Will Freeman, a fellow for Latin America studies at CFR, sits down with James M. Lindsay to discuss spiking crime rates across Latin America and their consequences for the region and the United States.
They discussed the crime surge across Latin America and its consequences for the United States and the region at-large.
Here are six highlights from their conversation:
1.) The Covid-19 pandemic left Latin America wrestling with a surge in crime. Will noted that “everything shut down in Latin America during Covid-19 except organized crime.” The result: “Organized crime groups…became more entrepreneurial. They diversified into new markets, new types of drug production and drug trafficking.” This spurred a rise in violent crime, including in countries like Ecuador that historically have had low crime rates.
2.) Previous successes in breaking up major drug trafficking operations are helping fuel violence. Drug production is at a record high today as more groups fight over the money to be made trafficking in illegal drugs. “When you have one big cartel that dominates a country, you tend to see on average less violence,” Will acknowledged. “But what we have today is the opposite situation.” Most notably, the 2016 peace deal that the Colombian government negotiated with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) sidelined the FARC’s drug trafficking operations but inadvertently enabled smaller cartels to battle for dominance in new markets.
3.) No single policy can eradicate crime across the region. Colombia tried to negotiate with groups like the FARC. El Salvador has cracked down on crime by imprisoning tens of thousands of people, including children, but it has often done so without evidence that they have committed any crime. Mexico has focused on tackling the roots of crime like lack of educational opportunities with its “hugs not bullets” approach. Still, it hasn’t had much success, thanks in part to insufficient funding. Mexico has seen some 100,000 people disappear over the last decade, and 360,000 people have been killed.
4.) The Biden administration’s diplomatic policy toward Latin American crime has hit a “rough patch.” The United States allocated more funding to Latin America this year than ever before and has maintained its investments in existing programs like the Caribbean Basin Security Initiative. However, many Latin American countries, including El Salvador and Mexico—both of whom the United States has publicly criticized—don’t want to work with the United States right now. Will acknowledged, “I think the administration’s beginning to realize that it can’t necessarily challenge head on such a popular leader in the region” like Salvadoran President Bukele or Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador.
5.) GOP presidential candidates led by Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis have endorsed conducting counterterrorism operations against Mexican drug cartels. GOP candidates are trying to send the message that they favor taking a “more aggressive approach towards organized crime in Latin America,” Will noted. “They're raising the salience of the issue, given that it has not always topped the agenda in the Biden administration.” Will cautioned, however, that these “very extreme proposals” don’t “have any viability in practice.” He argued that “militarizing the border further [such as] sending U.S. troops across the border against the wishes of Mexico could lead to a full-blown diplomatic rupture” with the United States’ largest trading partner.
6.) The United States should support Latin American countries in their efforts to reform their judicial systems. Will noted that the United States can increase assistance to the region and support multilateral efforts like UN-backed anti-corruption initiatives. That approach “should be taken in Latin America when and where it has the political will,” he noted. “If you don’t start there, there’s really little chance of bending the curve on this problem in the long term.” For example, a UN-sponsored effort in Guatemala worked with local prosecutors and judges to halve the country’s murder rate and lower extortion rates. However, Will cautioned “that same commission was shut down by a Guatemalan president who came on the scene afterwards.” The problem, in Will’s view, is that U.S. administrations tend to approach problems like drug trafficking and related violent crime with a “pretty short time horizon, and this is a problem that’s going to be with the region for years to come.”
If you’re looking to read more of Will’s extensive work on Latin America, check out a piece that he wrote for the World Politics Review titled “A Surge in Crime and Violence Has Ecuador Reeling.” He analyzed how Ecuador transformed from a peaceful country to the home of the fourth-highest homicide rate in the world.