• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
The lame duck Honduran Congress was busy this week.
Among their "accomplishments" was the elimination of the Comision de la Reforma de Seguridad Publica, the group responsible for developing the current procedures for cleaning up the police.
The Cominision de la Reforma de Seguridad Publica was created on Jan. 31 2012, given the responsibility to design, plan, and certify a process totally reforming the police, the Public Prosecutor's office, and the Judicial branch. They were charged with reorganizing said governmental entities and proposing any needed legislation to back up the changes.
While they worked out procedures to detect and clear out some kinds of corruption in the police and Public Prosecutor's office, and drafted laws to back up their model of reforms to the public security apparatus in Honduras, the Lobo Sosa government never acted on those changes, effectively pocket vetoing them.
Juan Orlando Hernández, the incoming president, has a completely different idea of how the reforms should go, emphasizing building up military police rather than employing the community policing (based on a Japanese model) that the CSRP had proposed.
The lame duck Congress, ever so much in President-elect Hernández's pocket, lamented that the CSRP "never delivered the expected results" and so they voted the CSRP out of existence.
Hundreds of people were forced from their ramshackle homes in the heart of São Paulo this month, as legions of garbage men dismantled informal shelters scrap by scrap. The city government decided to break up the shantytown just blocks from the municipal theater where the symphony plays. Referred to commonly as Cracolandia, or Crack Land, it takes up several downtown streets in this city of 11 million. Some 400 displaced squatters will be funneled into motel rooms and a state-run treatment program called Operation Open Arms.
But the timing of the initiative – and the nine-month duration of the subsidy and treatment regimen – has some critics accusing São Paulo officials of focusing more on beautifying the streets before the June kick-off of the World Cup than providing this population with long-term solutions for rehabilitation, job training, and housing.
“By taking down the structures, you’re not solving the problem,” says Marcela Pontes, a young physician working at an area clinic, and charged with tracking down many of her patients in the shantytown. Brazil's public health system recruits community health teams to follow up on the most at-risk patients. HIV and tuberculosis is rampant in this population, so offering treatment is a priority. Plenty fall through the system, though.
The shantytown is made up of close to 2,000 people and is rife with the sale and use of crack cocaine. Because the city plan only targets about 400 residents, many say the shantytowns will inevitably grow back, as it has in previous years. The settlement has long been viewed as a public health risk and a symbol of poverty here in the city center.
“They are really here because of poverty, not crack addiction,” says Flavio Falcone, a doctor working in the shantytown today (and dressed up like a clown – a tactic he says helps him build relationships here, á la Patch Adams). “They were born in the slums, arrested, left jail, and came here,” Dr. Falcone says of many of his clients who reside here. And the “crack problem” may not decrease with the clearance of this space. Plenty of people don’t live in the razed shacks, but instead travel from all over the city seeking out drugs.
Falcone works a couple blocks from the settlement in a publicly-run health clinic. There, walk-ins can receive treatment for HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, or pneumonia and tuberculosis. Brazil’s public health care system is universal and free, and most community clinics employ physicians, psychiatrists, dentists, and psychologists as well as social workers. The quality of the clinics were a point of criticism, however, during last summer's large-scale protests across Brazil.
Many academics point to the successes of harm reduction strategies like the city's here for combating crack cocaine and the associated diseases in marginalized populations. But in the end, residents here are a socially excluded population, says Dartiu Xavier da Silveira, a professor of psychiatry at São Paulo's Federal University. They likely won't take to treatment the way academic papers project they will.
“The mayor proposes things people like to hear, not things that are really effective,” Mr. da Silveira says. Still, he believes harm reduction strategies can wean addicts off of crack if long-term treatment programs are implemented.
By 9am last Wednesday, people were filling bags with the few belongings they have: stained blankets, foam mattresses, a broken television set, a stuffed animal. Some piled suitcases into shopping carts, while others loaded up wooden rickshaws. Up the street from the four-block squatter community, a fleet of garbage trucks were loaded with the scraps of plywood and plastic sheeting the squatters’ shacks were built with.
With a wide hose and pump, cleanup crews slurped away backed up sewage, with the stench made stronger by the hot mid-morning sun. Helicopters flew overhead, and a gold-plated haloed Jesus watched over the occupation from a church steeple, a shiny reminder of redemption.
The city’s health ministry gave the community – which has existed in some capacity for more than two decades – one week’s notice that homes there would be razed. This wasn't the first attempt at clearing this community, but the operation of Jan. 15 was notably more peaceful that previous operations.
