Headlines, Latin America & the Caribbean

POLITICS-CRIME: Cocktail of Violence in Latin America

Estrella Gutierrez

CARACAS, Feb 4 1998 (IPS) - Latin American cities are plagued by an explosive combination of urban sprawl, marginality, social inequalities, drugs and police brutality which is leading to ever- increasing incidents of violence and crime.

A group of non-governmental experts, who met here in late January to discuss the problem, had to look no further than the Venezualan capital to realize the extent of violence. The murder rate in Caracas has increased five-fold in 10 years, while doubling in the rest of the country.

Ana Maria San Juan, the director of the Centre for Peace and Integration in Venezuela, said the specialists from Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico and Venezuela participating in the workshop shared conceptual approaches and methods with respect to violence and its most recent expression of common crime. The Centre organised the gathering jointly with the United Nations development Programme (UNDP).

One of the main focuses of the workshop was the development of programmes among civil society in which young people play a key role, aimed at keeping youth away from violence. Youth is perceived as being the main culprit for violence but actually they are victims a lot of the time and victimisers in only half of all cases, San Juan stressed.

Citing Venezuela’s experience, she added that unemployment and poverty also is mistakenly blamed as generators of violence. “What that argument does is criminalise the poor and blame them for the violence,” said San Juan, who pointed out that murder rates have actually fallen in peak years of economic crisis.

Andres Opazo, the coordinator of the Ethics and Democracy Project in Chile, said a meeting of minds and a shared culture wer important tools for confronting the disintegrating factor of violence.

“Governed by the logic of the market and submitted to the law of ‘every man for himself’, communication is lost, and that lack of communication also explains the violence,” said Opazo. He added that “we ourselves, based on our common experiences, must come up with the decisions for dealing with the problem.”

As positive examples of what could be achieved, Opazo and the rest of the participants cited the Colombian cities of Medellin and Cali, where community-level organising efforts in the most marginalised neighbourhoods have successfully reduced levels of violence.

Increasing the number of police is not the solution, especially since such a strategy is usually accompanied by a policy of repression based on abuse, which Opazo said only triggered a fresh backlash of violence. “What must be boosted are social guarantees and a minimum level of justice,” he argued.

The Chilean expert also downplayed the role economic growth played in reducing violence. While Chile has produced significant wealth in the past 12 years, inequality also shot up, along with marginality and crime.

Mexican writer Carlos Monsivais underlined that the biggest lesson his country learned from the uprising of the Zapatista guerrillas in the southern state of Chiapas – and which he said should be learned by the entire region – is that “inequality which is the product of racism is an aberration for which we must pay.”

Rossan Reguillo, also from Mexico, said institutional violence – linked to abuse of power and the scarce training received by police – pushed up levels of violence and crime in the streets.

Reguillo warned that the inability of state institutions to provide citizens with security often pushed people towards an “eye for an eye” mentality and a rise in indifference and forms of vigilante justice.

Alonso Salazar from Colombia underlined the role of drug- trafficking in urban violence. Salazar, the author of a book on children working as paid assassins in Medellin (‘No Nacimos Pa’semilla’), participates in a non-governmental project which has diminished violence in that city, an emblem of the power of drug cartels.

The consumer mentality, the growing rural exodus to the cities which destroys cultural roots and family ties, and the exclusion of growing sectors of the population are the mortar that cements drug trafficking, he said.

Women are increasingly joining the ranks of those excluded from the model imposed by the institutions and the media, he added, one aspect of the change in cultural patterns and the face of marginality. In the poorest sectors of society, women act as both “fathers and mothers” within disintegrated family structures, where youngsters grow up in the streets – a phenomenon criminal organisations linked to the drug trade take advantage of to swell their private armies, said Salazar.

Brazilian anthropologist Jose Carvalho addressed another element: the perplexity in Latin America in the wake of the belief that the violence came from authoritarian regimes or armed conflicts. But “when the dictatorships and conflicts end, the violence increases in democracy,” he stressed.

Carvalho pointed out that just a few decades ago drug trafficking, with its burden of corruption and the perversion of values, did not exist, nor had the violent and anarchic rural exodus taken place. In most Latin American countries, the rural- urban ratio shifted rapidly to the point where the population today is more than 70 percent urban.

But he added that the existence of social inequalities was not unique to regions of the developing South. For example, he said, 11 million people live in poverty in what is considered the richest country in the world, the United States.

In Brazil, however, the number “of those who do not count for the economy” has climbed to 60 million, while homeless children struggling to survive in the streets of large cities are killed “with the indifference if not the patronage of those in power.”

The Caracas workshop was part of the UNDP’s strategy for organising models of discussion, know-how and action to come up with solutions to common problems, through half-yearly gatherings in countries throughout the region.

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