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“Trigger-Happy” Laws Expand in Latin America

Alleged gang members are transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center, a mega-prison built by the government of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador to house 40,000 detainees accused of belonging to organized crime. CREDIT: Presidency of El Salvador

Alleged gang members are transferred to the Terrorism Confinement Center, a mega-prison built by the government of Nayib Bukele in El Salvador to house 40,000 detainees accused of belonging to organized crime. CREDIT: Presidency of El Salvador

SANTIAGO, Apr 17 2023 (IPS) - Violence involving organized crime has made Latin America the most dangerous region in the world and has helped paved the way for a repressive kind of populism with a dangerous future, whose most visible symbol is Nayib Bukele, the president of El Salvador.

According to United Nations reports, Latin America, home to eight percent of the global population, accounts for 37 percent of the world’s homicides. (These statistics do not include deaths in wars, accidents and suicides.)

Observers talk about a generalized security crisis, and the Salvadoran president boasted of a 56.8 percent decline in the homicide rate per 100,000 inhabitants in 2022, while Ecuador, at the other end of the spectrum, showed an increase of 82 percent.

But comparisons in percentages from one year to the next are misleading if the absolute numbers are not taken into account. For example, the homicide rate in Chile increased 32.2 percent in 2022, although in actual numbers that meant 4.6 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. In El Salvador, the figure for the same year was 7.8 per 100,000.

Statistics in percentages, magnified by the media and by the rise in the degree of violence in the crimes committed, spread a sensation of insecurity and fear among the public.


The terrain of politics

Politics have seized onto the insecurity crisis, which serves in some cases for the opposition to question the government, or in others for those in power to seek to neutralize their opponents. Both sides come up with shortsighted measures that do not attack the roots of the problem and can actually aggravate it in the medium to long term.

The most common reaction is to beef up the police force while providing it with greater means and authority to crack down on criminals. Police officers are given a greater margin of discretion to size up the danger and shoot – in other words, to become “trigger-happy”.

The expression is not new in the region. It became widespread in various countries between the 1960s and 1980s, under military dictatorships, when the law enforcement and armed forces murdered opponents in staged shootouts or brutally cracked down on social mobilizations.

The revival of these practices in the 21st century has required legitimization through laws, such as the so-called “law of privileged legitimate defense”, passed in Chile on Apr. 10, or broader norms that involve the police, the military and the powers of the State, as Bukele has pushed through in El Salvador.

Bukele, the leader of El Salvador’s Nuevas Ideas party, used his majority in the legislature to allow him to be re-elected as president. And on Mar. 22, 2022, he declared a state of emergency, accompanied by various legislative reforms that in practice gave him a free hand in his fight against crime, namely gangs known in Central America as maras.

More than a year after the state of emergency was declared, Amnesty International denounced widespread violations of human rights in the small Central American country:

“This policy has resulted in more than 66,000 detentions, most of them arbitrary; ill-treatment and torture; flagrant violations of due process; enforced disappearances; and the deaths in state custody of at least 132 people who at the time of their deaths had not been found guilty of any crime,” the human rights watchdog said in a statement released on Apr. 3.

“Key to the commission of these human rights violations has been the coordination and collusion of the three branches of government; the putting in place of a legal framework contrary to international human rights standards, specifically with regard to criminal proceedings; and the failure to adopt measures to prevent systematic human rights violations under a state of emergency,” it added.


A member of the carabineros, Chile’s militarized police, is photographed while opening fire on a street in Santiago. CREDIT: Courtesy of El Desconcierto


Repressive populism

Bukele replaced prisons with virtual concentration camps. A total of 1.5 percent of Salvadorans are currently deprived of liberty, which means the Central American country has the highest incarceration rate in the world.

However, opinion polls show that eight out of 10 Salvadorans are satisfied with the current president and want him to be reelected, while some dissident voices warn that the State is replacing the gangs as an agent of intimidation and concentration of power.

The temptation to imitate Bukele with repressive populism that feeds on showy measures is present throughout Latin America. While the “privileged legitimate defense law” was being debated in Chile, Rodolfo Carter, mayor of the municipality of La Florida, in Santiago, demolished houses registered as belonging to drug traffickers, in front of the television cameras.

In Ecuador, President Guillermo Lasso, threatened by impeachment, announced in early April that he was authorizing the “possession and carrying of weapons for civilian use for personal defense” as an urgent measure against the “common enemies: delinquency, drug trafficking and organized crime.”

Delinquency, drug trafficking and criminal organizations are recurring terms when talking about insecurity, but a dangerous drift is often observed where ‘trigger-happy’ laws and measures give way to repression against social protests or empower political persecution under the guise of fighting terrorism.


Criminalizing the poor

Javier Macaya, president of the Unión Demócrata Independiente, a far-right Chilean party that vindicates the dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet (1973-1990), accused the United Nations of supporting “political violence” when its High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk warned of the dangers posed by the “law of privileged self-defense”.

The authoritarian scope of “trigger-happy” laws also includes the criminalization of immigrants and poor neighborhoods, classified as gang territories that shelter drug trafficking rings, although large drug traffickers and drug users from high-income sectors are rarely prosecuted in the cities of Latin America.

Political persecution is often disguised as security, as in Nicaragua in February when 222 dissidents were expelled and stripped of their nationality. The government of Daniel Ortega accused them of “treason”, described them as “terrorists” and “mercenaries” and justified the measure in the name of national peace.

Security has been instated as Latin America’s most pressing issue. The latest Amnesty International report documents arbitrary acts in Venezuela that include forced disappearances and extrajudicial executions. Haiti, mired in ungovernability, is another country where human rights are a victim of insecurity.

The complexities of the fight against crime involve strengthening the police and also growing vigilante justice on the part of citizens. In Brazil, the far-right government of Jair Bolsonaro (2019-2022) authorized the police to kill criminals and loosened restrictions on gun ownership for civilians. His successor, Luis Inácio Lula da Silva, suspended the measures after taking office on Jan. 1.

Latin America has become a kind of arsenal, with more powerful weapons for the police, and also with the illegal trade that feeds organized crime. A third of the firearms seized in 2017 in El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua and Panama came from the United States.

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