Some tenants were more resigned about the forced mobilization than others. Helio Alves Prado has lived in the shantytown for the past two months, though he's been in downtown São Paulo, using drugs, for four years. He moved his belongings quietly, but others weren't as subdued. Milerson Smith, a South African who has been in Brazil for eight years, complained boisterously in English that the removal of the shacks was discrimination and that she and other African immigrants weren't guaranteed spots in the motels.
The city-sponsored resettlement plan will provide 400 squatters three meals, $6 a day for community service and lodging in nearby motels in exchange for going to treatment.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.
When you think about social conflict in Brazil, you probably don't think of a mall. But in recent months, the mall has become the epicenter of a different kind of protest in and around Brazil's largest city, a protest that has fractured along class lines and has divided Brazilians.
What are the rolezinhos?
The so-called "rolezinhos no shopping" began in December in São Paulo. These are mass mall gatherings organized on Facebook, made up of young people, largely working class from the city outskirts. Hundreds, and even thousands of teens show up for these events. They're not explicitly political in nature; they're meant to be social, as well as for flirting and meeting members of the opposite sex.
The first major rolezinho took place Dec. 8 at Shopping Metrô Itaquera, allegedly drawing 6,000 teens and leading to rumors of theft and mass muggings. The mall administrators deny there was a wave of robberies, but three people were arrested for stealing. On Dec. 14, another rolezinho in Guarulhos drew around 2,500 teens, causing panic. Even though there were no reports of robberies, the police took 22 youth into custody reportedly for being "about to start" a mass robbery. Rio-based writer J.P. Cuenca joked on Twitter that police in Brazil are so efficient that "Minority Report" isn't science fiction there. The third rolezinho that month took place on Dec. 22, right before Christmas, at Shopping Interlagos. Ten military police teams were summoned, and despite no reports of robbery, four youth were taken into custody. [See G1's helpful timeline of the events.]
This month, a rolezinho at Shopping Tucuruvi on Jan. 4 caused the mall to shut down. On Jan. 11, Shopping Metrô Itaquera had another rolezinho. But this time, police responded with force, using tear gas and rubber bullets, and cops were caught on video beating teens with nightsticks. Several robberies were reported.
Meanwhile, the same weekend, at least six malls in São Paulo got court orders to block the rolezinhos, stationing police and security outside to bar unaccompanied minors from entering. Átila Roque, the head of Amnesty International in Brazil, said the actions of police and mall administrators were discriminatory and racist. [Read the full Q&A here.] But São Paulo state's secretary of public security has vowed to employ police for upcoming rolezinhos planned this month. [See a map of past and upcoming rolezinhos in São Paulo.]
Numerous solidarity rolezinhos are planned in Rio this week, with nearly 8,000 RSVPed for a rolezinho at Rio's upscale Shopping Leblon. Rio authorities are being cautious and say they don't anticipate sending police, but that remains to be seen.
Why are the rolezinhos controversial?
On one hand, some are calling the response to the rolezinhos as "apartheid," and see the rolezinhos as a protest against oppression and a way to make white, upper-class Brazilians uncomfortable in a normally safe space. One of the organizers of the Guarulhos protest, Jefferson Luís, told G1: "It's not a protest, it's a response to oppression. It doesn't work to just stay shut up at home." São Paulo sociologist Marília Moschkovich wrote on her blog that the rolezinhos are a "weapon in the fight for a truly equal society." They're also intimately related to the June protests, she says, as youth organize and occupy space. With expensive and shoddy public transportation – an issue that sparked those protests – youth have limited access to public space, as well as cultural and leisure activities.
On the other hand, some see the teens as vandals who are invading private property. In this camp, rolezinho participants are frequently associated with funk, a genre of music from favelas. One columnist from conservative magazine VEJA went as far as to call rolezinho participants "barbarians incapable of recognizing their own inferiority, who are deathly jealous of civilization." Wow.
And in a widely circulated blog post, journalist Leandro Beguoci explains, based on personal experience growing up in the poor outskirts of São Paulo, that both the left and the right are incorrect in their hysterical responses to the rolezinhos. Mr. Beguoci says that both end up dehumanizing the real protagonists, and that they miss the point. The rise of a new middle class with access to more expensive consumer goods means these teens have already been consistently frequenting malls; they're not "occupying" them. And they're promoting the use of name brands, not criticizing consumerism, he says. Despite the fears of mall administrators who got the court orders this weekend, the teens aren't going to the city's most expensive malls where they would likely feel out of place. Beguoci defends the argument that the gatherings are social rather than political in nature, and are amplified because of the reach of social media.
What are the factors at play with the rolezinho?
