Human Rights Dialogue (1994–2005): Series 2, No. 1 (Winter 2000): Human Rights for All? The Problem of the Human Rights Box: Articles: Crime: A Latin American Challenge for Human Rights

Dec 5, 1999

Crime and street violence, while prevalent in most parts of the world, have become an extreme and intractable problem in Latin America. The issue of crime presents human rights advocates with challenges that must be resolved if we are to build legitimacy for human rights principles.

Latin America is arguably the most violent region of the globe. The rates of murder in El Salvador are among the world’s highest. In the Colombian city of Medellín an average of 30,000 people are murdered every year. Robbers, kidnappers, youth gangs, and drug traffickers terrorize many cities. In Guatemala and Jamaica, for example, crime has reached such levels that many see it as the major social problem, more pressing than poverty or inequality. Citizens’ security throughout the region is becoming more and more precarious. Even in Bolivia and Chile, which are among the countries of the region with the lowest rates of criminality, citizens sense increasing danger.

There is a general consensus among sociologists and criminologists regarding the causes of crime in our region. These factors include rapid, large-scale urbanization that is incapable of sustaining basic services; extreme inequalities between rich and poor; a culture of violence carved from many years of internal wars; poverty, exclusion, and lack of opportunity for young people; police abuse, corruption, and inefficacy; and the unimpeded availability of guns, drugs, and alcohol, including an overwhelming presence in many cities of small-scale drug trafficking. While crime has multiple causes, it has no easy solutions. Complementary strategies are required to address it. Yet, the policy solutions implemented by governments are usually limited to repression, increased penalties, and the building of new prisons.

Numerous human rights violations occur as a consequence of efforts to combat crime, including police brutality, restrictive laws that curtail civil liberties, and the militarization of the public order. Because the police in Latin America suffer from lack of training, scarce resources, and, in some instances, complicity with criminals, they frequently abuse and sometimes kill suspects. They almost always enjoy impunity from these acts because many segments of the public welcome such behavior as a means of promoting a safer environment.

Where the police have been outnumbered by criminals and street thugs, people have organized to take the law directly into their own hands. While sometimes highly effective in stopping criminals, their methods almost always contravene basic principles of human rights; with no due process (in fact, no process at all), torture and killing often result. For example, in the name of “people’s justice” and “social cleansing,” groups of vigilantes often kill children and teenagers in poor and conflict-ridden neighborhoods and with the complicity of many in the community.

This pathology of fear, where almost everyone feels that he or she could be the next victim, allows the government and the competing political parties to easily manipulate the issue of crime and restrict rights. Many authorities in the region argue that basic rights, such as the presumption of innocence, protection against torture, and the right to be judged before civilian courts, actually benefit criminals and allow them to avoid punishment. At the national level they are considering “tougher” laws against crime, which strip suspected criminals of their civil rights. Some countries, such as Peru, have already enacted such measures.

Another common mechanism to fight crime in Latin America is to command the army to intervene. Historically, the armed forces, and the doctrines of national security they put into practice, were responsible for fighting crime and terrorist acts. During the 1980s the armed forces throughout the region made a partial retreat from their role of civic policeman. However, today many of the same democratic governments that sent the armed forces back to their barracks are asking them to return to lead the fight against the growing wave of criminality. The social and political consequences of this are easily predictable: respect for rights, liberties, and democratic institutions is abandoned and replaced by authoritarianism.

If it is so easy to recognize the consequences of crime and the fight against it, why is it so difficult to confront them? Equally important rights are colliding. On one side are the civil and political rights that allow citizens to be protected against abuses of the state, such as a judicial process that guarantees everyone a fair trial. On the other side, people have the right to live in a secure environment, with their lives and property protected against other people’s aggression. The problem is that a growing number of people in Latin America believe that civil and political rights can, if necessary, be sacrificed to guarantee one’s right to live in peace and in a secure environment.

This poses a terrible dilemma for human rights advocates: how do we continue to defend basic human rights principles, including the rights of suspects and criminals, while not losing the support of the citizen sector that perceives us as protecting criminals instead of law-abiding citizens?

There are no easy answers. Nonetheless, we can begin to confront this dilemma by moving beyond a focus on police abuse and jail conditions and attending to the problem of crime itself, which affects 95 percent of the populace. Moreover, our challenge (a tremendous one) is to demonstrate that responses to crime that do not observe human rights norms not only do not solve the problem, but usually worsen it by creating a climate of greater fear, tension, and human suffering. For instance, a father of a teenage daughter who has been raped and who consequently supports any measure whatsoever against rapists should be warned that he may inadvertently be creating the conditions for his “suspicious” son to be arbitrarily detained (or in some extreme cases “disappeared”) for noisily drinking with his friends on the street corner.

As the perception of insecurity increases due to the rise of criminal acts or the manipulation of the problem for political reasons, the very idea that rights are for everyone is questioned. Human rights advocates must take this problem seriously if our work is to avoid being perceived as biased, or worse, ignored. An important challenge for human rights advocates in Latin America is to address the problem of crime as it affects people’s everyday lives and to champion their right to a secure environment. We must also convince people that such a right is forfeited when we abandon other human rights principles.

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