishment or prevention. Prevention implies going to the roots of the spiraling delinquency, while punishment could well end up "criminalizing the poor" and destroying our societies.

Bernardo Kliksberg

The crime rates in Central and South America have skyrocketed in the last two decades. According to The Economist, all of the region’s cities are less safe today than they were ten years ago.

An increasing state of alert

The citizenry feels insecure in the vast majority of urban centers, and even cities traditionally considered "safe" have witnessed rapid deterioration. All public opinion surveys show that this is one of the problems that most concern the population. A significant number of people in some cities have been assaulted, robbed in a taxi or victimized by other kinds of criminal attacks, all of which form an unfortunate part of daily news reports in almost all of the region’s societies. The population is anxiously wondering why, what can be done and what lies ahead.

Such a general state of alarm provides fertile ground for extreme theories that find a willing audience desperate for quick results. Despite the urgency, however, it is essential to raise the quality of debate, basing analyses on serious evidence about the characteristics of the problem and objective studies on the factors stimulating it that transcend mere slogans. It is also necessary to consider the vast international experience. Only by fully exploring the problem’s complexity can truly effective solutions be designed.

A genuine epidemic

The available facts leave no doubt as to the seriousness of the issue. It is estimated that there are 30 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants in Latin America each year, a figure six times higher than in countries with moderate crime rates, such as most of those in Western Europe. The crime rate on the continent is now viewed as an "epidemic," a rapidly spreading structural problem.

With the levels of crime rising in recent years, studies conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) and other organizations indicate that Latin America’s crime rate now ranks second in the world, behind Sub-Saharan Africa. In the "Latinbarómetro 2001" survey, done in 17 of the region’s countries, four out of every five people interviewed said that crime and drug addiction had significantly increased in their countries over the three previous years. An already high 65% had responded similarly in a version of the same survey done in 1995. More alarming still, two of every five people said that either they or a family member had been the victim of a crime in the previous 12 months.

Prestigious international institutions such as the Pan-American Health Organization view crime in Latin America as a major public health problem. Statistics show that, among other consequences, it has become one of the main causes of death among youth. It has actually contributed to a demographic reduction of young people in certain age groups in some countries over specific periods. In cities such as Río de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, the number of homicides per 100,000 inhabitants is nearly double the already high average for the region as a whole.

Colossal security costs

There has been a massive reaction to this phenomenon that directly threatens the daily life of a good part of the population. IDB figures from 2001 estimate that Brazil spends some US$43 billion in both state and private funds on security. This represents 10.3% of its national GDP, and is higher than the total wealth produced in a year by Chile, one of the region’s most vigorous economies. The amount of public and private resources dedicated to this area is even higher in Colombia, where it is estimated at 24.7% of the country’s GDP. In Peru, the resources spent on security represent 5.3% of the GDP.

Almost the entire region is experiencing a sharp increase in spending for security. In economies like the Latin American ones, which are struggling to obtain growth rates of over 3-4% a year, dedicating such an important part of the national product to this particular problem is a phenomenal burden for the economy. It implies a huge loss of resources urgently needed for productive activities.

Investigating causes

What has led these societies to experience such criminal development, suddenly becoming some of the most dangerous places on earth? Why are the crime levels rising rather than falling despite enormous investments in public and private security and a marked increase in the prison population?
This highly complex issue needs to be analyzed from various perspectives: the economy, social development, culture, education and values, among others. The phenomenon should also be broken down into its component elements. Different criminal circuits operate in the region, one of the most important of which is drug-related criminal activity. Everything indicates that it has increased considerably. While this is a widely studied global problem with numerous implications, a large part of common crime has different characteristics, with a high proportion of the crimes committed by young people.

The part played
by high poverty levels

While not wishing to sideline historical, cultural, demographic and other variables, it is impossible not to notice that the of Central and South American crime rates have risen in recent decades while basic social indicators have deteriorated.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC), poverty in Latin America has grown in both absolute and relative terms. The figures show that there are currently more poor people than in 1980. The percentage of poor people in the overall population has also increased, now coming close to half the total population. Meanwhile, the open unemployment rates have risen to an average of 11%.