Race: This is the most obvious and most uncomfortable issue at hand. The majority of those involved in the rolezinhos are teens of color, and large groups of black youth inevitably come under scrutiny, whether in Brazil or countries like the United States, for that matter.
But for some Brazilians in the upper class, it's still a new concept that black Brazilians have become consumers, the kind of people who go to malls and airports and aren't just janitors and maids. In one incident in 2009, for example, a black man was nearly beaten to death in the suburbs from São Paulo for driving an SUV; security guards at a Carrefour thought he was stealing it. Unfortunately, some see Brazilians of color as out of place in places like malls--places they used to rarely or never frequent before the growth of the new middle class.
Social class tensions: Those who participate in rolezinhos are largely from the lower or working classes, and the malls that got court orders include some of the fanciest in the city. But a lot has to do with ongoing tensions with the new middle class, a new group of consumers that the traditional middle class and upper class still haven't gotten used to.
São Paulo-based journalist Juliana Cunha told me her perspective. "It's a fruit of the Lula years. This is a section of the population that became consumers, but not citizens, as Vladimir Safatle once said," Ms. Cunha explained. "I think that the people who are consumers (before they weren't even that) discovered that they don't have the same rights as other consumers and that consumption won't change their situation. That's why this mall invasion is emblematic, and that's also why there's this counter-movement by the middle class that seeks 'simplicity' and doesn't want name brands anymore. Now it's cool to have a Brazilian-sounding name, to eat food made by Alex Atala who's from the North, to travel to the country's interior. Doing all of this to differentiate themselves from the poor who can now buy R$1,000 sneakers and fly to Miami."
In an interview with El País, anthropologist Alexandre Barbosa Pereira Pereira gives a similar view. "Is it that the middle class thinks these youth are 'stealing' their exclusive right to consume?" he asks. He goes on to explain why the rolezinhos are making the middle class uncomfortable. "The discomfort in seeing poor people occupy a place they shouldn't be, like seeing consumers buy certain products that should be more expensive...they can be funkeiros, poor people, or mixed race from the city outskirts, but they can also be maids, delivery boys, taggers," he says. "The rolezinhos aren't protests against malls or consumption, but are affirmations of: 'We want to be in this world of consumerism, in the temples of consumption.'"
Public space: It's important to note that the rolezinhos began in São Paulo, and not a coastal city. Time will tell if real (and not "protest") rolezinhos take off in Rio, but my personal theory is that because Rio has vitally important public space – the beach – there's an outlet for teens who want to hang out in groups. Meanwhile, São Paulo and its suburbs are several hours away from the beach.
But one thing that paulistas and cariocas from working-class neighborhoods do have in common is that in their neighborhoods, public spaces are often small or non-existent. Desirable public spaces, like São Paulo's Ibirapuera Park, for example, are far away and require long, expensive trips on public transportation.
"I think it has to do with the right to the city," Rio-based writer Julia Michaels told me. "[It's the] feeling one can be anyone, go anywhere."
Security: Despite a homicide rate that's been falling over the past decade, São Paulo has an increasing crime problem, especially with robberies and muggings. So malls provide a safe haven and a protected public space for those who worry about carjackings or even mass muggings in restaurants. Malls are like bunkers, Beguoci wrote in his post; upscale malls tend to have few pedestrian entrances, or even none. Because of the added security bonus, shopping centers are sacred, and this is true across the country. Regardless of whether or not crimes actually happen during the rolezinhos, these events have inspired fear of arrastões, or mass muggings, in a place that is traditionally seen as safe and crime-free.
Social Media: Technological advances and digital inclusion are also a major factor behind the rolezinhos. With over 80 million Brazilians online in a country that's crazy for social media, Facebook has become an important platform to connect youth. The rise of internet use in Brazil has overlapped with the expansion of the new middle class, meaning that poor and working-class youth are often the first in their families to get online. And with a booming smartphone market, it's even easier for young people to connect on the go and in real time: over half of Brazilian internet users get online on their phones. That includes the new middle class: the C class accounts for about 35 percent of smartphone users. Smartphones are a major status symbol, and as such are a coveted item among young people.
A small, nagging problem in Mexico developed into a full-blown security test for the national government this week after the military confronted armed vigilantes who had taken on organized crime in Michoacán State, ending in a deadly encounter Tuesday.
Vigilante groups have been popping up in communities across Michoacán, Guerrero, and Veracruz states over the past year, with Mexican newspaper Reforma reporting the presence of self defense groups in 13 states as of last March. Though the federal government has condemned the impromptu militias, it has done little to curb their spread.
