Honduras in Flames: The US Role in Latin America’s Growing Threats to Democracy – Aaron Schneider & Rafael R. Ioris

Over a week after Honduras’ presidential elections, Honduras is in flames as thousands of demonstrators have been battling gas bombs and bullets in the streets of Tegucigalpa, leaving at least 11 dead. The current regime, led by Juan Orlando Hernández of the right-wing National Party had initially suffered a surprising blow to its questionable move for reelection, as opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla rose in the vote count early last week, at which point when election reports were curtailed and the country was engulfed in a perilous state of uncertainty and violence.

The National Party has been in power since the U.S.-negotiated, illegal removal of power of former President Manuel Zelaya in 2009 despite widespread regional condemnation, on the basis of Zelaya’s push to consult the electorate about the possibility of running for a Constitutionally prohibited second term. It is painfully ironic, then, that Honduras’ current president Hernández upended the constitution by appealing to a Supreme Court he had packed to grant him the right to run for reelection.

At this point, a peaceful solution seems less and less likely. The government has indicated a plan to recount about 1% of votes whereas the European Union and the Organization of American States have both called for a recount of all disputed votes.

The events over the last week symptomize a growing consolidation of power by a new kind of right-wing alliance in Honduras and across Latin America: an alliance that brings together the power of the traditional landed elites and that of the financial elites who have benefited more recently from globalized neoliberalism. This alliance emerged amid the ashes of the Cold War and the dawn of the Washington Consensus—and can help explain some of the dynamics of the current electoral crisis in Honduras as well as recent events across the region.

At the end of the 1980s, three political and economic shifts opened the path for the rise of a neoliberal elite in Latin America. First, a decade of Central American revolutions and regional debt crises delegitimized both oligarchies and economic nationalism as political actors seemed incapable of resolving the multiple crises they faced. At the same time, the fall of the Soviet Union removed the ideological threats that had animated the Cold War. This coincided with a new era of U.S. international influence as it turned toward neoliberal globalization policies exemplified by free trade and capital market opening.

Throughout the 1990s, those intent on advancing neoliberal globalization dominated the region, forming new parties to capture power in places like El Salvador, working through traditional parties in places like Mexico, and reserving key areas of public policy to technocratic elites in places like Honduras. Neoliberal policies temporarily resolved inflationary crises but did little to include long excluded sectors or advance equitable development.

In the 2000s, a wave of Left and Center-Left governments won electoral power by rejecting the Washington Consensus. The U.S. appeared to have no recourse, until Honduras in 2009. Traditional oligarchic interests and newly-wealthy elites who had embraced neoliberalism made common cause with an uninterested U.S. embassy to remove a president who threatened a shift to the left. Since the coup, the coalition has brought together traditional oligarchs and neoliberals, with U.S. support.

The events in Honduras will likely consolidate the undemocratic alliance between oligarchs and neoliberals across the region. Such a coalition appeared in Haiti in 2004, mounted the 2009 coup in Honduras, staged a 24-hour impeachment in Paraguay in 2012, and removed a weak but democratically-elected president in Brazil in 2016. Similar coalitions have attempted and failed to remove presidents in Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador.

Again and again, the U.S. selectively opposes democratic manipulations when the Left governs, and turns a blind eye when the Right enacts similar machinations. Throughout the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations, the State Department acted to advance its vision of neoliberal globalization and appeared to grudgingly follow along with the oligarchic-neoliberal alliance when it appeared. Now, Trump has hollowed out the State Department and made support for the new rightwing alliance overt.

Over and over, American interests in Latin America have sided with conservative, oligarchic forces. Allowing the alliance between landed oligarchs and neoliberal elites to steal an election in Honduras tragically signals that we are eager to repeat our past mistakes.

Aaron Schneider is Leo Block Associate Professor of International Relations at the University of Denver. Rafael R. Ioris is Associate Professor of Latin American History and Politics at the University of Denver.

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The Frustrating Politics of Infrastructure in Brazil Antonio Augusto Rossotto Ioris Cardiff University, UK

(IorisA@cf.ac.uk)

Brazil’s economic troubles continue to defy easy explanations. After a positive decade, marked by good economic performance and eagerly cherished by the international community, Brazil is again struggling to cope with a barrage of bad news. The present moment is tainted by spiraling public deficit, production inefficiencies, mounting social tensions and misappropriation of public funds at an industrial scale (dramatically revealed through the Car Wash operation, since 2014, which disclosed payments to political parties via corrupt intermediaries, including the largest national construction companies [empreiteiras]). The new, conservative government of President Temer, who replaced the populist-developmentalist administration of Dilma (impeached in 2016), is supported by a broad party coalition with almost no political programme beyond trying to keep their leaders outside prison bars. For the first time in the national history, a president is formally accused of taking bribes and installing a mafia-like administration of the state.

The rhetoric and public perception changed very rapidly, although in reality, the economy has been fragile for a long time, undermined by growing deindustrialisation, over-reliance on a few agribusiness commodities and minerals, hypertrophy of the state apparatus and mounting socio-ecological tensions. Public services and daily life are deteriorating fast and, as in the 1980s, the young, best talents are now trying to leave the country in order to avoid urban violence, uncertainty and sheer lack of prospects. In that context, it has been claimed that Brazil urgently needs to resume economic growth and modernize its productive base. One main bottleneck seems to be the deficient national infrastructure and the low quality of infrastructural services, what is translated into low levels of economic competitiveness. Economists point out the endogeneity between infrastructure and economic growth, which means that one directly affects and triggers the other.

Yet, there is still limited critical understanding of the root causes of the problems associated with the regulation and the investments in infrastructure. A common reason given for the low performance of the national infrastructure is the high bureaucratic complexity, weak private capital markets, political interferences and regulatory risks, which are considered obstacles to investment and privatization. A report by the São Paulo State Industrial Federation (FIESP) calculates that with the money lost to corruption only in the first stage of the PAC (2007 -2010), 124% more roads and 525% more railways could have been built. However, as in most of the Brazilian dilemmas, the problem is certainly more complicated than revealed by the simplistic models of the economists and the demagogic discourse of politicians and lobby groups.

