How to pacify the world’s most violent region

Firearms and ammunition seized during a raid at the Finca San Andres property on the outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador, on 10 May (Ecuadorian Police handout/AFP) (AFP)
Firearms and ammunition seized during a raid at the Finca San Andres property on the outskirts of Guayaquil, Ecuador, on 10 May (Ecuadorian Police handout/AFP) (AFP)

Summary

  • Gangs are gaining ground in Latin America. Iron-fist policies won’t beat them back

Durán in ECUADOR is one of the most dangerous cities in the world. Its murder rate of 148 per 100,000 residents in 2023 was almost 50% higher than the next most violent place, Mandela Bay in South Africa. Poor, and with about 300,000 inhabitants, Durán lies across the river from Guayaquil, one of the most important export hubs for cocaine. 

It is the worst example of a scourge that has brought misery to Latin America. Despite being home to just 8% of the world’s population, the region accounts for a third of its murders.

To deal with the violence, Latin American leaders often resort to mano dura, the iron fist. They impose states of emergency, which may last indefinitely; they send the army into the streets; they carry out indiscriminate mass arrests. 

Mano dura has been championed by El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, who has locked up almost 80,000 people—over 1% of the population—in the past two years. The murder rate has plunged. Officials from across the region praise and seek to copy what they call the “Bukele model". They shouldn’t.

The fact that mano dura undermines justice systems and leads to authoritarianism is reason enough to avoid it. But an equally important reason is that mano dura will not work elsewhere.

El Salvador’s gangs were shambolic, poorly armed extortionists whose business model required them to operate openly in dense urban settings. They made meagre profits and were easily rounded up. By contrast, the criminal groups in places like Mexico, Brazil and Ecuador are much richer and better armed and can often draw on help from foreign criminal affiliates. 

They generate jobs and cash, and increasingly provide order and services in communities where the state is incapable, thereby winning the support of local people. Such groups are unlikely to be defeated through force alone.

Instead of mano dura, Latin American governments should try a different approach. They need to accept that as long as illicit markets exist, so will gangs. (Legalising the production and consumption of cocaine would be the single biggest way to curb violence in the region, but it is not about to happen.) 

Instead of trying to eliminate entire gangs or focusing on bosses, governments should aim to discourage their most violent members from brutal acts, a tactic called “focused deterrence". Doing this consistently creates incentives for the whole group to spill less blood. Evidence from Mexico shows it can work.

Governments should also rely on police and the rule of law, not the army and indiscriminate arrests. Soldiers are neither trained nor equipped to gather the evidence on which prosecutions rely. Mass incarceration helps gangs find recruits, because they often control prisons. 

These methods undermine the justice system, which is essential to establishing long-term order that can outlast individual politicians. Instead of a doomed attempt to destroy gangs, the focus should be on squeezing their revenues by increasing their costs. 

This requires purging institutions of corrupt officials, and creating or strengthening specialised units that investigate money-laundering and arms-trafficking. Between 2016 and 2020, Ecuador convicted just 12 people for money-laundering.

The third focus should be on recruitment. Studies suggest that young men underestimate the dangers of joining a gang, and overestimate its benefits. The murder rate for men aged 15-29 is 16 per 100,000 worldwide; in Latin America it is 60. States should trumpet this grisly reality. 

A paper published last year in the journal Science estimated that reducing Mexican gangs’ recruitment by 50% could halve weekly killings. That means keeping children at school and giving them opportunities once they leave. The iron fist may work against hoodlums. But powerful gangs have much more to fear from clean cops, corruption-busting judges and helicopter parents.

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