Analyses done by the International Labor Organization’s Latin American Employment Program in1999 stress the declining quality of available jobs as another very worrying development. Almost 60% of the active labor force currently works in the informal sector, the vast majority in self-generated work aimed at survival, with limited future possibilities. Because of a lack of technological or credit support, the productivity of such jobs ranges from a quarter to a third of that of formal sector jobs and is tending to fall further, with those involved working increasingly longer hours and ending up with less spending power.

All of this is further complicated by the fact that extensive sectors of the population have extremely limited access to decent public health and education services and housing. One in every five births takes place with no medical care whatsoever, leading to a maternal mortality rate five times higher than in the developed world. The social deterioration is also expressed in severe nutritional deficiencies. According to ECLAC’s "Panorama Social" for 2000, a third of Latin American children under the age of two are currently in a state of "high nutritional risk."

The region with the
greatest inequalities

There is no easy way of explaining Latin American poverty. It is not the result of a shortage of natural resources, as is the case in Africa. This is a privileged zone with immense reserves of strategic raw materials, great possibilities for generating cheap energy, excellent potential for agricultural production and a very good geo-economic location. The natural factors are in its favor. Neither have the majority of countries been the scene of bloody wars, as in Europe and Africa.

While social deterioration is linked to numerous factors, various studies show that one of the most influential is the increase in social polarization that has led Latin America to be ranked as the most unequal continent in the world. The richest 10% of the population receives 84 times more income than the poorest 10%, and the region has the worst inequality coefficient for income distribution. It also has pronounced inequalities in access to land and other capital goods, in the possibility of obtaining credit and in the field of education. According to IDB studies (1999), while the heads of family from the richest 10% of the population have an average of twelve years schooling, those from the poorest 10% have an average of five years. This seven-year gap has a very serious effect on getting a job—only a few can come out on top—and in numerous other aspects of life. Such inequality appears to be the main obstacle to the region achieving sustained economic growth.

Another consequence of the accentuated social polarization has been the crisis experienced by the middle classes in various countries. This sector, essential to a society’s development, has been highly affected over the last two decades. A paradigmatic case is Argentina, which has historically had an extensive middle class. It is calculated that seven million Argentines fell from the middle class into poverty from 1990 to 2000. But it’s not just Argentina. Right across the region a new downwardly mobile social stratum—the "new poor"—has grown significantly.

The bitter taste of exclusion

It is well known that sharp inequalities generate acute social tensions. The population’s resentment is strongly reflected in the opinion polls. People are aware of the extent of the inequalities and widely consider them unacceptable and unjust. Living with acute privations due to poverty and wide social gaps creates the potential for a highly conflictive social climate.

This is the climate in which the current criminal developments are taking place. Without wishing to oversimplify the matter, it is impossible to ignore the fact that this climate is creating a series of conditions both directly and indirectly conducive to such developments. One of the most studied conditions in recent years is the feeling shared by extensive sectors that they have been excluded, that they are now on the sidelines of society.

Those studies highlight how certain components of this social deterioration directly influence the increasing crime. Significant statistical correlations can be observed in three areas that appear to be essential elements in understanding the causality of criminality, while by no means exhausting it.

Widespread youth unemployment

This first area has been frequently studied. There is a clear correlation between the rise in crime and the unemployment rate among young people. Analyses done recently of several cities in the United States clearly demonstrate that acceptable unemployment levels and higher minimum wages are essential factors behind the drop in crime rates. The tendency has been the opposite in Latin America. The elevated general unemployment rates are even higher among young people, two or even three times higher than the average in many countries, which tops 20% in a good part of the region. Furthermore, the minimum wages now have a markedly reduced purchasing power. This means that many young people have no possibility of entering into the economy, or can only earn incomes that leave them well below the poverty line.