To be fair, infrastructural underperformance has been at the center of the political agenda for many years. Lula and Dilma (2003-2016) launched the Growth Acceleration Programme (PAC) with investments in roads, railways, energy, communications, housing, and water; to a large extent, construction projects obeyed the ill-fated priorities of the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics (instead of genuine socio-economic goals). Temer, following President Cardoso in the 1990s, unveiled his own Programme of Partnerships and Investments (PPI), which pushed for a greater role for the collaboration with private business in the form of concessions and PPPs. However, despite the billionaire budgets of all those programmes, it seems that the center-right governments of Cardoso and Temer tend to improve infrastructure services but do not stimulate investment, while the center-left governments of Lula and Dilma promoted direct public, but undermined state finances and efficiency. The question is not merely the scarcity of money, but how resources have been used.

In that broad landscape of distortions, the most silent victim (although with the innate ability to inflict ‘serious revenge’) is the environment. Brazilian development has been largely based on the extraction of natural resources, the mobilization of land and water, and the disregard for the cumulative impacts of those processes. In order to maintain those drivers of economic growth and, in particular, to allow an increased advance of the economic frontier over the best-preserved parts of the Amazon region, the techno-bureaucratic response has been to propose new rounds of road, dams and port construction. Regardless of the common blame on the onerous environmental regulation and the effort to obtain a new licence (repeatedly targeting the national environmental regulator IBAMA and the corresponding state-level agencies), in practice almost all projects conceived in Brasília and in São Paulo (the political and economic centres of the country) go ahead primarily to serve the accumulation of capital thousands of miles away from the construction sites where environmental damage and associated social impacts are felt. One crucial example is Belo Monte, the third largest hydropower scheme in the planet, which is a highly inefficient project (due to the low river flows during half of the year) that cost a preposterous amount of money (around US$ 30 billion).

Large-scale infrastructure projects in the Amazon, which are today particularly focused on roads, hydropower dams, mineral extraction and river navigation, normally affect the hydro-ecological dynamics and impact local social groups. Roads may facilitate people mobility and the transportation of goods, but it also seriously accelerates deforestation and biodiversity loss. Dams may be a source of renewable energy, but disrupt the hydrological regime, reduce fish populations and even release large volumes of greenhouse gases. There is an association in the southern tracts of the Amazon region between escalating soybean production (by far, the main Brazilian export commodity and a key pillar of macroeconomic strategies) and the construction of new roads and navigation routes (helped by hydropower dams) aimed to reduce transportation costs. This is a highly unequal and perverse path of regional development that favours mainly large-scale farmer, transnational corporations, and allied politicians. It is basically a belated modernity, symbolized by ostentatious projects, that bring back the worst demons of the colonial past, as in the case of social and spatial segregation, violence against Indians and poor peasants, unrestrained extractivism and repressive state interventions.

The fact that investments in infrastructure are selective and fraught with distortions (there is a wealth of scandals and court cases to demonstrate the structural inclination of the state to actually promote inefficient project designs and favour the siphoning of public money) is due to the political and economic organisation of the Brazilian society are discriminatory and, ultimately, corrupted. Evidently, it is not enough to invoke the colonial and slavery history, but it is possible to identify the persistence of racism, patrimonialism, and elitism in public policies and permeating social interactions. In that sense, the main reason for the apparent lack of investment in infrastructure (let alone the insufficient social spending on hospitals, schools, crèches, libraries and training) is the systematic reproduction of an authoritarian approach to collective problems and the structural privatisation of the state to serve primarily the interests of the powerful economic sectors.

In the end, the fundamental question is the rationale behind infrastructure projects, which have privileged emblematic engineering projects, selected through spurious associations between politicians, banks and construction companies, instead of addressing the needs of the majority of the low-income population. One tragic consequence is the long list of white elephants throughout the country, as large-scale monuments to waste, inequality and exploitation. Rather than a debate about infrastructure per se, it is much more important to mobilize the limited channels of Brazilian democracy to question what type of infrastructure is needed by whom and at what price. In other words, the underperformance of the Brazilian infrastructure is just another indication that democracy, rule of law and social inclusion are severely underperforming.

Casa de Paz and the Rehumanization of Immigrants By: Tess Waldrop

Note to the reader: Over the past 10 weeks, as part of a Qualitative Research Methods course at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School for International Studies Graduate Program, I had the honor of being part of a research team investigating the treatment of immigrants both during their stay at the US Department of Homeland Security’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) GEO Processing Detention Center in Aurora, Colorado as well as after their release. Partnering with local organization and non profit lead by Sarah Jackson, Casa de Paz, we were able to interview former detainees of the GEO center as well as the immigration lawyers and volunteers who partner with Casa de Paz to fight for the justice and human rights of immigrants in the United States. Casa de Paz, located only 2 miles from the detention center in Aurora, does a variety of things, including helping to reunite families separated during their journey, supplying former detainees with fresh clothes and warm meals upon their release, and connecting them with resources (classes, jobs, hosts) which assist them with acclimating to their new home in United States, whether in Colorado or beyond. Through this research, our group was looking to answer the following question:

How does detention reinforce the idea of the ‘the criminal alien’ and contribute to the dehumanization of immigrants and how do individual stories and efforts from Casa de Paz work to dismantle these false narratives in order to create context for a broader understanding of justice.

 

The following narrative summarizes my biggest takeaways from this life-changing research process.

 

 

I am greeted warmly on a sunny Saturday afternoon by a woman who welcomes me into her home, and escorts me to the back porch, where I find 3 men sitting in rocking chairs, drinking iced tea while laughing and smiling, clearly enjoying each others company. I can tell right away that these people are not merely friends, but rather family – the closeness and ease with which they interact is indicative of their relationship. I am there to interview two young men, a nephew and uncle from West Africa, both former detainees at the GEO immigrant processing center in Aurora. We speak in French, as they do not speak English. Our hosts, a local couple who volunteered to take in the two men upon their release from detention, are deemed “Mommy” and “Poppy” by the two young men and do not speak a word of French, yet throughout our 3 hour conversation, never seem to skip a beat. I ask the men their story and they willingly share.

 

They begin to tell me of their long and arduous journey which has brought them to where they are today and I listen intently. They left West Africa because of famine, suffering, and religious violence, in order to make money to send to their families for hope of a better life – To buy food for their families and to send their children to school, a luxury which they were not afforded when they were young. They proudly show me pictures of their families, beaming the whole time. I notice a distinct shimmer in their eyes while they do so. One of them has 3 children and a wife. He has yet to meet his youngest child in person, a fact that clearly pulls on his heart strings. But this does not deter them.

