Security or Counterinsurgency in Rio favelas?

April 16, 2014

by Sabrina Karim

In anticipation of the 2014 World Cup, the Brazilian government enacted a policy to have special units of police occupy favelas in Rio de Janeiro. As of last week, one of Rio’s most dangerous shanty towns, Complexo da Maré, was taken over by close to 3,000 Brazilian troops. The shift—from using the elite Unidade de Policia Pacificadora (Police Pacifying Unit—UPP) forces to bringing in the military—marks a new stage of Brazil’s “pacification” policy. Up until now, the UPP had been responsible for sweeping and occupying the favelas.

Many of Rio’s 1,000 favelas are controlled by criminal groups like the Comando Vermelho (Red Command) and the Terceiro Comando Puro (Third Command), which are embroiled in a battle to control more of the city. Turf wars between rival gangs have consistently led to high levels of violence and crime. Brazil is fraught with crack cocaine use, and ranks second in consumer use of the drug and its derivatives.  The country also has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. 

To add to this, criminal gangs in Brazilian cities do not have a problem attacking law enforcement. For example, in 2009, a police helicopter was riddled with bullets by gangs from the Morro de Macaco favela.  In order to control such aggressions, the government has increased the firepower of armed forces.

Before, when police were attacked, the UPP would be sent in. Now, when the UPP is attacked, the military is sent in. Consequently, Brazil’s policy toward its favelas has become increasingly militarized.

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Tags: Brazil, 2014 World Cup, Crime and Security

Walking Home Alone at Night in Buenos Aires

February 24, 2014

by Jordana Timerman

This is the first installment of "Connecting the Americas," a collaborative project of Americas Quarterly and Zócalo Public Square.

A debate dominates the end of my dinners at my parents’ house: how to get home? I live a mere seven blocks away, a brief walk across a park. Though I’m an independent urban type, in the labyrinth of subjective insecurity that is Buenos Aires these days, the answer is not as obvious as it seems.

When I walk to my bus stop in Buenos Aires, I zip my purse shut and clutch it tight to my body, like a football player running toward the end zone. When I play Candy Crush on the subway, I hold my phone in a two-handed death grip, lest it be snatched away. After a girls’ night out, I ask my friend to text me when she’s safely home. On warm spring days, my car windows remain shut because robberies have been known to happen at red lights.

And those deeper down the rabbit hole consider me foolhardily naïve in my lack of precaution. I know people who drive from their guarded apartment building garage to their office parking lot, and who avoid setting foot on the street even in broad daylight. Iron bars cover many ground floor windows on Buenos Aires streets, and increasingly the next floor up, too. Barbed wire wraps around some houses’ entrances like ivy. And then there are those who move to gated communities, where they can finally leave these quotidian safety measures behind—but instead end up living in a sort of custom-designed Truman Show of safety from “others.”

But the higher the walls, the more upper-middle-class porteños seem to be afraid. How necessary are these measures, and the correlated paranoia that seems to seep into every step we take?

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Tags: Argentina, Crime and Security

Maduro, Capriles Meet Following Murder of Miss Venezuela

January 9, 2014

by AQ Online

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro met with regional leaders on Wednesday, including one of his staunchest opponents, Henrique Capriles, following the assassination of former Miss Venezuela Mónica Spear and her ex-husband, and the shooting of their five-year-old daughter. The meeting, originally scheduled for late January, convened governors and mayors from the 79 municipalities with the highest crime rates in the country to discuss how to stem the tide of violence sweeping Venezuela.

While acknowledging the rise in crime, during the meeting Maduro said it wasn’t the time to politicize violence, but rather work together. Capriles, who ran against Maduro in the 2013 presidential elections and has publically denounced the election outcomes as well as the integrity of his opponent, also supported collaboration, stating that he was willing to put their political differences aside to "fight the lack of security” in Venezuela. 

However, not all oppositional leaders are so willing to work with the administration. The former mayor of the Chacao municipality of Caracas, Leopoldo López, is blaming the government for Spear’s death, tweeting that “(t)his government is an accomplice of armed groups, judicial corruption, (and) arms trafficking.”

The death of 29 year-old Spear, who was shot and killed in an attempted robbery on Monday, caused a nationwide outcry in Venezuela. The South American nation claims the fifth-highest murder rate in the world, according to the United Nations. Five individuals have since been arrested for their alleged participation in the slaying.

Tags: Venezuela, Crime and Security, Nicolás Maduro

Mexico: No Country for Old Tourists?

March 15, 2013

by Arjan Shahani

Mexicans are used to hearing this: “in spite of the violence and insecurity, the Mexican economy is booming and attracting foreign direct investment.” After a recent visit to Monterrey, even Thomas L. Friedman wrote for The New York Times about this in “How Mexico Got Back in the Game,” providing a positive outlook on Mexico’s ability to compete in the global market. Then again, macroeconomics is just part of the story.