Many vigilante groups claim local police have failed to protect their largely rural communities from drug cartel activity – violence, extortion, and a general sense of lawlessness – or in some cases are in cahoots with the criminals themselves. The groups also say the federal government's failures have left them little choice but to take up arms in self defense.
The Los Angeles Times reports that though the national government briefly stopped a handful of vigilante groups in Guerrero over the summer, “the government eventually decided to let them continue patrolling their communities. Members often ride in the beds of pickup trucks, bearing weapons as varied as antique rifles and AK-47s.” The informal defense groups often wear masks and enact justice on their own terms.
In one case last year, the governor of Guerrero appealed to the federal authorities to legitimize the armed community members “in the tradition of the state’s autonomous community police forces,” reports The Christian Science Monitor.
A wave of violence in the early 1990s prompted locals to take up arms in the name of self-defense; a network of largely indigenous communities created the Regional Coordinator of Community Authorities (CRAC) in Guerrero, which still exists, albeit in a legal gray area as a system parallel to that of federal forces.
Under that network, 108 communities in Guerrero police themselves and impart justice locally. Volunteers don uniforms, carry credentials, and have received training and education in their roles – although there are concerns about fair trials and professionalism.
Interior Minister Miguel Angel Osorio Chong urged armed groups to put down their weapons and return home this week, emphasizing that their actions were illegal. Late Monday night – after days of fighting between vigilantes and members of the Knights Templar cartel in the western state of Michoacán – townspeople in Antunéz came out to meet soldiers they were told were there to disarm them, according to The Associated Press. The encounter turned violent, with reports of government forces shooting into an unarmed crowd early Tuesday morning. The government has confirmed one death, while the informal defense group reports that four people were killed by the military.
The New York Times reports that vigilante group spokesmen in Michoacán said they wouldn’t disarm until the government captures top leaders of the Knights Templar, a drug cartel with a powerful foothold in part of the state.
“The only thing we are doing is defending our family, defending our villages,” Estanislao Beltrán, a spokesman for the self-defense groups, told a radio interviewer on Tuesday. “We are working people, we are farmers. The government hasn’t been concerned for 11 years over maintaining the security of our people.”
"We don't have confidence in the government," Mr. Beltrán said, according to the AP. "We've asked for help for years and have received the same. The government is compromised by organized crime."
However, there are claims that the vigilante groups themselves have been co-opted by organized crime, perhaps in an effort to gain turf from rival drug gangs. It’s an accusation the self-defense groups deny. Residents from various towns across the state of Michoacán have protested the arrival of vigilantes in their communities, according to a separate AP report.
Mexican news outlets have treated the vigilante groups slightly unfavorably in their coverage, but not overly so, reports our correspondent in Mexico. There are references to preventing the “cockroach effect” of vigilante groups spilling into neighboring states like Colima, for example, but also headlines that take jabs at the government’s inaction, such as “Michoacan: self-defense groups and the laissez-faire [approach],” which notes the scenario unfolding at the moment feels like history repeating itself.
A presidential test?
Security in Michoacán has deteriorated under the administration of President Enrique Peña Nieto, political analyst Alejandro Schtulmann told The Wall Street Journal. Mr. Schtulmann says the president, who recently marked one year in office, has slowed the fight against The Knights Templar.
“The people were fed up and the government was doing nothing,” Schtulmann said. “Many people see [the vigilantes] as legitimate, so when the government now comes and says it’s going to restore order, it’s not well seen.”
The Los Angeles Times reports that President Peña Nieto is walking a precarious party line that dates back to the Institutional Revolutionary Party’s (PRI) seven decades of “quasi-authoritarian” rule in the 20th century.
The government may have felt that the vigilantes were a helpful tool, an affordable means of destabilizing the Knights Templar, which had spread across great swaths of Michoacan and inserted extortion in some of the most minor rural business dealings. Government officials also may have been wary of crushing the vigilantes for public relations reasons, given the echoes of cherished rural uprisings dating to the Mexican Revolution….
"This is their way of accommodating dissent and taming it. This is the old PRI, the old Mexico," [Federico Estevez, a political scientist at the Autonomous Technological Institute of Mexico] said. "Why didn't they go in and disarm them? That's not the way the PRI works."
The Mexican government has landed itself in a “catch-22,” Alejandro Hope, a security analyst at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, told The New York Times. “If soldiers continue to disarm the self-defense groups, the government will be accused of being complicit with the Knights Templar, but if it stops it will be accused of protecting paramilitary groups.”
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog. The views expressed are the author's own.