 

They set out for Brazil 3 years earlier, where they found no work. So it was on to Peru, then Ecuador and Colombia, where they boarded a boat on its way to Panama, a journey which lasted 3 days, with no food, water, or facilities. This boat capsized and they watched, unable to help, as 21 people drowned. They tell me of their journey through the rainforest, showing me pictures of friends in their group who died after being bitten by poisonous snakes or drinking river water which gave them chronic diarrhea. When they finally crossed the border in California, one of them ironically says with a chortle, “Welcome to America!’ Handcuffs.” They were detained for 4 months in Aurora, where they lost weight due to lack of nutritious food, suffered severe headaches brought on by stress and lack of sleep because of the deliberate use of the icebox tactic, were forced to work for $1/day in the kitchen, and were never allowed the opportunity to go outside and breathe fresh air. Upon their release, they were directed to Casa de Paz and from there, found a family who was willing and able to help them. Of course, their struggles did not end upon their release. They were even “mistakenly” labeled as sex offenders on their official papers, a label which was found to be extremely difficult to expunge, despite the fact that is was 100% untrue. Their poor treatment by immigration officers continues today. They have every right to be in the U.S. based on the eligibility guidelines for asylum seekers and one of them has won his asylum case, at which point he was provided with all of the proper documentation and permits to reside and work legally within the country. Despite this, they inform me that since Trump became president and there has been an increase in unwarranted ICE raids, both avoid leaving their house except to go to work or to visit Mommy and Poppy, for fear that they could be deported, no longer able to feed their families or send them to school. For fear their chance of bringing their families to a safer place will disappear.

 

Yet despite all of these hardships, they are able to see the light. One of them tells me how much he loves to dance, it makes him forget his troubles. They both love to play soccer and have a healthy appetite for cake and smoked chicken. They look fondly at their hosts, who don’t know exactly what we are saying, but are able to infer. One of the young men looks to me after reliving their nearly unfathomable story. He leans over, placing his hand on Poppy’s shoulder, his eyes swelling with tears and he says to me, “Imagine arriving here with nothing, knowing no one, having no belongings, not even a pair of shoes, and not speaking English. This man gave me everything, even though he did not even know my name. He clothed me, kept me warm, helped me find a job, gave me a bed in his own home. We do not speak the same language and we are not from the same place – mais dans nos coeurs, nous sommes les memes. But in our hearts we are the same. All of us, we have the same heart.” This is rehumanization as we see it.

 

At first glance, it may seem as though the term “rehumanization” means “to make human again.” And if you google the definition of it, this might in fact be the first one to appear. However, upon further examination, the term “rehumanization” means so much more, especially when you are faced with the truth about the deliberate use of dehumanizing tactics in the Aurora GEO detention center against fellow humans in the very city we call home. Tactics used in order to demean, separate, and humiliate people in a land we claim to welcome those “yearning to breathe free.” Rehumanization when you dig a bit deeper, is defined as:

  • From Wikipedia: “The process by which one reverses the damage done by dehumanization. That is, in individuals or groups, the process of rehabilitating one’s way of perceiving the other(s) in question in one’s mind and in consequent behavior.”[1]
  • Or, from the Metta Center for Nonviolence: “The nonviolent process of rekindling the sense of empathy” even while resisting an unjust agenda, only possible through focusing on similarities and overcoming stereotypes.[2]

In essence, rehumanization is recognizing humanity. Throughout our research process, this recognition of humanity emerged as a very clear theme, one that typically had always been

recognized by the immigrant, but not so easily recognized by the common American.

 

Upon my first observation at Casa de Paz, I had the pleasure of transporting a young man recently released from the GEO detention center from Guatemala to the Greyhound bus station. While this was a very brief interaction and I speak essentially no Spanish and him essentially no English, we were able to find more commonality in those 30 minutes than I often find with someone I have known for months. Over the course of the ride, through the use of a lot of hand gestures, google translate, and very broken Spanish and English, we talked about our favorite sports, he inquired where we had travelled to – had we ever been close to Guatemala? We discovered each other’s ages, and we became friends on Facebook, where he showed us pictures of his family. As he boarded his bus to his next destination in the United States, we shook his hand, and as we did so, he looked to us and stated with a smile “Muchos amigos at Casa de Paz.” To some, this conversation may seem insignificant, however it became clear it meant so much more than just talking about Facebook and what sports we liked to play. This willingness to relate is something that many citizens of the US refuse to do, effectively creating a divide which often leads to completely unfounded hatred of the other.

 

While interviewing the people who participated in this research, we asked almost everyone what message they would like to relay to the general American public. One Crimmigration lawyer stated, while admitting this to be a very hard question to answer: “Immigrants are people and as people they are fallible. They make mistakes, they do things they shouldn’t do, that’s exactly like everyone else… But if that is the criteria on who does and doesn’t get to live in the US, we should have a really close examination of ourselves…  It reflects a vision of us as people who we actually have never been, because we are humans. We make mistakes. The reality is that humans aren’t perfect.” The US system holds immigrants accountable to standards which no normal human can uphold, because as humans, we are not perfect. From the moment an immigrant crosses that border, the system sets them up to fail.

 

This lawyer was not alone. Many of the volunteers, staff, and former detainees stressed

the importance of humanity in our conversations with them, of the commonality between all of us – that we are all human. As these examples and literature can attest to, if we fall into the dominant discourse and continue to see each other as the other, we will only continue to reinforce a very unjust agenda. As a passionate Casa de Paz volunteer poignantly stated, “It’s simple to me – you remove the politics, remove the religion. Buddhist, Christian, Muslim, what have you. You talk to this fellow human being and relate to them as a father, a brother, a grandfather, a man… Nothing should ever stand in the way of you helping another human.”

 

While researching rehumanization, I came across a wealth of literature on the importance of recognizing humanity in the context of gross human rights violations, with specific focus on its use in the wake of apartheid in South Africa. While neuroscience offers an in depth study of the process of rehumanization, it is not something which can be done in a lab. Rehumanization is what is done in the most mundane of places, which requires the individuals, as the definition says, to “focus on similarities and overcome stereotypes.”[3] This is the challenge for us – Citizens of the United States of America. It is not a burden to be placed on the immigrant, who, as scholar Gomberg-Munoz fairly suggests, are often made to feel they have to earn the right to be here.[4] Being allowed to live freely and justly and recognized as an equal should not be a rarity. This is what all humans deserve and yet immigrants in the US are consistently denied it. I challenge you and all of us in the United States to recognize humanity and act as a beacon of hope rather than a cross to bear. Send us your poor, your tired, your huddled masses yearning to be free and welcome them! As equals, as peers, as colleagues, as humans.

