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Violence in Latin America

April 27, 2012

Murder, rape and mutilations are common crimes in Latin America, considered one of the most violent areas in the world today. Is the violence a legacy of the region's bloody past? A new study examines the phenomenon.

A solider fires a machine toward rebel positions in Caloto, southern Colombia
Image: AP

UN figures show that in Mexico alone, more than 20,000 people were murdered in 2010. In Guatemala, an average of 41 murders per 100,000 residents were committed, in El Salvador, this figure was even 66. In comparison: in Germany, not even one murder - 0.8 cases - per 100,000 people takes place.

The three Latin American countries have all experienced political conflict in their recent past: violent civil wars took place in El Salvador and Guatemala in the 1980s and 1990s. Mexico experienced in the early 1990s an armed uprising of the Zapatistas against the government.

The conflicts in these countries are all considered over for at least a decade now. The violence which still prevails is primarily perceived as being not politically motivated but rather criminal. This is a reason why the continent has hardly played a role in discussions about post-war and post-conflict societies, said Sabine Kurtenbach, author of the paper "The specific features of Latin American post-conflict situations" for the Institute for Development and Peace (INEF) at the University of Duisburg-Essen.

Kurtenbach, an INEF associate fellow, said the experience of war or armed conflict was not an adequate explanation for the high degree of violence in the region. If this were the case, all post-war and post-conflict societies would have such problems, she said.

Sabine Kurtenbach
Kurtenbach is also a senior research fellow at Hamburg's GIGA Institute of Latin American StudiesImage: Sabine Kurtenbach

The causes of violence are complex, according to Kurtenbach's study. In countries such as El Salvador and Guatemala, the experience of war and armed conflict represent a significant factor. The oppressive policies of these governments are accompanied by a lack of willingness to resolve the large gap between poor and rich. Social inequality continued to be a significant factor for the high level of violence in Latin America.

Growing cities and a weak state

Other factors are the speed of urban growth and the dissolution of traditional social ties due to migration into the cities. Criminal youth gangs often take over a substitute role for the family.

However, compared to the usual flight from the countryside into the cities, migration following armed conflicts is significantly more problematic, since a mainly traumatized population in a region is affected.

"This makes the urbanization even more complicated than the classic form due to social change," Kurtenbach said. The risk of violence was increased, since the state for the most part cannot provide the migrants with adequate infrastructure. Organized crime, such as international drug trade, had also led to an increase in violence.

"Transnational networks do not simply spread into a vacuum, but rather go there where there are favorable local factors," Kurtenbach said. A weak state made it possible, especially when the legal system did not function adequately.

Members of the Salvadoran Mara 18 gang remain under arrest
Members of the Mara-18 gang behind bars in El SalvadorImage: picture-alliance/dpa/dpaweb

"Where violence is hardly prosecuted and sanctioned or where state institutions themselves consider violence a legitimate means, incentives are created to employ violence," said Peter Imbusch, an expert for conflict and violence research at the University of Wuppertal.

In post-war societies or countries formerly ruled by military dictatorships, it was an  added predicament when the state security apparatus was part of conflicts, Kurtenbach said. This particularly put into question the ability to reform the security sector. This concretely concerned the downsizing of armed forces, the demilitarization of the police, the subordination of the military under civil institutions, as well as the strengthening of the justice system. Mexico, Guatemala and El Salvador continue to struggle to implement planned reforms.

A culture of violence

Just how much a country deals with its past is a decisive point for its development after a conflict has ended. This is the only way for a society to agree that violence is no longer a legitimate means, Kurtenbach said. But it was not necessarily the case that the inclination to use violence automatically ceased when an armed conflict ended, Imbusch said.

"Violence does not simply emerge in a society that is in a post-conflict situation, but apparently violence is somehow virulent in some form there," he said. However, there were also structures which generally favored violence, for example the "machismo" culture where violence is considered a legitimate means of defending oneself.

The battle against violence in the region can only be won in the long term, Imbusch said. It was important to ease tensions in troubled hotspots through new education and leisure possibilities. This was a good opportunity for German development cooperation.

A street with grafitti in Bogota
Bogota is trying to clean up its streetsImage: DW

In addition, urban development measures could improve the situation, such as is the case in Colombia's capital Bogota. The mayors there across the political spectrum have spent years successfully winning back public space. Dark streets and squares, for example, are better illuminated, so people dare to go back onto the streets again.

Both Kurtenbach and Imbusch agreed that state-imposed repressive measures only have a limited effect, if at all. They often tend to lead to an escalation of the conflicts instead. This was evident in the fight of the Mexican government against drug cartels. Since 2006, at least 50,000 civilians have been killed in the drug war between the military and rival drug cartels.

Author: Christina Ruta / sac
Editor: Michael Knigge

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