All across Latin America, leaders are targeting the reduction of organized crime as a key objective for their terms in power. But how important are state-level policies versus what’s being done at the local level?
National leaders are the ones getting and taking credit in the headlines. At just 38-years-old, El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, is Latin America’s youngest political leader. His popularity has received a boost from the reduction in the country’s crime rate, which reached a historic low in January, the lowest level since the end of the country’s 12-year civil war in 1992. In Mexico, Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador won his election by promising to implement a new strategy of “hugs not drugs,” to combat growing crime and violence in the country. In Brazil, President Jair Bolsanoro claims to have successfully combatted crime, but scrutinizing the data there reveals a far more nuanced picture.
Despite national governments’ attempts to take the credit for declining crime rates, recent field research and analysis in Central and Latin America points toward an important policy approach in combatting organized criminal groups: To reduce crime, it is critical to boost local government’s resources in high-risk crime areas. Crime in these countries is very context-specific and requires nuanced and flexible policies able to more adequately address the roots of the issue, whether this is a lack of social and economic development or a reduction in murders because one cartel has asserted hegemony in its area of operations.
The research took place during several different trips to Central America, which included time in Mexico and El-Salvador conducting informal interviews with a number of security experts, members of civil society, journalists and informed analysts about the region. This research was supplemented by our local media and open-source research.
One important caveat is that in each of the three countries, there are areas where police and government officials do not go, and therefore there is no data on what is happening there, which obscures the use of official government statistics.
Bukele, the country’s popular president, has helped boost his approval ratings by linking his policies to a sharp drop in the homicide levels, a precipitous decline of 60 percent in his first seven months in office from July 2019. This, the president claims, represents the equivalent of saving a thousand lives.
The president points to his much-vaunted Territorial Control Plan (Plan Control Territorial), as the driver behind these changes. This plan includes the use of highly trained troops, (Metropolitan Agents Corps), along with the use of helicopters and drones. The Metropolitan Agents Corps are notorious for the balaclavas that cover their faces, which is a way to ensure that the gangs are unable to recognize them and enact subsequent retribution.
There is little doubt that the country’s drop in murders is impressive. However, sources consulted during fieldwork in San Salvador point toward a more nuanced perspective. One senior contact at a local university, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the security environment, highlighted that while homicides have gone down, the number of disappearances, as well as the overall dollar amount obtained through extortion, remains high, indicating that criminal groups remain active. Replicating other gangs across the region, they have reduced the number of murders to avoid confrontations with the security forces.
Meanwhile, rumors have spread throughout El Salvador that the government has agreed to pay off the region’s two main criminal gangs, MS-13 and Barrio-18, to further bring down the homicide rates. For instance, Jeanette Aguilar, a long-term observer of El Salvadorian criminal gangs, told InSight Crime that the decline in murder rates was likely related to a withdrawal of both security forces and gangs in contested areas and that some of her police sources have pointed toward an “agreement between security forces and gangs.”
The reality based on multiple interviews in the country with a range of experts, journalists, former government officials is that there has been little evidence to suggest a successful reduction in the capabilities of the country’s two largest criminal groups: MS 13 and Barro 18. Local businesses in areas controlled by gangs continue to pay exorbitant extortion payments or face retribution. And for those born into gang-controlled areas, there is little opportunity outside of joining the gangs. Indeed, the overwhelming presence of gangs in parts of San Salvador, the country’s capital, has meant that, in these locations, members and sympathizers of criminal gangs, particularly from MS-13, have also taken up positions in services such as teachers, where they can support the gangs’ interests
Discussions with large humanitarian organizations that have operated in San Salvador for several years suggest that there remain large areas that are controlled by criminal gangs and where the government has no access. These areas rely on NGOs to provide services such as healthcare and education. There are also challenges to mobility in this city, because moving between locations that are controlled by different criminal gangs remains risky.
Analysts point to the similarities between the homicide rates of today and when the government admitted to agreeing a truce the gangs in 2012. It is clear that rather than a reduction in the strength of the cartels, there has instead been a shift in tactics, which are increasingly focused on the extortion of businesses versus murder.
Indeed, while it is still too early to reach a definitive conclusion, there are hopes that local initiatives that help make families self-sufficient and encourage their empowerment and access to opportunities, which in turn will reduce crime rates in areas where people perceive their only options to be with the gangs.