 

At Casa de Paz, Sarah Jackson and her various volunteers make it their job to remind people their lives still have dignity even when it has been stripped from them in detention. For example, every year, Casa de Paz makes Valentine’s day cards for people in detention. While this is a small task, the message it sends to the immigrants at GEO represents so much more. As Sarah Jackson stated in a recent interview, “This is about reminding people that they matter, that they are human beings and that their lives should be dignified. And for that reason, Valentine’s Day is now important to me.”

 

What can you do?

  • Volunteer with Casa de Paz! This can be done in a variety of ways:
    • Bring a meal for guests
    • Provide transportation for guests (rides to the airport or bus station)
    • Visit someone being detained
    • Give household goods (paper towels, blankets, pillows, cleaning supplies, toiletries)
    • Donate moneyto pay for rent
    • Join Volleyball Internacional! Started by Sarah a couple years back – fees fund Casa de Paz.
  • Stay educated rather than following dominant discourse and help to break the cycle of institutionalized racism. What does the law say? Where are the discrepancies. Visit https://www.detentionwatchnetwork.org/
  • Attend a vigil at the Aurora GEO ICE processing center, located near the Peoria Light Rail station. Held 4 times per year and organized by the American Friends Service Committee and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition
  • Schedule a Know Your Rights training, organized by the Colorado Immigrant Rights Coalition.
  • Volunteer with the Colorado Rapid Response Network, anetwork of community groups and individuals trained to track, verify, and document abuses, and respond to ICE raids in immigrant communities.
  • Follow Coloradans for Immigrant Rights and the American Friends Service Committee
  • Attend a court case.
  • Get to know an immigrant. As one lawyer interviewed said, getting to know an immigrant “is progress, yet it is certainly not enough. People think that the immigrant they know is the exception to the rule,’ They’ll say, “Oh but the guy I know is a good guy, he’s a hard worker,” We need those people to realize that that particular immigrant is not the exception to the rule, that good immigrants are easy to find.” Recognize that the immigrant you know is not the exception to the rule.
  • Challenge yourself to leave your safe space, be uncomfortable, and recognize your positionality.
  • See each other for what we are – equals.

[1] “Rehumanization.” Wikipedia. July 02, 2017. Accessed May 20, 2017.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rehumanization.

[2] “Rehumanization.” Metta Center. August 28, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2017.

http://mettacenter.org/definitions/gloss-concepts/rehumanization-2/.

[3] “Rehumanization.” Metta Center. August 28, 2014. Accessed May 25, 2017.

http://mettacenter.org/definitions/gloss-concepts/rehumanization-2/.

[4] Gomberg-Muñoz, Ruth. Becoming Legal: Immigration Law and Mixed Status Families. New York: Oxford

University Press, 2017.

 

Insidious Ideology: The Drug War and Prison Systems in the Americas, Developing Alternatives to the Drug War in Latin America – Rachel Wolf

This is the fifth in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written Spring Quarter 2017 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas, taught by Lynn Holland.

 

Venezuela and El Salvador are examples of the dangers of mass incarceration promoted in both policy and practice and reliance on the prison system as a form of social control for both drug and gang activity. Although historically seen as a public health problem, shifting rhetoric and increased funding for policing turned drug use into a criminal problem in the United States. Soon after the inauguration of the “war on drugs” under President Nixon, the prison population began to rise.[1] Rather than address root causes or disrupt self-reinforcing processes, many Latin American countries, under pressure from the United States, have adopted the strategy of mass incarceration. Most of these countries now face prison overcrowding along with intensified organized crime, and discriminatory policing and justice systems. In Venezuela and El Salvador, the prisons have become closed systems with internal rules and danger so extreme that guards patrol only the exterior. The following paper will outline some of the challenges faced by these two countries as well as some alternative approaches being implemented in Nicaragua, Bolivia, and Uruguay, all less punitive than the drug war.

Venezuela’s prison system is in large part a reflection of its judicial system which “was ranked one of the worst in the world…in 2013” (Insight Crime 2017). Corruption and an inadequate supply of judges and prosecutors have stymied due process while violence, poor conditions, and further corruption permeate the prisons themselves. As in El Salvador, the prison system perpetuates gang activity and illicit markets. Inmates rule, “justice” is meted out in violence and death, illicit businesses are managed from behind bars, and the national guard traffics everything from weapons to food into the prison economy (Wyss 2015 & The Economist 2012). Over 70 percent of those incarcerated still await trial and human rights abuses abound. “A slow judicial system, the lack of prison facilities, and excessive prison sentences [are] reasons for the poor condition of Venezuelan jails” (Panam 2015).

Venezuelan law has mechanisms for prosecuting prison officials and others who commit torture and engage in corruption, yet the judicial system holds little credibility. In 2012, Venezuela inaugurated “Operation Cambote” to coordinate restoration and improvement of facilities with inmates, engineers and minatory officials in each of the country’s 34 prisons (Robertson 2012).  A lack of any news or analysis after it began, however, suggests a lack of meaningful and lasting reform. Nor has police reform been forthcoming – President Maduro’s “Safe Homeland Plan” of 2013 dispatched the military in a show-of-force crime prevention strategy that did little to curb violence and much to perpetuate impunity (US State Department 2013). Unfortunately, as the economic situation in the country worsens and the country struggles to secure the basic needs of the population and quell rebellion, penal reform remains low on the list of priorities.

In El Salvador, Mano dura (iron hand) initiated in 2003, has focused on reactive tough-on-crime policies. This hardline approach, with its strong public backing, is designed to “incriminate and incarcerate gang members, using (the) military to make up for the deficiencies in the police” (Ellis 2016, 32). The result has been an increasing reliance on the military, which receives strong backing from the U.S. through financial aid and training. As Wolf (2012) points out, the use of military repression exacerbates existing crime levels and breeds further insecurity, as well as leading to human rights abuses and impunity. Some place impunity near 90 percent and note that the accused can spend years behind bars before being sentenced (Insight Crime 2017).

