Do more troops mean less crime in Latin America?

Honduras is the latest Latin American country to deploy soldiers to fight organized crime. But evidence suggests that this does little in the long term, and may even make things worse.

By , Guest blogger

From Mexico to Brazil, sending the army to areas overrun by organized crime has become the default government response. However, this often does little to alter the criminal landscape in the long term, and may even make the situation worse.

The Honduran government is the latest to employ this measure, sending hundreds of troops to the northern province of Colon, where clashes over land have left at least 11 people dead. Scattered reports have linked the killings to criminal organizations who own vast African Palm plantations.

On Friday, the Guatemalan government decided to impose a "state of alarm" in the embattled northern state of Peten. This replaced the "state of siege" declared in May, when suspected Zetas gang members massacred 27 farmhands at a rival's ranch.

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The state of alarm keeps in place the 1,000 extra troops sent in May. These troops are divided between the eastern and western halves of the state, which altogether cover one-third of the entire country.

When InSight Crime visited Peten in July, military officials said they had arrested 36 suspects, seized dozens of weapons, and cut the number of drug flights from 35 per month to two.

Explaining why it was continuing the emergency measures, the government said the homicide rate had dropped from 47 per 100,000 to 41 per 100,000 since the extra troops arrived. (See President Alvaro Colom's justification in video here.)

The army's presence, however, has not stopped the mayhem in the province. Earlier in August, gunmen killed five people in a bar in the same municipality where the 27 farmhands were massacred.

What's more, it's clear that Guatemala's government is scrambling. With just over 17,000 troops (and 20,000 police) to cover the entire country, it can only hope to contain – not stop – the massive flow of drugs through its borders which some say comes to 400 tons of cocaine per year.

To be sure, the heart of the problem is an issue of long-term strategy. The government does not appear to have any multi-year plan. It simply reacts to events rather than trying to get ahead of the criminals.

In addition, deploying army troops who are not trained to tackle law and order issues can lead to abuses and foster further distrust of the government. As a recent report from Al Jazeera illustrates, some wonder whether the use of forces with long histories of abuse, such as the feared Kaibils in Guatemala, is really the best solution to this situation.

However, none of these questions has impeded other governments from employing this stop-gap measure. In some places, the move has been politically popular. The state of siege Guatemala's government imposed in the neighboring province of Alta Verapaz, for example, was supported in that region.

As reported by InSight Crime via a local partner, most residents conceded that the measure would not do much to change the long-term trends, but they said it forced the criminals to stand aside, at least for a while, giving the population a chance to catch their breath.

But in some cases, the troops may be making the situation worse. El Salvador used army soldiers to stem the use of cellular phones inside its jails to coordinate extortion and kidnapping schemes. But police intelligence in El Salvador told InSight Crime that it caught several soldiers selling phones to the gang members suspected of operating the criminal enterprises.

In Mexico, there is a roaring debate about whether the joint army-police operations, which include 45,000 soldiers in various of the country's states, make for more violence rather than less. One academic argued in Nexos magazine (see translation by InSight Crime here) that if the army had not been deployed, Mexico could have seen more than 7,000 fewer homicides than the nearly 45,000 it has suffered since President Felipe Calderon took office in December 2006.

Not surprisingly, such claims have met with criticism from government circles, who argue those homicide numbers reflect chaos and desperation on the part of the cartels as a direct result of the government's strong intervention.

What's more, troops, especially special forces from the Mexican Navy, have been particularly useful in specific circumstances. Nonetheless, the army's increased presence will undoubtedly be at the center of the 2012 presidential elections, which are already heating up.

It's perhaps in Brazil that the government's targeted use of army troops in specific areas has had the best results. Over the last year, the government has deployed troops and tanks in poor neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro as part of its "pacification" program.

These have proven so popular that one neighborhood even paid homage to the police during this year's carnival. However, this was part of a larger strategy of placing permanent, community-based police programs in the area, not a short term measure.

A similar process, albeit focused on rural regions, occurred in Colombia over the last decade. After the army swept through areas largely abandoned by the state and controlled by leftist rebels or criminal groups, it left local police forces in its place. The challenge Colombia faces now is consolidating these gains with meaningful economic, health, and education programs.

In the end, army troops can be useful in improving security, especially when they fit into larger strategies that incorporate economic and social programs. But using army troops in a reactive way to fill a gaping hole in a security policy should not be confused with integrating them into a winning formula.

--- Steven Dudley is a writer for Insight – Organized Crime in the Americas, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region. Find all of his research here.

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