Breaking Latin America’s migration driver

The region needs fresh attempts at curbing gang violence, as Brazil’s new leader is learning. The promise, as he says, is that ‘good will beat evil.’

Military police officers check suspects in the streets of Fortaleza, Ceará, Brazil, Jan. 9.

Even if President Trump gets his border wall, it will not stop one big driver of migration. Gang violence in Latin America continues to force thousands of people to flee each year. Curbing such criminal groups remains central to the region’s stability. Many strategies have been tried, especially in Central America. Now a new president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, has been quickly initiated into this ongoing search for solutions.

Soon after taking office Jan. 1, Mr. Bolsonaro was confronted with mass violence by criminal organizations in the northeast state of Ceará. Police stations, banks, and other buildings were burned. The attacks began after the local governor proposed new rules in prisons, such as cellphone blockers, that would have reduced the dominance of gangs. As has been the case in many Brazilian cities, gang leaders wanted to show who was really in charge.

The federal response was led by none other than a popular hero, former judge Sérgio Moro. He has served as the nation’s leading anti-corruption crusader, putting dozens of politicians behind bars, including a popular ex-president. Now, as Bolsonaro’s minister for justice and security, he sent 400 police troops into Ceará to help control the violence.

But Mr. Moro knows it will take more than guns matching guns to break up Brazil’s gangs, especially the most powerful one, The First Capital Command. He plans to present reform legislation that he hopes will create a “virtuous circle” of crime reduction, mainly through preventative measures.

Many of the techniques he proposes come from his fight against high-level corruption, such as data collection, plea deals, and isolating offenders. The key is break a gang’s code of loyalty, which often requires enticing young gang members with other opportunities and a caring community outside of gang life. Crime experts call this “focused deterrence.”

Just as Moro has changed Brazil’s corrupt political culture, he wants to change the culture that leads young men to join gangs. Or, as Bolsonaro said after an armed gang killed a police officer in Rio de Janeiro last week, the government “must, by law, give guarantees that good will beat evil.”

Gangs tend to thrive where the state is largely absent in providing basic services. That includes prisons where gangs are often in charge and can gain recruits. Brazil has one of the world’s largest prison populations and one of the  highest murder rates. If the new government can come up with solutions against organized crime based on integrity and humility, it might help other countries in Latin America.

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