Mano dura policies were supposed to be implemented in tandem with Mano extendida (open hand) policies whose aim was the social and economic integration for gang members. Yet of the 14,000 gang members who have been incarcerated, only 45 had been rehabilitated by 2005 (Ellis 2016, 32). In the meantime, overcrowded gang-controlled prisons have served as the perfect recruiting ground for new members and bases of operation for coordinating illicit activities and violence across the country. In 2015, the Salvadoran legislature proposed a Gang Reinsertion Law to give immunity to gang members who haven’t committed serious crimes and enable them to enter a government rehabilitation program, but the program has suffered from a lack of funding (Lohmuller). Since 2011, a poorly-funded prison rehabilitation program, “Yo Cambio” (I Change) has been slowly expanding to teach prisoners new skills, give them increasing responsibilities, improve public perception of prisoners, and allow participants to be separated from the rest of the prison population in the hopes of averting gang membership (Flores 2011). Unfortunately, U.S. aid comes earmarked largely for military training, leaving a shortage of funds that undermines the efficacy of these and other social reform programs.

While the President of El Salvador continues to press for hardline policies and militarized policing, the mayor of San Salvador is taking a different tack. Seeing gangs as a social problem, he has started a violence reduction program by investing in infrastructure and social programs, embracing youth, taking back public spaces, and “recruiting the kids to good things” (Grillo 2017). In his first year in office, the murder rate in San Salvador dropped by 16 percent, although “it is hard to know if this was caused by the mayor’s social work or the president’s policing” (Grillo 2017).

The following table using data from the World Prison Brief (2014) provides a comparison of imprisonment rates, pre-trial detention rates, and the murder rate in Venezuela, El Salvador, and several other countries in Latin America. In particular, we can see that the murder rate in Costa, Bolivia, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have remained relatively low by comparison. Of these, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, and Uruguay have relatively low rates of occupancy while Bolivia and Nicaragua have the two lowest rates of imprisonment (though Venezuela is comparable here). It is worth our while then to consider some of the crime fighting alternatives that have been put forward in these four countries.

  Prison population total (including pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners) Prison population rate (per 100,000 national population) Pre-trial detainees/remand prisoners (percent of prison population) Occupancy (based on official capacity) Murder Rate (per 100,000 population)*
United States 2145100 666 20.3% (2015) 103.9% (2014) 4.9 (2015)**
Venezuela 54738 173 71.3% (2016) 153.9% (2016) 59
El Salvador 38237 588 33.8% (2017) 348.2% (2016) 81.2
Costa Rica 17440 352 17.2% (2014) 139.4% (2013) 11.8
Bolivia 14598 130 69% (2016) 253.9% (2016) 10.8
Nicaragua 10569 171 12.3% (2012) 128% (2010) 7
Uruguay 10228 297 65% (2016) 112.5% 6

 

*data from Gagne 2017

**data from Friedman 2017

 

While El Salvador has relied on Mano dura and Venezuela has made heavy use of pre-trial detention, Nicaragua has created the Office of Juvenile Issues as a means of addressing gangs and violence. Here the police “treat gang members as objects of social rehabilitation” rather than criminals (Ellis 2016, 32). The country has also separated the police and military, refused to allow military action in gang prevention, and formed a corps of 20,000 volunteers in local Committees for Social Prevention of Crime (Ellis 2016, 32). In 2016, Nicaragua released about 80 percent of its prison inmates “serving sentences of less than five years.” These releases were part of a “humanitarian policy of reconciliation and unity for Nicaraguan families” (Bargent 2016). The effects of the release are yet to be seen however. In Venezuela, a similar move “where over 13,000 prisoners were released onto the streets” was accompanied by “a near complete absence of oversight and control.” With a lack of government transparency that typifies this government, it has been “difficult to assess whether the release was a carefully considered response to minimize the impact of a genuine crisis, or a badly planned, knee-jerk reaction to that crisis” (Bargent 2016). The combination of improved policing and greater community involvement in policing in Nicaragua, however, may well result in a better outcome in this country.

Costa Rica has also shied away from harsh policing tactics, opting instead

to implement a series of modest reforms to its prisons and measures to strengthen its reintegration initiatives. These measures included the creation of an external oversight body to protect the rights of individuals in custody, enhanced training of penitentiary system police and staff, and…a plan to expand the country’s reinsertion programs in the prison system in coordination with local businesses.

 

In addition, the Narcotics Law was amended to minimize the imprisonment of “women in vulnerable situations.” Interestingly, these and other initiatives in Costa Rica have been promoted chiefly by reformers within the Ministry of Justice and Peace and the penitentiary system (Beltran & Davis 2014).

At the same time, Costa Rica’s prisons, like those in much of Central America, have large numbers of pretrial or preventative detainees that put prisons over capacity (Krumholtz 2016). The closing of San Sebastián preventative prison in Costa Rica and legal efforts by public defenders to promote alternatives to incarceration such as ankle bracelets for flight risks, mandatory work for petty theft, and rehabilitation for drug addicts, show promise yet still face immense political and financial obstacles (Krumholtz 2016).

In Bolivia, the failure of the drug war has led not to lasting prison reform, but to drug policy reform. While the government attempted to reduce detention through legal reforms in 2014 and 2016, public support for “iron fist” policing strategies and greater use of detention has remained strong. Taking a different tack then, the Bolivian government legalized coca production for domestic consumption in 2004, expelled the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) from the country four years later and, as of this year, has doubled the area of legal coca production (Tegel 2016). The coca production system is highly regulated and policed by local growers’ associations and, as abuses against growers have decreased and economic prospects for poor farmers have improved, trust in the police has increased (Grisaffi 2014). At the same time, Bolivia continues to be a transit nation for illicit drugs and about 20 percent of prisoners are incarcerated on drug-related charges. Furthermore, the prison system is among the top five of those now over capacity in Latin America (Yagoub 2016 and King 2016).

In Uruguay, the government never subscribed to the harsh “war on drugs” that criminalized both trafficking and use. In 1974, it passed Decree Law 14294 which kept strict sentences for sellers of illicit drugs while decriminalizing personal possession (Walsh 2016). The country also has low levels of crime (6 homicides per 100,000 people) and a highly transparent government with low levels of corruption (Walsh 2016). By the mid-2000s, the country

began to embrace other harm reduction approaches to drug policy. In 2004, the government approved measures designed to provide injectable drug users with easier access to clean needles, and over the next decade made increasingly explicit references to harm reduction in national policy documents. (Walsh 2016).