El Salvador held its first ever presidential debate Sunday night, broadcast live over radio and television in the country as well as streaming over the Internet. The debate, sponsored by the association of Salvadoran broadcast media (ASDER) and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE), was moderated by Mexican journalist Armando Guzmán from Univsion and took place at the Fair and Convention Center (CIFCO) in San Salvador.
The three leading presidential candidates Norman Quijano (ARENA), Salvador Sánchez Cerén (FMLN), and Antonio Saca (Unidad), were joined on the stage by two minor candidates, Óscar Lemus (FPS) and René Rodríguez Hurtado (PSP). The debate had four rounds of questions, touching on the topics of education, citizen security, healthcare, and the economy.
The approaches of the three leading candidates were largely predictable. Current Vice President Cerén stressed the policies of the current FMLN government that are popular, such as school packets, the elimination of fees for hospital visits to public hospitals, and the Ciudad Mujer women's empowerment centers. Mr. Saca stressed his experience as a former president, promised a future of opportunity with jobs, and emphasized continuing popular programs of his presidency as well as [some from] the current government. Mr. Quijano focused on traditional ARENA themes – painting the election as one between liberty and democracy on one hand, and socialist authoritarianism on the other hand. Quijano was the least smiling of any of the candidates and spent time in almost every answer attacking the current FMLN government.
It was a debate where all the candidates made a lot of promises as to what their governments would do. Moderator Guzmán repeatedly asked candidates how they would finance their promises. For the most part the candidates ignored these questions and continued to describe their new programs. Eventually each candidate claimed he would be able to get the economy growing again and that with such economic growth the government could afford its social programs. Quijano asserted that the problem of the national government has not been lack of resources, but the excessive cost of too much bureaucracy.
The candidates had varying answers in the area of citizen security. Cerén started his response by asserting that El Salvador's police force was "a disaster," and he asserted the police needed to be strengthened with better weapons and training. The former guerrilla commander stated that he was ready to put his experience at the head of the battle for citizen security. His opening answer in this area never even mentioned gangs or the gang truce, until Quijano accused the FMLN government of negotiating deals with the gangs. In his rebuttal, Cerén denied that deals had been cut.
Quijano said his administration would attack the cancer of gangs and extortion with all its energy. Ignoring the constitutional provisions created by the 1992 Peace Accords, Quijano proposed to completely militarize policing against the gangs and said that those arrested would be tried in military – not civilian – courts. San Salvador's mayor accused the FMLN administration of creating a sanctuary for gang members.
Saca made no reference to his prior administration when dealing with the crime topic, since crime increased almost every year during his time in office. But his answer was perhaps the most coherent. Saca acknowledged that the problem of gangs and crime was very important and not easy to fix. While Saca claimed that under his presidency the most dangerous criminals would be sent to jail, he indicated that there was also a need to create opportunity for youth not to join the gangs. The solution to the issue could not be simply oppression he said – a position which was interesting to hear coming from the author of the Super Mano Dura – Super Firm Hand – policies.
In the end, I doubt that many minds were changed by this debate, but the fact that the debate took place is yet another step forward for Salvadoran democracy.
Fidel Castro’s Cuba is frequently criticized for its limiting of freedom of expression, but it was a modern art exhibit that drew the communist ex-president out in public for the first time in nine months last night.
Former President Castro, walking with the help of a cane, attended the opening of Estudio Romerillo, a nonprofit cultural center dedicated to promoting the arts.
The Granma, the official newspaper of Cuba’s Communist Party, said the octogenarian visited the studio last night, on the 55th anniversary of his entry into Havana leading the Rebel Army.
The gallery contained the works of modern artists Alexis Leyva, known as “Kcho,” and Wifredo Lam. Cubadebate, an official government website, published one photo today in which Castro is seated in a chair, pointing to one of the works of art.
“Lam, you’re indispensible,” Castro told the artist, according to the paper.
It was the first time the ex-president has been sighted in public since April 2013, when he was seen at a school opening in Havana.
Castro led Cuba for 48 years, a period marked by hostile relations with the United States, heavy governmental regulation, and tight controls on the economy, jobs, political rights, and civil liberties. Washington-based Freedom House’s 2013 report gave the country a 6.5 on its freedom rating, which runs on a scale of 1 to 7, with 7 being the worst.
Artists have long been an exception to controls placed on most Cuban citizens, however. They often earn far more than the $20 or so per month paid to workers, while enjoying more freedoms than the average citizen.
His health ailing, Castro stepped down in 2008, turning over duties to his brother, President Raul Castro, who has taken small steps to open up the economy. In recent years, the elder Castro has made few public appearances.