Yes, Mexico is becoming an attractive place for U.S. and Europe to invest. The commercial and technical factors to take advantage of are there. However, our current competitive position vs. China and other manufacturing countries should not downplay the fact that drug-related violence is directly affecting certain hotspots in the country. While the flow of foreign direct investment may continue and even flourish, both the reality and perceptions of violence in Mexico are damaging tourism. Brand Mexico is tail-spinning and losing value when it comes to vacation destinations. This should matter to a country that the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO) called the eighth most visited nation in the world in 2007.

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Tags: Travel and tourism, Crime and Security

El huevo de la seguridad pública salvadoreña

February 20, 2013

by Carlos E. Ponce

Las cifras policiales oficiales indican que durante los últimos meses la cantidad de asesinatos registrados en El Salvador ha disminuido en aproximadamente 50 por ciento. Esto es especialmente significativo considerando que un informe elaborado por Naciones Unidas, publicado el año pasado, ubica a dicho país como el segundo más violento del mundo.  No obstante, atrás del aparente logro se identifican elementos que pronostican una crisis en el aparato de seguridad gubernamental del país centroamericano.

La reducción en homicidios antes mencionada se deriva de una brumosa iniciativa que implicó negociar el cese de hostilidades entre las principales pandillas rivales que operan en El Salvador, pacto desarrollado bajo condiciones desconocidas y mantenidas en total secreto por el Estado. El decremento, por lo tanto, no es el resultado del fortalecimiento del sistema de justicia penal o de la ejecución de una estrategia integral implementada para controlar la criminalidad, sino que está en función de la buena voluntad de las estructuras delictuales por mantener un acuerdo ajeno a la institucionalidad estatal.

Contrario a la interpretación ordinaria que provocaría una reducción tan acentuada en la incidencia de homicidios, la fuerza policial salvadoreña está en su peor momento. El Gobierno, en medio de una crisis fiscal, mantiene al personal policial trabajando en condiciones precarias, según consta en diferentes reportajes periodísticos publicados el año pasado, con equipo e instalaciones deterioradas. La falta de liquidez del Ejecutivo también lo ha llevado a retrasar varios meses el pago de los salarios complementarios devengados por policías, quienes denunciaron públicamente la situación a finales del 2012.

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Tags: El Salvador, Gang Violence, Crime and Security

Honduras Bans Guns in Heavily Violent Region

August 3, 2012

by AQ Online

Honduras’ Congress has approved a law that prohibits the public possession and transportation of guns in the province of Colón, located on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. Colón has been one of the most affected departments in a country with the world’s highest murder rate—86 homicides per 100,000 residents.

The region of Colón has seen dramatic levels of violence due to heightened narcotrafficking activity as well as a simmering agrarian conflict, which pits poor farm workers against agricultural businesses and the private guards they employ. The land conflict alone has led to 78 murders in the last three years in Colón.

This new law is seen as a victory for Honduran forces trying to crack down on organized crime. Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla was pleased with the measure, noting that “the bloodshed that continues taking place must stop and the disarmament of the local population is needed.” The gun law applies to public citizens only, and exempts police, soldiers and private guards. 

Tags: Honduras, violence, Crime and Security

Uruguayan Government Plans to Sell Marijuana, Sources Say

June 21, 2012

by AQ Online

José Mujica’s administration plans to send a bill to Uruguay’s Congress legalizing the sale of marijuana as a crime-fighting measure, unnamed lawmakers told local press yesterday. Latin American news agency Efe and Uruguayan newspaper El Pais were among the media outlets citing “official sources” detailing President Mujica’s upcoming announcement of the bill.

Under the proposed measure, lawmakers familiar with the draft bill said that only the government would be allowed to sell marijuana—in the form of cigarettes—and only to registered adult users.  The government would take responsibility for the quality of the cigarettes and levy a sales tax, revenues from which would go toward financing rehabilitation programs. Purchase amounts would be regulated, and those who surpass those amounts would be mandated to enroll in a drug rehabilitation program. The government hopes that moving the sale of marijuana into the open will remove the profit incentive for drug dealers and divert users from harder drugs, including the highly addictive cocaine paste known as pasta base or paco.

President Mujica’s office did not immediately confirm the reports, although he told The Associated Press in an email that an upcoming announcement of a series of measures to combat public insecurity could include “the marijuana issue.” Other measures include a plan to combat the sale and use of pasta base, with severe fines and penalties and greater regulations on broadcasting images of violence on television.