 

In addition to harm reduction measures, the prison system is, at least in part, focused on reform rather than retribution. Punta de Rieles is an “open” prison with free movement, activities, entrepreneurship training, and thriving businesses, the proceeds of which are deposited into a savings account available upon inmate release (Bernas 2017). Uruguay’s strong governance may well be its most positive feature, but its approach also sets an example for humane and effective drug policy and prison reform.

Each country in the Americas has faced a combination of successes and drawbacks in its attempts to address drug trafficking and organized crime within its borders and internationally.  As Grisaffi (2014) points out, “Historically, the USA has dictated the terms of the ‘war on drugs,’ and has used its political and economic might to crush any debate on alternatives…[but] Latin American leaders have argued for more effective and humane alternatives.” While Venezuela and El Salvador struggle to implement meaningful reform in the face of corruption, violence and pressure, they have the opportunity to look to their neighbors for guidance and support. Whether it is bottom-up policing change, top-down prison overhaul or national drug policy reform, countries such as Nicaragua, Costa Rica, Bolivia, and Uruguay are making inroads into crime reduction and prison reform in a challenge to the U.S.’ disastrous drug war.

 

 

Bibliography

Beltran, Adriana and Ashley Davis. (2014 Aug 15). Prison Reform in Latin America: The Costa Rica Experience. WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas. Retrieved from https://www.wola.org/analysis/prison-reform-in-latin-america-the-costa-rican-experience/

 

Bernas, Frederick & Rayan Hindi. (2017 Apr 9). The Uruguayan prison where inmates set up shop. BBC News. Retrieved from http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-39145551

 

Flores, Gloria and Nelson Rauda. (2014 dec 4). Ampliarán modelo “Yo Cambio” a todo el sistema penitenciario. La Prensa Gráfica. Retrieved from http://www.laprensagrafica.com/2014/12/04/ampliaran-modelo-yo-cambio-a-todo-el-sistema-penitenciario

 

Friedman, Matthew, Ames C. Grawert & James Cullen. (2017). Crime Trends 1990-2016. Brennan Center for Justice: NYU School of Law.

 

Gagne, David. (2017 Jan 16). Insight Crime’s 2016 Homicide Round-up. Insight Crime. Retrieved from http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/insight-crime-2016-homicide-round-up

 

Grillo, Ioan. (2017 Mar 2). The Mayor Saving Minors. Time. Retrieved from http://time.com/collection-post/4684941/nayib-bukele-next-generation-leaders/

 

Insight Crime (2017 Mar 9). “El Salvador.” Insight Crime. Retrieved from http://es.insightcrime.org/noticias-sobre-crimen-organizado-en-el-salvador/el-salvador

 

King, Quentin. (2016 Jan 12). Bolivia Prepares for 2016 Drug Policy. InSight Crime. Retrieved from http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/bolivia-prepares-for-2016-drug-policy

 

Krumholtz, Michael. (2016 Aug 9). Hell spilling over: Is Costa Rica’s preventative prison system in need of reform? The Tico Times. Retrieved from http://www.ticotimes.net/l/preventive-prison

 

Labrador, Gabriel, Nelson Rauda Zablah and Jimmy Alvarado. (2017 June 6). La reducción de la pobreza, de los homicidio y otros logros dudosos del Presidente. El Faro. Retrieved from https://elfaro.net/es/201706/el_salvador/20444/La-reducci%C3%B3n-de-la-pobreza-de-los-homicidios-y-otros-logros-dudosos-del-Presidente.htm

 

La Prensa Gráfica. (2017 feb 17). Implementan “Yo Cambio” en el Penal de Gotera. La Prensa Gráfica. Retrieved from http://www.laprensagrafica.com/2017/02/17/dpto1702-esq1

 

Panam Post. (2015 Feb 25). Report: Hundreds Die Each Year in Overcrowded Venezuela Jails. Panam Post. Retrieved from http://panampost.com/panam-staff/2015/02/25/report-hundreds-die-each-year-in-overcrowded-venezuelan-jails/

 

Robertson, Ewan. (2012 Jan 27). Venezuela Moves Ahead with Prison Reforms. Venezuelananalysis.com. Retrieved from https://venezuelanalysis.com/news/6777

 

Tegel, Simeon. (2016 Sept 21). Bolivia ended its drug war by kicking out the DEA and legalizing coca. Vice News. Retrieved from https://news.vice.com/article/bolivia-ended-its-drug-war-by-kicking-out-the-dea-and-legalizing-coca

 

US State Department. (2013). Venezuela 2013 Human Rights Report. United States Department of State. Retrieved from https://www.state.gov/documents/organization/220689.pdf

 

Walsh, John and Geoff Ramsey. (2016). Uruguay’s Drug Policy: Major Innovations, Major Challenges. Brookings Institute: Center for 21st Century Security and Intelligence, Latin America Initiative.

 

Wolf, Sonja. (2012). Policing Crime in El Salvador. NACLA Report on the Americas, 45:1.

 

World Prison Brief (2014). World Prison Brief Data. Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Retrieved from www.prisonstudies.org

 

Wyss, Jim. (2015 Apr 27). Study: Organized crime undermining Venezuelan institutions. Miami Herald. Retrieved from http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article19759443.html

 

Yagoub, Mimi. (2016 Nov 17). Report Highlights Overcrowding, Other Problems in Bolivian Prisons. InSight Crime. Retrieved from http://www.insightcrime.org/news-briefs/report-highlights-overcrowding-other-problems-in-bolivia-prisons

 

 

[1] “Harsher sentencing of drug offences was a key development, in the context of the US government’s ‘war on drugs’ as declared by President Nixon in 1971 – with the consequence that admissions for drug offences accounted for almost one-third of all admissions to state and federal prisons over the period 1993 to 2009 (Rothwell, 2015)” (Jacobson, Heard & Fair 2017, 11)

Criminalizing la lucha: Militarization, Murder and Extractivism in Chiapas, Mexico – Kaelyn DeVries

“In Mexico, there are three systems of state-sanctioned violence: colonialism, patriarchy and capitalism” (staff member, Voces Mesoamericanas, Chiapas, Mexico)

 

In Mexican communities, capitalism kills. Since mining companies began extracting titanium and other minerals in 2005, the Acacoyagua municipality in the Soconusco region of Chiapas has seen a substantial increase in the number of new cases of lung, pancreatic, skin, colon and liver cancer among residents. By 2015, cancer accounted for more than 22% of the total deaths in Acacoyagua, many of them children and young adults.[1]