Last month, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro visited Castro and posted photos of the two men examining copies of battlefield maps.
A Venezuelan beauty queen was killed last night in a reminder of the uglier side of Venezuela.
Monica Spear, the 2004 Miss Venezuela and an international Spanish-language soap-opera star, was shot along with her companion Thomas Henry Berry on the road between Valencia and Puerto Cabello.
They were awaiting a tow truck after their car broke down, according to local news reports. Their five-year-old daughter was hurt in the suspected robbery, but is in stable condition.
Many took to social media to lament Spear’s slaying and share condolences. But take away the famous name and the deaths were all too familiar in a country where “express” kidnappings – in which victims are driven around town and forced to drain their bank accounts at gunpoint – are reported weekly and crime rates are notoriously high.
Venezuela has one of the highest murder rates in the world. According to a December report by the Venezuelan Observatory on Violence, an NGO, there were 24,763 murders in Venezuela in 2013, a 14 percent rise in homicides from 2012. UN data from 2010 shows that Venezuela had the fourth highest murder rate in the world behind Honduras, El Salvador, and Jamaica.
Last May, President Nicolás Maduro rolled out a security plan dubbed “Patria Segura,” which included mobilizing the military alongside the national police to fight crime. Juan Cristobal Nagel writes in The Caracas Chronicles, an opposition blog, that the homicide rate this year of about 79 people per 100,000 displayed the failure of the government’s program:
In a normal country, the wave of violence alone would be cause for impeachment – from the President, all the way down to the Supreme Court in charge of handing out “justice.” But these are deaths without guilt – according to chavista talking points nobody is responsible, it’s a worldwide trend, and … let’ talk about faulty poverty statistics instead!
David Smilde and Rebecca Hanson from the Washington Office on Latin America in October looked into the question of what Venezuelans think can be done to reduce crime there. The economy is sputtering, inflation is sky high at 54 percent, and shortages of everything from toilet paper to sugar are rampant. However, the top response (respondents selected three measures from a list of seven, noted in full below*) in a survey implemented by polling firm Datanalisis was “improving family values.”
Family values was the most common first choice for reducing crime with almost 30% naming it. Indeed 67% of respondents mentioned it among their top three. As we mentioned before, pointing to the family effectively privatizes and depoliticizes crime. But it also heavily genders it. In the Venezuelan context “the family” often boils down to single mothers who are portrayed as “not doing their jobs.” Such mothers are often referred to as “alcahuetas,” a label that specifically refers to women who cover up or ignore the bad behavior of their sons.
While over 50% of respondents thought that crime would best be addressed by addressing social and cultural causes, it is notable that over 30% of respondents saw reforms in police, penal and judicial systems as the most important actions that could be taken to fight crime. This compared to only 12.3% that saw military deployment—the Maduro government’s favored strategy—as the most effective way to reduce crime.
More than 70 people have been killed in Venezuela since the New Year, reports NBC.
* Survey choices included: improving the values taught to children by the family; decreasing poverty and social inequality; professionalizing police officers; reforming the judicial and penal systems; a permanent deployment of military in sectors with high rates of crime; improving access to sports and cultural activities; and improving access to public space.
Editor's note: A previous version of this story misstated Mr. Berry's first name.
• InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. The views expressed are the author's own.
An easing of tension among the largest Mexican criminal groups has been counteracted by the growing influx of Central America's most notorious gangs, a development that, if continued, could challenge efforts to improve Mexican security for years to come.
As reported by El Diario, a new report from Mexico’s Justice Department details the growing links between the Central American Maras and the nation’s principal criminal groups. Gangs like Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha perform a range of services for gangs like the Zetas, the Knights Templar, and the Familia Michoacana.
In so doing, the Maras in Mexico operate in coordination with their gang counterparts in Central America. This mirrors the expansion of the larger Mexican groups like the Zetas into the isthmus over the past several years, and illustrates the degree to which organized crime in Latin America is a cross-border phenomenon.
The report indicates that the gangs serve as foot soldiers helping the larger groups control territory. Their presence has been most evident in southern states, among them Chiapas, Guerrero, Colima, Morelos, and Mexico State. The report says that there up to 70 different Mara cells operating in Mexico.
InSight Crime Analysis
The presence of Central American actors in Mexico is not without precedent. The southern border between Chiapas and Guatemala has long had a significant presence of Maras, who participate in the human trafficking trade.
Guatemalan ex-special forces, known as Kaibiles, emerged as allies of the Zetas in the early years of the Calderon administration. The Kaibiles, who participated in the Guatemalan civil war that left hundreds of thousands dead, are often blamed for escalating the level of brutality among the Mexican groups; for instance, the surge of decapitations and public mutilations in Mexico coincided with their incursion.