There are no laws against marijuana use in Uruguay. Personal consumption has never been criminalized, and last year lawmakers from President Mujica’s Frente Amplia (Broad Front—FA) proposed a bill to decriminalize its cultivation. Uruguay is also considered one of the safest countries in Latin America, but rising violence has become a concern for President Mujica, who went on national radio and television on Tuesday to give a call to action. According to Uruguay’s Interior Ministry, the number of homicides during the period from January to May jumped to 133 this year, up from 76 during the same period in 2011.

Tags: Uruguay, Drug Policy, Crime and Security

La crisis de la policía boliviana

June 1, 2012

by Cecilia Lanza

La jerga delincuencial de los policías bolivianos

En Bolivia, los policías destinados fuera de su lugar de origen pagan un “diezmo” (10 por ciento de su salario) a sus superiores. Llaman “saludar” cuando pagan por obtener determinado cargo; “aceitear” cuando exigen dinero para agilizar algún trámite; y “formar” cuando piden a un funcionario presentarse a su superior para ofrecerle dádivas. Hay otros también:  “cupo” es el dinero que deben reunir para “comprar” el destino al que quieren ir; “sanción” es el monto que pagan para pasar por alto sus faltas; “toco, teque” dicen, cuando pagan por un cargo u otros beneficios; y “vía rápida” llaman al soborno necesario para agilizar los trámites de licencias de conducir o documentos de identidad. Al mismo tiempo es muy común otras formas de pagamiento: “tres días” es el nombre y apellido de un hecho delictivo cometido por ellos mismos; “rayar” es el verbo que divide el dinero recaudado en algún trabajillo; y “filo” es la ganancia que exige el superior por el botín obtenido entre policías y ladrones.

Lo cuenta el propio presidente Evo Morales que en los seis años de su gobierno ya ha cambiado a siete comandantes generales de la Policía, tres de ellos en menos de dos años. Todos juran al cargo prometiendo erradicar la corrupción y lavar la tan deteriorada imagen institucional. Y todos terminan embarrados. Atrapados en el lado de los bandidos.

Un caso memorable es el del coronel Blas Valencia, líder de una banda delincuencial que el año 2001 atracó a un automóvil blindado con varios millones. De película. De ahí para adelante, rutina. Por eso casi ya no sorprende que el ex jefe de la Fuerza Especial de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico, general de la Policía, René Sanabria Oropeza, quien hasta el año pasado dirigía el Centro de Inteligencia y Generación de Información antinarcóticos, sea más bien un gran narcotraficante, según acusación de la Oficina Antidrogas de los Estados Unidos donde fue extraditado luego de ser aprehendido infraganti en Panamá.

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Tags: Bolivia, corruption, Crime and Security

El regreso de Roméo Langlois: una liberación ‘sui géneris’

May 30, 2012

by Jenny Manrique

Tal y como habían anunciado el domingo, las FARC liberaron al periodista francés Roméo Langlois quien terminó en su poder en medio de un combate de guerrilleros y unidades del Ejército que adelantaban operaciones antinarcóticos, el pasado 28 de abril. Lo que por supuesto no se había anunciado es que el operativo de la liberación iba a ser como ningún otro antes en el país: al menos una decena de guerrilleros de las FARC escoltaron al periodista en medio de las calles de la vereda de San Isidro, en el municipio de Montañita, Caquetá, al sur del país.

A su lado pobladores de todas las edades le daban con júbilo la bienvenida al periodista, mientras subversivos armados se confundían entre la población civil como en las épocas de los diálogos de paz en San Vicente del Caguán (2001-2002) cuando varios municipios fueron despejados de fuerza pública. Niños y ancianos se acercaban a tocar las armas de los guerrilleros, mientras algunos comandantes lucían uniformes diferentes al tradicional camuflado y más parecidos al del ejército israelí. Momentos previos a la liberación que comenzó a las 4:30 a.m. y se realizó por tierra y río sin el apoyo helicoportado que Brasil prestó en otras ocasiones, los guerrilleros hicieron requisas y retenes para acordonar el área donde Langlois sería liberado. Los civiles eran obligados a bajarse de sus carros antes de pasar hacia el casco urbano del municipio.

Aunque mediadores como delegados del Comité Internacional de la Cruz Roja (CICR) y Colombianos y Colombianos por la Paz a través de Piedad Córdoba fueron claves garantes de la liberación, no tuvieron el protagonismo que en otras ocasiones a excepción de Piedad a quien se le vio en gestos de camaradería con algunos guerrilleros, gestos que seguramente la pondrán como es usual en la picota pública del país. 