This situation is potentially explosive and becomes even more so when such unemployment levels are maintained for prolonged periods, as is typical of the region. According to Nobel economics laureate Robert Solow, unemployed people in such conditions tend to abandon the search for work completely. Their situation acutely damages their self-esteem, their personality is undermined and they decide not to look for work to avoid being rejected again, which could affect them even more given their already vulnerable situation. They also tend to become socially withdrawn.

Family deterioration
and domestic violence

Strong correlations have also been found between family deterioration and crime. One study of youth criminality in the United States examined the family situation of a very broad sample of young people in youth detention centers. It established that over 70% came from broken homes in which the father was absent. In Latin America, a study carried out in Uruguay—one of the societies with the best social records—came up with a similar correlation. Two-thirds of the young people interned for criminal activities came from single-parent families.

The family is a totally decisive social institution with respect to crime prevention. If a family works well, it will impart values and behavioral patterns at an early age that will later be fundamental when young people come up against crossroads and have to make choices. If the family breaks down, it stops fulfilling this function.

In Latin America, this crucial institution is being seriously undermined by the worsening poverty. The phenomenon is complex, but figures indicate that many poor and middle-class families are suffering extreme tensions and serious economic privations due to prolonged periods of unemployment that end up splitting the family. It is estimated that over 20% of the region’s families are now headed by only the mother, the vast majority poor women who courageously defend their children, but must do so in very difficult conditions. There is also a region-wide increase in domestic violence. High among the reasons for this is the intense socioeconomic stress suffered by many households. Domestic violence may be a strong factor that desensitizes these families to violence outside the home.

The crisis in education

The third correlation can be seen between the levels of education and criminality. The unarguable statistic is that the levels of criminal activity fall if a population’s education levels rise. Despite important efforts in education, Latin America still suffers from acute problems in this area.

Although the vast majority of children now enroll in primary school, almost half drop out before completing primary school. Repetition rates are also high. Dropping out of school and having to repeat classes are linked to poverty, which forces over 17 million Latin American children under the age of 14 to work. It is thus very difficult for them to attend classes, just as it is for children suffering from malnutrition and other deficiencies. The average schooling in the region is just 5.2 years, which is short of a primary education.

These three groups of causes—high youth unemployment, broken families and low education levels—are silently influencing the different tendencies involved in crime day after day, while forming part of the more general picture of impoverishment in the region. It is impossible, for example, not to link Argentina’s increased crime rates—which a few decades ago were low—with the fact that the poor population has risen from an estimated 5% at the beginning of the 1970s to 41% at the present time and the increase in inequality during the nineties was pronounced.

The punitive way

What can be done about this situation, which constitutes a concrete threat to daily life in the big cities and is profoundly deteriorating the quality of people’s lives? How can we tackle the criminality, which has escalated year after year during the last decade? What are other societies doing? While there is an enormous range of proposals, two strong positions can be differentiated in the public debate in the region.

The first, which we could term "the punitive way," emphasizes the urgent adoption of direct action. It argues for an increased number of police officers, the granting of greater police discretion, modification of the penal codes to reduce the civil guarantees "obstructing" police work and increased spending on public safety. It proposes lowering the age of imputability, thus making children criminally responsible for their actions and subject to imprisonment from an early age. It even goes as far as to propose that parents be held responsible for their children’s crimes. In extreme versions of this thesis, some countries have witnessed what various national and international human rights organizations denounce as the extra-judicial execution of criminals or suspects and even the appearance of organized death squads. It is argued that any offense should be severely punished, sustaining that the way to teach a young delinquent a lesson is through hard punishment.

The preventive way

The other position, which could be termed "the preventive way," argues that the above path is wrong and leads to the opposite of what it seeks to achieve. Although it has some short-term effects, they are always flashy and fleeting and over time criminal activity continues to rise.

Renowned researcher Louis Wacquant vigorously expounded this position, supporting it with extensive empirical evidence, in his recent work, Las cárceles de la miseria, (Jails of Misery). Wacquant, who analyzes the facts, the global debate and studies from leading universities and centers throughout the world, concludes that punishment gives very poor results.