Groups like the Maras fit with the Mexican groups’ shifting tactics and objectives of recent years. A mass of young and violent Central Americans may not be vital to producing methamphetamine or trafficking cocaine, but they would give Mexican gangs the manpower to control a given territory. This in turn could be used as another revenue source, as local businesses are forced to pay protection fees.
The Mara allies could also work with the Mexicans to move undocumented immigrants across the US border, a realm of growing importance to the organized crime groups. Maras would also give Mexican groups a ready supply of foot soldiers should it find itself in a protracted struggle with rivals, a frequent occurrence in recent years.
Since the reporting is short on details, it is not entirely clear how deep the relationship between the traffickers and the Maras has grown, nor that they will continue working together into the future. It also remains to be seen what impact this relationship has on violence in Mexico, but it is unlikely to be positive.
One reason is that the business activities that the Maras specialize in lend themselves to violence, even more so than drug trafficking. One cannot extort without the threat of violence, and the trafficking of undocumented immigrants in recent years has been characterized by kidnappings and massacres. And insofar as they serve as foot soldiers, the Maras can help perpetuate violent conflicts between Mexican groups.
Furthermore, the arrival of another group of criminal actors, whose interests will invariably collide with other established gangs and who will essentially be trying to carve a slice out of a pie of limited size, inevitably serves as a complicating factor. It remains to be seen if the presence of the Maras is a blip in a soon-to-be-forgotten report or if it is part of a broader trend, but if it is the latter, it is unfortunate news.
The greater role of the Maras is consistent with the super gang theory posited by Southern Pulse. This theory, which was first elaborated in 2012, holds that less organized street gangs will take on a larger role in Mexico, and they will soon be the primary drivers of violence. Evidence supporting this paradigm has emerged across Mexico, including many of its most persistently violent cities, and goes well beyond whatever role the Maras play. Should the report’s findings represent a long-term development, the super gang theory would seem to be significantly closer to reality. It is almost inevitable that this cross pollination of criminal expertise will also lead to a growth in sophistication of the Maras.
• A version of this post ran on the author's blog, Riogringa. The views expressed are the author's own.
While 2013 [was] an incredibly interesting year for Brazil, 2014 promises to be even more fascinating. Beyond the World Cup, which promises to occupy much of the year's headlines, here are some of the big issues to watch.
Transportation fare increases: Governments throughout Brazil backed down on raising bus and subway fares in 2013 after those increases helped spur some of the largest protests seen since redemocratization. Nevertheless, a fare increase could be coming in Rio as early as January.
Inflation and cost of living: In 2013, food prices rose over 9 percent and were the major cause of inflation this year. Overall, inflation this year is estimated at under 6 percent, while some estimates put next year's inflation at a little over 6 percent. São Paulo and Rio in particular continue to see a rising cost of living.
Consumer debt: With more Brazilians gaining access to the banking system and credit, consumer debt has been a growing problem to keep an eye on. Over the past 12 months, the number of Brazilian families in debt has fluctuated between 60 and 65 percent. Around 20 percent of Brazilians are behind on their bills. Over three-quarters of Brazilians in debt point to credit cards as the source of their debt; credit card interest rates in Brazil continue to be sky-high, reaching up to 500 percent a year.
Security: While in the past decade, the overall trend for homicides has been an increase in the Northeast and a drop in the Southeast, crimes like robberies and muggings are rising in cities like Rio and São Paulo. Rio in particular has faced problems with crime this year after a period of seeming improvements.
Pacification in Rio: Though initial results were promising, this year has seen some cracks in Rio's pacification strategy, such as outbreaks of violence in pacified favelas and revelations of police abuses, the most serious being the torture and murder of favela residents. One of the most important things revealed this year are statistics showing disappearances in pacified favelas rising as murders fall. We'll see what happens with this trend next year. Fundamentally, the biggest problem with the strategy is the police force itself, as some police have traditionally been criminals themselves, either working directly with drug traffickers or operating in militias when off-duty. Without a major police reform, the strategy could see similar challenges next year.
Health and education policies: One of the major complaints of protesters [last] year was that the government is investing in the World Cup but not enough in hospitals and schools. In 2013, the government began importing Cuban doctors in a bid to bring medical services to underserved areas, which initially was met with controversy that has petered out a bit. Much more remains to be done though, so [this year] it will be interesting to see how the program goes. There were also big teachers' strikes this year which could potentially happen again in 2014.