 

Just as the health effects of mineral extraction projects have proven deadly for local populations, so, too, has expressing political opposition to them. In 2009, Mariano Abarca, the leader of an anti-mining movement in Chiapas, was assassinated and Canadian mining firm Blackfire Exploration Ltd., allegedly tied to the murder, was accused of human rights abuses and corruption.[2] In 2016, Berta Cáceres was murdered in her home[3] after Desarrollos Energéticos S.A., the company whose hydroelectric project Cáceres succeeded in halting, mounted a campaign to demonize her, calling her an anarchist and the leader of a violent movement that threatened Honduran sovereignty itself.[4] Gustavo Castro, the Director of Otros Mundos,[5] an organization in Chiapas whose mission is to create alternatives to global capitalist expansion, collaborated with Cáceres on initiatives around environmental activism and anti-capitalism in the region. He was also shot and left for dead that night in Cáceres’ home. Now living in exile for his own safety, he communicates virtually with his team on the ground in Chiapas, who continue organizing communities in defense of their land, water and territory.

 

This trend follows an alarming pattern for activists throughout Latin America. From 2010 to 2015, in Mexico and Central America alone, an estimated 194 environmental activists were murdered.[6] In each case, the process is much the same: governments and transnational corporations systematically criminalize grassroots resistance movements, delegitimizing their cause and dehumanizing their supporters. In Mexico, environmental activists are subjected to arbitrary arrests and detention, police repression at peaceful protests, defamation, demoralization, and false charges. These actions incite the use of violence against activists and, when their murders are left uninvestigated and unpunished, institutionalizes violence as a legitimate strategy for silencing peaceful opposition. In the same way that depictions of Mexican immigrants as criminals increases their chances of being killed at border crossings,[7] the criminalization of environmental activists increases the likelihood of their persecution and death at the hands of interested state and private actors.

 

Below is an account of the struggle faced by mining communities in Chiapas, written following my participation in a human rights delegation alongside activists at Otros Mundos. Their story illustrates the important nexus between global capitalist expansion, state investment in security initiatives, and increased violence and human rights abuses in communities. It leaves no question as to why activists across the region have dubbed transnational mining initiatives “projects of death.”[8]

 

Protecting foreign investment: capitalism as a national security interest

 

“It is easier [for the Mexican government] to disappear, assassinate a peasant than to confront the company…” (Member, Autonomous Council of the Chiapas Coast, Mexico)

 

Over the last several decades, a series of structural reforms opened Mexico to greater foreign direct investment. Beginning in the early 1990s, Mexico pursued an aggressive privatization model in preparation for entrance into the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). These trends accelerated under subsequent administrations; particularly under that of current President Enrique Peña Nieto (2012-present). Constitutional reforms facilitated the privatization of previously communal lands, while subsequent mining legislation allowed transnational mining companies expedited access to, and control over, the exploration and exploitation of minerals throughout Mexico. A 2005 reform of the original 1993 mining law allowed the government to grant mining concessions for up to 50 years, and eased the process of contract renewal following that period.[9] Energy reforms beginning in 2013 also resulted in the privatization of petroleum and hydrocarbon production.[10]

 

During the same period, the U.S. and Mexican governments enacted policies to heighten security throughout the country under the pretense of curbing illicit drug flows and securing Mexico’s borders. Through the Mérida Initiative,[11] the U.S. has invested billions of dollars in the militarization of Mexico since 2008, increasing access to arms and high-power weaponry, militarizing local and national police forces and providing extensive military training.

 

The combination of economic deregulation and repressive security policies has allowed the Mexican government to facilitate foreign investment in Mexico by expanding militarized control over resource-rich areas. In partnership with the state, mining companies deploy security agents, military forces, and sicarios to silence community opposition to the megaprojects, restrict access to mining sites and threaten the safety and security of residents. The result has been the widespread use of state-sanctioned violence in the name of protecting and growing transnational capitalist interests.[12]

 

In Chiapas state, the abundance of natural resources makes the region particularly vulnerable to violent territorial control by the Mexican government. The expansion of mining concessions in Chiapas (currently there are a total of 99) led to a profound increase in military presence – the state is littered with military checkpoints, barracks, encampments and bases, and the construction of additional military centers continues today. It is within this environment, that Acacoyagua residents began to fight back.

 

In defense of Acacoyagua: the struggle of the FPDS

 

“…wherever there are mines, delinquency increases, insecurity prevails, peace runs out and fear takes over the population” (Member, Frente Popular en Defensa del Soconusco 20 de Junio)

 

In Acacoyagua and elsewhere, the Mexican government and its corporate allies use a variety of illegal and degrading tactics to convince local communities that their business is socially responsible. Tactics include bribery, extortion, creating social conflict, spreading misinformation, and extending promises of job creation and development of schools, stores, and infrastructure.[13] After ten years of deception and devastating health outcomes, Acacoyagua residents organized in defense of themselves and their territory, forming the grassroots resistance movement called FPDS – Frente Popular en Defensa del Soconusco 20 de Junio (Popular Front in Defense of Soconusco 20th of June).[14]

 

Last year the FPDS brought the Acacoyagua case to the Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources, a government institution claiming to protect Mexico’s natural resources and prevent and control contamination.[15] The FPDS discussed the health problems of the community and brought photo evidence of water contamination and the harmful effects of chemical runoff from the Casas Viejas mine. Ministry staff responded by turning the group away, calling their assertions illegitimate and unfounded.

 

Soon after, Mexican state police and El Puntal S.A., the corporation that runs the Casas Viejas mine, began to threaten and harass the FPDS. The company distributed flyers denigrating the organization and published defamatory remarks about its members in the local newspaper.[16] The radio station Bestia Grupera Huixtla[17] recently transmitted a segment in which broadcasters narrated a confrontation between community members in Acacoyagua and the FPDS, who set up a road block to ensure no mining trucks or equipment passed through. Segment announcers mentioned nothing of the purpose of the FPDS and the context in which they resist. Instead, they vilified the FPDS, portraying them as a violent organization and attempting to pit the community against them.[18]

 

On 20 June 2017, the FPDS celebrated two years of struggle against open-pit mining in the municipalities of Acacoyagua and Escuintla in Chiapas. Despite continued attempts at division and public defamation by El Puntal and the Mexican state, the Casas Viejas and El Bambú mining projects have been temporarily suspended. With the support of Otros Mundos and the Red Mexicana de Afectados por la Minería (Mexican Network for those Affected by Mining)[19], the FPDS continues to advocate for its member communities, disseminate its story at the local and national levels, and demand the dissolution of all mining concessions in the region.[20]

 

For the FPDS and others, the struggle is not over. As activists are brutalized, the Mexican government continues to work in partnership with transnational extractive industries to maintain the status quo. The growth and expansion of mining and other mineral exploitation initiatives depends on their ability to criminalize dissent in order to justify the violent suppression of dissenters. Mining companies are given free rein to dispossess local populations of their land and strip them of their rights to life, mobility and freedom of expression. And while Mexico’s official discourse emphasizes democracy, security and development, internally the Mexican state is deteriorating under astonishing levels of corruption and impunity, collusion with private interests and criminal groups, and major gaps in transparency and accountability.