In fact, the prison population quickly increases in those countries that practice this policy. This hypertrophies the state in the area of repression but fails to reduce criminal activity. Not only that, Wacquant stresses, "it is known that in addition to affecting mainly the unemployed, most bereft, precarious and foreign social strata, incarceration is itself a tremendous producer of impoverishment. It is useful to bear in mind that the conditions and the deleterious effects of detention at the present time affect not just prisoners, but also their relatives and neighborhoods."
Wacquant stresses that Latin America is being sold an incorrect vision of reality. For example, most people in the region do not know about the experiences of US cities such as San Diego and Boston, which have actually had the greatest success in seriously reducing crime. These cities opted for a purely preventive approach, involving the churches and the whole community in the fight against crime and developing vigorous support programs for disadvantaged youths. The numerous American cities that have adopted their example have a much lower rate of police officers per inhabitant than those that emphasize the punitive approach.

Wacquant warns that various interrelated developments are involved in the rise of crime. They include the state’s withdrawal from the economy in various countries, the weakening of the social State in such countries, the appearance of a growing mass of excluded people, for reasons linked to the previous two factors, and the appearance of what he terms the "penitentiary State" as an alternative.

Education is cheaper
than repression

There is strong social pressure in Latin America in response to the rise in criminal activity. This creates fertile ground for the appearance of demagogic proposals offering quick fixes. Given the climate of fear and uncertainty, the punitive thesis has a great chance of prospering. It is, however, necessary to have a broader vision that takes global experience seriously into account.

Despite the rapid increase in public and private security spending in the region’s countries and the bending of judicial and procedural guarantees in many cases, the wave of criminal activity has not receded, from which one can deduce that these policies are not reaching the root causes. Some criminal circuits such as drug cartels are organized criminal enterprises requiring a forceful response from society, which is totally within its rights to defend itself from them. An important part of the crimes committed, however, are closely linked to the general picture of social deterioration and the growth of poverty and inequality. Attacking the strategic factors requires considerable investment from the societies involved. It must increase job opportunities for youths, create room for the millions of young people currently outside the job market and educational system, improve their possibilities of accessing cultural and sporting activities, develop systematic family protection policies and strengthen public education.

Nobel economics laureate and former World Bank vice president Joseph Stiglitz has pointed out that cost analyses indicate that it is much more expensive in the United States to arrest, try and imprison young criminals than to have invested in providing them with the possibility of a scholarship to study. An added bonus is that the latter reduces crime levels and the former does not. The figures seem to suggest that the same reasoning is fully valid for Latin America.

This challenge should incite collective action. The State and civil society must join forces in a great concerted community action effort to generate job opportunities and development for the disadvantaged.

Criminalizing poverty:
A major mistake

If the much-needed profound debate on the structural causes underlying the alarming criminal trends is ignored, as is happening in various Central and South American countries, the focus will be merely punitive actions. A path is being taken that, without proposing to, is in fact "criminalizing poverty." This means that the disadvantaged will be increasingly seen as "potential suspects" who should be put behind protective bars, placing basic rights of the democratic system in parenthesis. This is a serious risk.

One of the continent’s indigenous leaders recently explained that native peoples are the poorest of the poor. He stated that 40 million Latin Americans living in extreme poverty, including indigenous people, have the impression that a new crime is on the books, which he described as "possession of a face." They are frequently investigated—even detained—simply because of the suspicion caused by their face and appearance. It would be terrible for the future of the free society with full opportunities to which the peoples of the region aspire if those who are most suffering from the economic and social deterioration are discriminated against and isolated rather than helped and supported.

Latin America is at an historic crossroads with respect to the worrying problem of the rise in crime. Which path will it take? The one that leads to criminalizing poverty or the one that leads to social integration? There is a need to go deeper into this important debate, replace prejudiced slogans and sensationalism with serious facts and focus on the structural causes of the problem, bearing in mind that what is at stake is nothing less than the basic moral quality of our societies.

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