Perspective: Latin America’s crime surge is fueled by surging cocaine production
In a region already renowned as among the most violent in the world, many Latin American and Caribbean countries are in the grip of a worsening crime epidemic. Behind the spike in criminal violence is a familiar scourge: international drug trafficking with acutely local fallout. Much of the security emergency owes to surging cocaine production and trafficking, especially to the US and Europe. This in turn has driven rival drug factions to an ever bloodier battle for turf and dominance in Latin America's cities and neighborhoods.
Weapons and drugs seized during a joint Polícia Militar do Estado do Rio de Janeiro (PMERJ), Batalhão de Operações Policiais Especiais (BOPE); Polícia Federal; and Polícia Rodoviária Federal counter-trafficking operation in Villa Cruzeiro, Rio de Janeiro, 25 May 2022. Source: PMERJ, Instagram @policiamilitar_rj.
Latin America is producing more cocaine than ever with knock-on effects across the Americas. Cocaine production in Colombia, Bolivia and Peru recently hit record-levels, ballooning 35 percent from 2020 to 2021. Colombia, still the world’s largest producer, registered a 43 percent increase in coca leaf cultivation in 2022 due to the expansion of plantations and improved technologies to increase yields. The rapid growth in coca supply is matched by continued growth in cocaine demand.
The UN believes expanded drug production and trafficking is contributing to soaring fatal violence. Alongside spiking homicides are other crimes - from trafficking in migrants and firearms to environmental plunder, known as "narco-deforestation." The spike in murders and interpersonal violence is accompanied by a deteriorating sense of personal insecurity at the hands of ever more organized criminals. And as the perception of insecurity deepens, trust in public institutions and democratic governance tends to decline.
An early 2023 regional survey from Gallup found that over 70 percent of Chileans believe that crime has skyrocketed in recent months. It’s worse in Peru, where almost 80 percent of those surveyed said crime is on the rise. Even more remarkable is the fallout in Ecuador, where a staggering 85 percent told surveyors they believe crime has increased with two out of three (64 percent) saying they do not feel safe walking at night. Compare this to just five years ago when Ecuador ranked among the safest countries in the region, and less than half those canvassed feared leaving home at night.
The latest murder statistics justifies their concern. First, homicides and other violent crimes increased over the past year in traditionally low-crime settings such as Argentina, Chile, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Peru and Uruguay. Ecuador, for example, experienced an 82 percent increase in homicides in 2022. At the same time, countries with traditionally higher homicide and victimization rates⏤Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, Trinidad and Tobago and Venezuela⏤saw gradual declines in lethal violence. El Salvador, for example, long among the most violent countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, has reported a dramatic drop in homicides.
Some of these murder trends should be read with caution, however. Indeed, many Latin American and Caribbean countries are increasingly resorting to militarized “mano dura” policing to suppress the crime surge. In criminally besieged Ecuador, embattled President Guillermo Lasso has declared 10 states of emergency and deployed the military to fight Ecuadorian, Albanian and Mexican gangs. Honduras has also extended a state of emergency to half the country. El Salvador’s controversial President Nayib Bukele has gone all in, ordering security forces to round up and incarcerate tens of thousands of suspected gang members under a rolling state of emergency.
An increasingly common⏤and troubling⏤crime fighting strategy across the region is to deploy the military, alongside police, while also arming ordinary citizens. In Argentina, the government is pursuing a policy of "police saturation," flooding the streets with flatfoots and patrol vehicles. In Mexico, over 92,000 soldiers were deployed from Acapulco to Cancun with orders to take on traditional law enforcement and public safety functions. For its part, Chile has encouraged the new and controversial "Naìn-Retama,"⏤which shields the Carabinero police from liability in claims of excessive use of force⏤and released $1.5 billion to crime fighting. Meanwhile, Ecuador is lifting a 12 year ban on civilian carrying of firearms.
There are some exceptions to the rule. After four years of "tough on crime" approaches under his predecessor, Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva is re-introducing a national security strategy to expand state presence in under-police areas and promoting social programs to prevent youths from falling into crime. Some cities in Colombia have succeeded in implementing innovative, territorial-based programs emphasizing opportunities and skills of at-risk young people and supporting "violence interruption," which have managed to keep at-risk groups out of harm’s way. Specialists have long emphasized the importance of targeting "hot spots," given the way violent crime concentrates in specific places, among certain groups and at predictable times.
The stakes couldn’t be higher. Rising criminal violence on top of worsening public perceptions of insecurity could easily undermine support for many new left-leaning leaders across the region. Many of them campaigned on social and economic issues, as well as promises to roll back shoot-first policing and guns-for-all policies broadly favored by their right-wing predecessors and candidates. No matter that such bellicose strategies have consistently failed in the longer run to rescue citizens from violent crime. When fear sets in and sitting authorities fail to quell insecurity, the call for desperate measures grows, no matter who is on watch.