Corruption scandals: One of the most important things that happened in 2013 was when a group of defendants in the country's biggest corruption case went to jail. Parts of the trial are going to drag on next year as some defendants get appeals, but a new corruption scandal would feed another one of the protesters' complaints.
Protests: While it seems likely that there will be some demonstrations around the World Cup, it remains to be seen whether there will be a repeat of the 2013 protests. That will depend on all of the factors above.
Elections: Brazil will hold presidential and legislative elections in October, which means that federal policies will potentially be designed to appease voters as President Dilma Rousseff seeks reelection. It may not be a year to experiment with reforms or to raise taxes, but it could be a year of bread and circuses.
Infrastructure: While a lot of focus will be on finishing stadiums in time for the games, it remains to be seen how many transportation infrastructure projects, ranging from new highways to airport renovations, will be completed before June. In addition, it will be important to see which major infrastructure projects are moving in an election year, like the Belo Monte dam or the São Francisco water project.
• InSight Crime researches, analyzes, and investigates organized crime in the Americas. The views expressed are the author's own.
We can already identify some of the trends that are likely to mark the evolution of organized crime in 2014. One is the issue of criminal migration, as organized crime in Mexico and Colombia, under increasing security force pressure, follows the path of least resistance, and sets itself up in other countries.
As we have seen with the collateral damage of nations that act as drug transshipment points, the trends of increasing violence, the growth of local organized crime groups, and surges in domestic consumption of drugs are likely to follow, as transnational crime, be it Colombian or Mexican, establishes a presence in these foreign nations. The Mexicans already have outposts throughout the Northern Triangle countries, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras, and continue to push down into Central America. Colombian organized crime syndicates have been seen in Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, and as far afield as Spain.
One of the major changes in drug trafficking has been the growth in domestic markets within Latin America, most particularly Brazil and Argentina, but with Mexico, Colombia, and even Chile registering growth in criminal earnings from the local distribution of drugs. While Colombian cocaine production makes up 80 percent of the US market, production in both Peru and Bolivia is feeding the domestic markets of Brazil and Argentina, with a percentage of cocaine also heading towards the lucrative European market. These changing markets are giving birth to different types of organized crime. While Colombians still dominate the drug trade in South America, there is evidence of sophisticated organized crime syndicates developing in other countries.
(The following article is part of InSight Crime's Game Changers 2013: click to download pdf)
The El Salvador gang truce stumbles on, but few believe it will survive, let alone turn into a more meaningful peace process. Negotiations with the FARC in Colombia continue, and will be the top issue in presidential and congressional elections. It is likely that the smaller rebel group of the National Liberation Army (ELN) will also be granted a seat at peace talks. The rhythm and success of these talks will be reflected in the violence of the Colombian civil conflict as both sides seek to gain victories on the battlefield that they can translate into bargaining chips at the negotiating table.
Honduras will see a new president take office amid increasing chaos and the strengthening of organized crime. Neighboring El Salvador has its own presidential elections that will doubtless impact the gang truce and violence in this tiny Central American nation. The regional superpower, Brazil, will be hosting the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and the eyes of the world will turn towards this massive nation. While the pacification programs in the notorious favelas of Rio continue, the prison-based organized crime syndicates like the First Capital Command (PCC) grow in strength. The notoriously violent Brazilian police force will do all it can to isolate the games from the criminals.
Venezuela lurches from crisis to crisis, with President Nicolás Maduro's unsteady hand on the tiller. The corruption in the Chavista regime continues to grow, and elements of the military deepen their involvement in drug trafficking, even as express kidnappings in Caracas and the murder rate are at epidemic levels.
Paraguay, often overlooked, is South America's premier producer of marijuana. It is also home to South America's newest rebel group. Peru, now the world's principal producer of cocaine, must also be closely monitored. It's rebel group, the Shining Path, under pressure from the security forces, has deepened its involvement in the drug trade. Bolivia, another coca producer and important cocaine transshipment nation, has enviably low levels of crime. However, there are clear indications that transnational criminal syndicates have been establishing a presence in the city, and province, of Santa Cruz.
There is overwhelming evidence that with attention focused on Central America, the Caribbean is again becoming important as a drug smuggling route. The chaos in Haiti makes this nation a favorite stopover point for cocaine shipments, but few of the islands have the capacity to take on sophisticated transnational organized crime.
As always, organized crime remains the most adaptable of beasts, looking for any opportunity to turn a profit. It is likely that in 2014 it will look for opportunities in a more diverse range of locations.
– Steven Dudley and Jeremy McDermott are directors at InSight Crime, which provides research, analysis, and investigation of the criminal world throughout the region.