President Lopez won office based on what he described as a transformational approach to politics across Mexico, including efforts to counter organized crime. His “hugs not bullets” strategy was focused on addressing the root causes behind individuals turning to criminal gangs, along with a structural change to the country’s penal system, which included a proposal to provide amnesty to some cartels, however, it appears he has now walked back on this pledge. The success of his strategy will take time to evaluate but because of the power of a number of cartels and criminal gangs across the country, a reduction in the violence is unlikely to occur simply through the adoption of his tactics alone.
In 2019, the country’s murder rate reached its highest level ever, at approximately 95 murders per day. Murders in Mexico are largely based on inter-cartel violence. For instance, in Tijuana, which is among the most dangerous cities in the world, cartels battle for control of drug distribution nodes and trafficking routes across the country.
One of the primary drivers of homicides over the past year was the battle between cartels for control of the trafficking routes for fentanyl. Earlier this year, Ismael Camberos Hernandez, secretary of public security in the state of Zacatecas, told a local newspaper that as much as 90 percent of the deaths in the state, which were triggered by the arrival of Sinaloa Cartel, could be linked to control of the fentanyl route, which connects the Pacific coast with the United States.
Whenever organized crime rates change, cartel control is often one of the key issues at play. Vanda Felbab-Brown of Brookings Institution coined the phrase “narco-peace,” to capture the idea of what happens when one cartel establishes hegemony and is not challenged by other cartels in the area which results in murder rates declining.
Beyond the hegemonic power of cartel, a more nuanced local effort is also important when designing policies to combat criminality. When there has been an improvement in reducing crime, it is often connected to efforts by the local government, including enterprising mayors and other local politicians, to concentrate on building social programs and tackling economic shortcomings such as unemployment.
For instance, Mexico City has over the years faced a significant increase in criminal activity. But those crimes are most often occurring in specific neighborhoods. According to a study by Carlos Vilalta and Robert Muggah on violence in Mexico City, just 10 municipalities in the city are responsible account for over one quarter of crimes. Their research points to two likely theories in these higher crime locations: “social disorganization” and deteriorated social and government institutions. And local efforts to improve the underlying root causes can result in a decrease in crime.
Brazil has long struggled to control gang and criminal violence in the country, with its infamous favelas and shantytowns veritable no-go zones for police and law enforcement. Gangs control territory, mediate disputes, and provide an alternative form of governance in areas outside the writ of state control. Some gang members continue to run their criminal enterprises from prison, operating with impunity.
Brazil’s murder rate declined by 13 percent between 2017 and 2018. The country’s populist President Jair Bolsonaro, who came to power claiming that he would let criminals “die in the street like cockroaches” and has been quick to take credit for the drop in murders, praised his security forces while highlighting the increase in drug seizures and keeping senior criminal figures in high-security prisons. The deployment of more military troops and security forces has contributed, in part, but this effect could be fleeting once forces are redeployed elsewhere.
Yet, there are several other factors that have contributed to the reduction in crime and are, in fact, more directly responsible for any success, however ephemeral that may be.
This includes the collapse of a truce in 2016 between two gangs, First Capital Command (PCC) and the Red Command, which led to a surge in gang violence. By 2018, the PCC had consolidated control over trafficking routes and hubs, contributing to the decrease in violence.
Under the tenure of former President Michael Temer, the Ministry of Public Security unveiled a deliberate strategy to share intelligence between federal and state authorities and were complemented by a renewed focus for central governments to take back control of prisons from criminals and gang leaders.
State governments have been refining their approach to countering organized crime, moving to focus more on intelligence-led and data-driven strategies that have begun to bear fruit. Through trial and error, the states have experimented with a range of crime prevention measures.
Another issue which might become increasingly important is the use by the mayor of Sao Paulo of cutting-edge technology, which includes military drones that were pioneered in Israel, along with facial recognition and crime prediction methodologies, which use artificial intelligence (AI).
Our research highlights several initial important themes for improving efforts to combat organized criminal groups in Latin America.
National level policies, while attracting significant media attention and helping to boost national leaders’ popularity, are often not the most important component of strategies to combat organized criminal gangs.
Instead local governments, including cities, should be empowered to act in ways which are specific to their context and follow strategies that work based on the threat specific threat being faced.
Finally, the reduction in country murder rates is not necessarily a sign of overall progress in combating organized criminal groups, but rather a representation that they have become hegemonic in their area of control and are not challenged by other criminal gangs.
Image: A Salvadoran army soldier patrols in a neighborhood dominated by the Mara Salvatrucha gang in San Salvador, during an operation to capture some of the gang members on January 19, 2019. Photo by MARVIN RECINOS/AFP via Getty Images