Es cierto que en toda liberación se exige el cese de operaciones militares para garantizar la integridad de los rehenes, pero lo sorprendente es que incluso en el fin del secuestro de connotados políticos, y de militares y soldados que estuvieron más en el recuerdo de las familias que en el del Estado, las FARC llegaban hasta cierto punto de la selva, entregaban a los liberados a la comisión humanitaria, conversaban con los mediadores y se internaban en la selva.

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Tags: Colombia, FARC, Crime and Security, Romeo Langlois

Guatemala and the Siege of Santa Cruz Barillas

May 25, 2012

by Nic Wirtz

Last week Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina lifted the state of siege on Santa Cruz Barillas in which 17 residents were arrested for public disturbances. But tensions still remain high weeks after community members first demonstrated their opposition to the building of the new Hidralia Energia dam in this primarily Indigenous town close to the border with Mexico.

Pérez Molina declared the state of siege on May 3 and sent in an initial force of 260 troops and national police to Santa Cruz Barillas to “restore order” after a group of 200 men armed with machetes and guns took over a military base in the area. He justified martial law on the grounds that rioters’ ties to the Zetas drug trafficking cartel contributed to the disturbances.

Despite lifting martial law, Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez said 150 troops would remain behind to “guarantee security and avert new disturbances.” Many Guatemalans, however, backed the residents of Santa Cruz Barillas. Guatemala City resident Brenda Hernández said, “We want the government to respect the pueblo.”


At the height of martial law, an estimated 850-army and national police officers were deployed in Santa Cruz Barillas.  Thousands marched in Huehuetenango, the regional capital on May 15 to denounce governmental action.  Protester Juan Juarez, a 70-year-old resident of Ixcán Playa Grande, Quiché said to citizen journalist website HablaGuate, “Santa Cruz Barillas is suffering repression by the government of Pérez Molina. We worry because the government of Guatemala is defending the interests of the hydroelectric company more than Santa Cruz (Barillas).”

Clashes first arose after the death of community leader Andrés Francisco Miguel who had opposed the hydroelectric dam. Subsequent attacks on other community leaders left two seriously injured. It was the culmination of years of protests over the building of the dam, which protesters said they were not consulted about; they called for a suspension of the company's license. 

According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, UDEFEGUA (the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit), the Dioceses of Huehuetenango and the Renovated Democratic Freedom Party had denounced the state of siege in Barillas and demanded it be lifted. There have been numerous reports of violations of community members’ rights such as the illegal entry into homes and the destruction of private property in the search for weapons.

But the Spanish company Hidralia Energia wouldn’t budge and stated that the project met all environmental and legal requirements.

Local residents have historically been opposed to the dam. In 2007, 46,000 residents voted against allowing mining or hydroelectric companies to operate in the area. Hidralia Energia, whose local company is Hidro Santa Cruz, did not enter into negotiations with the locals who believe construction would harm the Cambalan river ecosystem. Tensions between the locals and the company increased with allegations that Hidralia Energia was using landmines and Claymore-type bombs to protect their equipment.

This latest incident is unfortunately part of Central America’s long history of conflict between hydroelectric companies and Indigenous groups that are often forcibly removed to make way for the dams.

In 1976, the Guatemalan government announced plans to move Achi Indians (who were living along the Chixoy River) in order to build a hydroelectric dam. The village of Rio Negro, the only one that had refused to relocate without adequate compensation, was attacked by soldiers in 1979. Three years later, in February 1982, 73 villagers were ordered to report to Xococ by the local military commander. Only one woman returned; the rest were raped, tortured and murdered by the local Civil Defense Patrol (PAC) in Xococ.

A month later, 177 Achi women and children were killed at the massacre of Rio Negro by Xococ patrolmen. Three members of the PAC were sentenced to death in 1998 for war crimes; in 2008 five more former paramilitaries were sentenced to 780 years in jail each for their role in events in Xococ.

In Honduras, the El Cajón dam has been an environmental and financial disaster.  Finished in 1985, the resulting soil erosion has led to lower water quality, negatively affecting the surrounding flora and animal population.   Resistance against the project was so fierce that an army base was constructed at its entrance to ensure its safety.

At the crux of the problem is Central America’s energy crisis—a result of ageing infrastructure and demand that is increasing by an average of 5-6 percent per year. Guatemalan government reports from 2011 warn that the country could reach full capacity by 2015. That is part of the government’s urgency in building the plant in Santa Cruz Barillas, which is estimated to provide 10 percent of Guatemala’s electricity demand once operational.

Still, actions such as the recent governmental siege are not a long-term solution for balancing local needs with development priorities. A new approach is needed to meet the country’s competing interests and demands.

Photos and additional reporting by Brenna Goth.

*Nic Wirtz is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. A freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years, his work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost and he edits the website Vozz.

Tags: Guatemala, Crime and Security, Otto Perez Molina



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