Violence in Latin America: State Capacity and Legitimacy

by Hernán Flom

What do Venezuela and Rosario, Argentina have in common? While it might seem absurd to mention them in the same sentence, they convey, in different forms, Latin America’s ongoing struggle with respect to crime and violence. Despite the progress made in reducing violence throughout the region — at least in terms of its most frequently used indicator, homicide rates — and the advances made, especially by left-wing governments, in promoting equality and inclusion, these cases tell a different story. Venezuela’s situation seems particularly puzzling, given the absence of any known criminal organizations, its improvement in various social indicators, and the state’s renewed social contact with the poorer sector. Despite these positive trends, Venezuela’s homicide rate has increased continuously from 25 per 100,000 in 1999 to, depending on the source, roughly 49 per 100,000 in 2009. Estimates for subsequent years are even higher, although there is no official data.

Scholars still lack a convincing explanation for this pattern. However, rather than attributing it to Chávez’s polarizing influence or a general institutional degradation, perhaps it would be useful to consider the state’s arbitrary, selective, and violent action — especially by the police — and the failure of its institutions of conflict resolution to elicit legitimacy from the popular sectors, leading to spirals of private vengeance within marginalized communities. This is especially true in Caracas, where the homicide rate per capita is above 100 per 100,000. While the Bolivarian state is active in many policy arenas, and is certainly present in poor neighborhoods in terms of the delivery of social goods, this appears not to translate into the capacity to provide security at the most basic level.

On October 30, Hugo Chávez dismissed his defense minister because of alleged links with the Colombian FARC. A similar event occurred in Rosario, the third largest city in Argentina, as the provincial chief of police was discharged, and then arrested, for acting as a facilitator to local drug organizations. Rosario, the capital city of the province of Santa Fé, has been governed by the Socialist Party since 2007 after 24 years of consecutive Peronist rule, and is now recognized as the most violent city in Argentina, which is, overall, among the countries with lowest homicide rates in Latin America. This increase has been attributed to the growing presence of drug organizations and their hit men vying for territorial control, often with the complicity of the police. Though in a less extreme way than Venezuela or Mexico, where the ascendance of Chávez and the collapse of the PRI hegemony, respectively, have triggered massive political and institutional shifts that negatively affected the state’s capacity to control crime, this case might be an example of the negative consequences surrounding major political transitions — either between party systems, regime types, or dominant parties.

The case of Rosario also shows that it is not merely the presence of organized criminal actors that lies behind drug-related killings. More often, violence results from competition over territory among gangs or between gangs and the police. Violence in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, home to the infamous Red Command and other drug gangs, also fluctuates broadly according to this logic.

Rosario and Venezuela also point to two issues that are mostly neglected when implementing security policies: the transnational nature of most organized crime and the fact that, while most of the state’s action is directed against the poorer sectors, profits from organized crime require laundering, which results in gains for wealthier and more powerful sectors that remain untouched by law enforcement.

Latin American states are, despite some governments’ genuine efforts, still unable to effectively control crime. More gravely, a significant proportion of state institutions remain “criminalized,” both in terms of accepting bribes to ignore criminal activity and in using violent tactics, outside the domain of the rule of law, to fight crime. While police violence is not necessarily criticized by most sectors of the population — indeed, it is often praised — it results in the perpetuation of violence and the negative social outcomes that accompany it, while further weakening the legitimacy of the rule of law, the notion of citizenship, and the capacity of the state to perform its basic functions.

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