Five myths about crime in Latin America

By Bernardo Kliksberg (for Safe Democracy)

Bernardo Kliksberg explains that in order to resolve the serious threat of crime in Latin America it will be necessary to hold a serious debate on the issue, and not just a demagogic one. In Kliksberg‘s opinion, the discussion has centered on five myths: everything can be resolved with a “strong hand”; in the countries with the least crime the police is the most tough; nobody understand the causes of crime; attacking the causes takes place over the long term; and the police can resolve the problem. In the following analysis, Kliksberg deconstructs each of these myths, and makes it again possible to understand the structural causes of crime and insecurity in Latin America.

Bernardo Kliksberg is one of the foremost world experts on the fight against poverty. From Washington he directs the Inter-American Initiative on Social Capital, Ethics, and Development sponsored by the IADB. He is a special advisor to the UN, UNESCO, UNICEF and other international organizations, as well as being the author of hundreds of technical articles, and numerous books published worldwide, the most recent being an international best seller, “More Ethics, More Development”. He has advised the administrations of over 30 countries, including a number of presidents, and numerous public civil society and business organizations.

IN CANADA, THERE ARE 1.5 HOMICIDES a year for every 100,000 inhabitants; in Latin America there are almost 40. Civil insecurity has risen over the past years. It is only legitimate for society to look for solutions.

Yet, in order to find them, we must begin with a serious debate, and not rely on the demagogic debate directed at taking advantage of what the prestigious Central American Catholic University has called the fear of society, an electoral richness. The time has come to think seriously about why the traditional paths to fighting crime have not worked, what the causes of crime are, and how to face them.

In Latin America the discussion has been centered almost solely on the police, and how to organize them most efficiently. Let us renew the debate and deconstruct the myths.

El Salvador has one of the highest rates of crime in the region. It has applied the strong hand principle many times in its police work, and because crime has not fallen, it has become increasingly repressive. Yet, there have been no significant changes in delinquency. In the small country there are 12 homicides and 500 armed assaults a day.

Brazil invested 10.3 percent of its GDP in the public and private police (about the equivalent of all of Chile’s GDP) in 2000. Yet, the number of crimes has not diminished. Criminality expert Louis Wacquant, from La Sorbonne, has shown in his analysis of a large number of countries, that even when the number of minors in prisons rises, crime does not descend. What is more, in Latin America, the awful situation of prisons makes them hardly places worthy of the word rehabilitation.

This is simply not true. The Nordic countries have the lowest rate of crime in the world, while at the same time maintaining the lowest number of police per inhabitant. Evidently, their success in civil security is not connected to an increase in the number of young prisoners, but rather to their achievements in universalizing education, social inclusion, and occupations.

In the United States, there is currently a strong social pressure to substitute prison for treatment, for drug-related crimes. The New York Times called this: Treatment, not prison, saves lives and money. Every dollar spent on drug rehabilitation saves between 7-8 dollars by reducing crime, and increasing productivity. There are also intense demands to reduce the population of prisons, whose costs are weighing heavily on society. Successful cities like Boston have achieved success through broad social coalitions dedicated to preventing crime.

Yes they do. And in Latin America the causes have been mentioned, but never discussed fully. The concentration is always put on the police. There are many different types of crime: organized crime, kidnapping gangs, drug-abuses, grand theft auto, and others, which deserve the maximum penalty of the law.

Thousands of youth start with lesser crimes and then slowly progress towards more and more serious acts, often being recruited in gangs along the way. Why do they commit crimes? On one hand, because of unemployment: one out of every four young people in Latin America is out of the jobs market and out of school, excluded and vulnerable. On the other hand, because of a lack of education: the length of study in Norway and Sweden is 12 years; in Latin America it is half. Businesses in the region are asking more and more for a higher level of education for their employees, even for unqualified jobs.

Another central factor has to do with the family. The family, as the central institution of society, should be effective at communicating values and ethics to its children. The family is the most effective and efficient measure to prevent crimes. No police force in the world can substitute for a good family. 66 percent of young delinquents in Uruguay and in the United States come from broken homes. In the region, many families in the lower and middle classes have been broken apart due to the shock of growing poverty and inequality in the last few decades.

In order to reduce the number of delinquents radically, employment must be given to the youth, education must be improved, and families must be strengthened. President Lula emphasized that it is much cheaper to build a classroom than a cell, while Kirchner mused that security cannot be built with a shovel in ones hand. Bill Clinton also underlined the decline of young delinquency in the United States while he was in office, linking it to the increase in youth employment, and the increase of the minimum wage.

It will be long term if we talk and do not act. But programs like Young Employment in Chile (with the collaboration of the state and businesses to create employment for the young); Open Schools in Brazil (sponsored by UNESCO), which opened schools in the favelas on the weekends in order to give excluded youth the possibility of learning theater, music, art, literature, sports, or about job possibilities; the work of the young engineer Biaggio whose NGO created schools and programs in favelas transforming itself into a reference for the world; the lessons of Yunus whose microcrediting system pulled poor women out of poverty in various countries. All have achieved immediate results.

It is irresponsible to ask the police to resolve a problem over whose causes they are powerless. The police are an easy resource used by the elite to avoid a deeper understanding of the actual reality of crime.

With more of the same we will not be able to respond to civil society’s legitimate concern for security. The time has come to combine public policies, private enterprise, and civil society in large coalitions to attack the structural causes of crime. This collective, multicausal, human effort is what our shared ethics tell us we must do.

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