Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

LATIN AMERICA: Once Again, Govts Promise to Tackle Violent Crime

Diego Cevallos

MEXICO CITY, Oct 8 2008 (IPS) - Violent crime in Latin America claims more than 100,000 lives a year – more than any single disease – and the average homicide rate is 27 per 100,000 population, making this one of the most violent regions in the world.

This reflects a severe crisis that requires coordinated multi-sectoral actions, agreed high-level officials from 34 governments who met Tuesday and Wednesday in Mexico in the "first meeting of public security ministers of the Americas", organised by the Organisation of American States (OAS).

In the final declaration signed by the ministers, they committed themselves to mounting a more coordinated effort against violence, harmonise laws, strengthen prevention policies and educational and awareness-raising programmes, modernise, purge and professionalise police forces, and engage in a broad sharing and exchange of experiences with civil society groups involved in prevention and other areas.

"The ministers had a flash of genius – they discovered that there is a public safety crisis. They also committed themselves to what has been obvious for years: that security policies must reflect a balance between immediate and long-term measures, especially involving education and prevention," political scientist Sergio Fernández, an expert on drug trafficking, told IPS.

According to Inter-American Development Bank estimates, violence costs Latin America as much as 15 percent of its combined annual gross domestic product (GDP).

For its part, the World Bank reports that 75 percent of all kidnappings worldwide are committed in Latin America, a region that accounts for just eight percent of the world’s population.


The World Health Organisation’s (WHO) "World Report on Violence and Health" put the average global homicide rate in 2000 at 8.8 per 100,000 population a year.

Although the Latin American average is 27 murders per 100,000 people, the situation in several cities is alarming, with as many as 120 homicides per 100,000 people, says an OAS report distributed at the two-day meeting in Mexico.

In Central America, the average climbs to 36 per 100,000, with 55 per 100,000 in El Salvador in 2006, 45 per 100,000 in Guatemala and nearly 43 per 100,000 in Honduras.

In the Caribbean, the most violent country is Jamaica (49 per 100,000), while Venezuela (45 per 100,000) and civil war-torn Colombia (37 per 100,000) share that dubious distinction in South America.

The main victims of violent crime in the region are young people, with murder the leading cause of death for people between the ages of 15 and 29, and the homicide rate for this group standing at 83 per 100,000 population.

The region not only suffers from extreme violence due to homicides, the great majority of which are the result of criminal activities, mainly drug trafficking, but from many other day-to-day common crimes like violent robberies, kidnappings, sexual abuse, criminal youth gangs or domestic violence, said OAS Secretary-General José Miguel Insulza.

He told the meeting in Mexico that security-related issues have become one of the principal threats to stability, the strengthening of democracy, and prospects for development in the region, and that swift, vigorous action is urgently needed.

"The very integrity of the state and democratic institutions in our region is seriously at risk given the scope, power and impact of crime," said Insulza.

The ministers and other officials signed a lengthy declaration in which they pledged to "Foster and strengthen long-term government security policies, with full respect for human rights."

Another commitment was to "Strengthen, within the context of those policies, the capacity of our states to promote citizen security and to respond effectively to insecurity, crime, and violence, by adapting their legal framework, structures, operational procedures, and management mechanisms, as necessary."

With respect to prevention, they pledged to "Promote educational programmes, in particular in schools, and raise awareness among the different players in society regarding the prevention of crime, violence, and insecurity."

They also promised to work to incorporate greater transparency and accountability among police, and to improve their living and working conditions.

"Encourage and strengthen citizen and community participation in the implementation of public security plans and programmes" and "Encourage and strengthen social responsibility as well as a culture of comprehensive prevention of crime, violence, and insecurity, with the participation of citizens, the community, the media, and the private sector" were two other points in the final document.

Fernández, who works as a consultant on security issues, urged society to closely monitor progress towards the commitments assumed in Mexico.

"For years we have been hearing promises from our governments, while reality shows us that the security situation is going from bad to worse – all you have to do is read the statistics or have a conversation with any citizen of Latin America," he said.

Opinion polls invariably show that public safety is one of the two or three most pressing concerns of people in this region, only surpassed sometimes by poverty and unemployment, said Insulza.

Latinobarómetro, an annual public opinion survey carried out in 17 Latin American countries by the Chilean non-profit of the same name, shows that public perceptions of insecurity doubled between 2003 and 2007 in Latin America and the Caribbean.

In 2007, 63 percent of respondents said their country was "very unsafe" and 73 percent said they felt constant fear of becoming a victim of crime.

"This plague kills more people than AIDS or any other known epidemic; destroys more homes than any economic crisis; and threatens state institutions, "said Insulza. "Ridding ourselves of it, or at least substantially reducing it, is an absolute priority."

The head of the OAS also said governments had to acknowledge that the scope and intensity of violent crime and the shortcomings or weaknesses of the region’s institutions in fighting the phenomenon "drastically affect the quality of life of the population and generate a generalised climate of fear, which poses a direct threat to the soundness of democracy."

"The causes of the phenomenon have to do, in first place, with organised crime – mainly drug trafficking and related criminal activity – and the corruption it generates," he said, adding that no country in the region completely escapes from the scourge of violent crime.

Other major factors are socioeconomic, said Insulza. Although poverty alone does not explain the phenomenon, there is a clear correlation when it interacts with other factors like inequality, marginalisation and exclusion, which affect a significant portion of the population, he stated.

Violent crime leaves an annual death toll of more than 100,000 in the region, while hundreds of thousands of people are injured or otherwise affected.

Another human cost of violent crime mentioned by the report distributed by the OAS at the meeting are the nearly four million people who are in prison, many of whom have been convicted, while others are caught up in interminable legal proceedings, and yet others have served their sentences and remain in jail due to ineffective judicial systems.

 
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