 

As outsiders looking in, we must ask ourselves – who are the real criminals and how should we respond?

[1] Data from documents obtained by the FPDS from the Mexican Civil Registry

[2] https://business-humanrights.org/en/blackfire-exploration-response-re-allegations-of-human-rights-abuses-in-connection-with-its-mine-in-chiapas-mexico

[3] http://www.goldmanprize.org/recipient/berta-caceres/

[4] http://bigstory.ap.org/article/6566fcee06a942d1a654c2aef31a4de6/court-files-show-bid-tar-slain-honduran-activist-caceres

[5] http://otrosmundoschiapas.org/

[6] https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/dangerous-ground/

[7] http://annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.anthro.36.081406.094316

[8] http://www.otrosmundoschiapas.org/index.php/temas-analisis/31-31-resistencias/2480-mexico-hablan-los-pueblos-y-los-barrios

[9] http://www.jornada.unam.mx/2011/08/10/politica/016n1pol

[10] https://www.forbes.com.mx/10-consecuencias-economicas-de-la-reforma-energetica/

[11] https://www.state.gov/j/inl/merida/

[12] See Paley, Dawn (2014), Drug War Capitalism, AK Press

[13] http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33294-mexican-farmers-accuse-mining-companies-of-shady-tactics-in-chiapas

[14] https://www.facebook.com/frentesoconusco/

[15] https://www.gob.mx/semarnat/que-hacemos

[16]  http://www.otrosmundoschiapas.org/index.php/temas-analisis/31-resistencias/pueblos/2666-el-frente-popular-en-defensa-del-soconusco-20-de-junio-cumple-2-anos-de-resistencia-a-la-mineria

[17] https://www.facebook.com/LaBestiaHuixtla/?ref=br_rs

[18] Information obtained from local contact in Chiapas

[19] http://www.remamx.org/

[20] http://www.otrosmundoschiapas.org/index.php/temas-analisis/31-resistencias/pueblos/2666-el-frente-popular-en-defensa-del-soconusco-20-de-junio-cumple-2-anos-de-resistencia-a-la-mineria

Insidious Ideology: The Drug War and Prison Systems in the Americas Prison Neglect and the Incoherent State in Venezuela – Patrick Pierson

This is the third in a series of five articles on the state of prison systems in the U.S. and Latin America. The articles have been adapted from a five-part paper written Spring Quarter 2017 by students taking the course, Illicit Markets in the Americas, taught by Lynn Holland.

 

 

Venezuela’s penal system ranks among the worst in the world. According to a report by The Economist (2012), from 2004-2008, prison killings resulted in more than 400 inmate deaths annually, with figures on the rise in 2012 to nearly 600. “In other words, a Venezuelan is at least 20 times more likely to be murdered in jail than on the streets, despite a steep climb in the country’s overall murder rate over the past decade” (The Economist 2012). The report continues, “In Venezuela the only functions performed by prison guards are perimeter security, a daily headcount and the transfer of prisoners to court. Whereas relatives are submitted to humiliating strip searches at visiting time, it is no secret that the guns, drugs, mobile phones and other items that are available on the inside are trafficked by the national guard, which is responsible for perimeter security” (The Economist 2012).

The poor and inefficient management of prison systems does little to disrupt the activity of organized crime and illicit networks in Venezuela. Given the lack of oversight and relatively lax controls over inmates, organizational leaders are often able to continue managing their business operations from behind bars.

“The most obvious intersection of organized crime and the state can be seen in the penal system, Cedeno said. The study lays out how gang leaders, called pranes, run sophisticated business enterprises – which include communication networks, front companies, and hired assassins – from the jails. The phenomenon helps explain why Venezuela’s jails are so deadly, with some 500 inmate murders per year and thousands more hurt…” (Wyss 2015).

 

The unruly atmosphere which characterizes the Venezuelan prison system is clearly illuminated in a 2017 report released by Human Rights Watch. The organization tells the story of a recent uncovering of a mass grave located within a prison in Venezuela. While the facility was undergoing infrastructure updates, construction workers uncovered a grave with more than one dozen bodies, a number of which had been beheaded. The Venezuelan government had released no official documentation about the whereabouts of the massacred individuals, revealing the terrifyingly limited oversight exercised by the government with respect to protecting the rights of inmates (Human Rights Watch 2017). In such an environment, it is not surprising that the penal system would have limited impact on curtailing illicit activity or providing rehabilitative services for offenders, thereby largely precluding the possibility of inmates entering society with the tools and resources necessary for a successful reintegration.

What can account for the toleration of violence, abuse, and neglect in Venezuela’s prison system? Rather than attempting to answer this question outright, I seek clues in the following discussion of the political and social conditions of this country. These pertain particularly to the incoherence of the state, the spread of illicit market activity, and the existence of a range of armed groups in Venezuela.

Incoherence of the State

 

First, Venezuela is unique (unfortunately) with respect to its particularly high levels of violence, which pervade society including the prisons. For example, in 2012, the homicide rate in Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, was more than twenty times higher than the global average. Furthermore, in the same year, five of Venezuela’s cities made the list of the world’s fifty most violent cities (Tremaria 2016). What explains such high levels of violence in Venezuela?

Tremaria (2016) notes a paradox at the heart of such high crime rates; namely, the fact that Bolivarianism – the mode of socialism practiced by the Chávez, and now Maduro, regime – is meant to decrease social inequality and thereby produce a more just, equitable, and peaceful society for all. Such efforts at more equitable economic distribution have come at the expense, however, of a disruption of social life and extremely heightened political polarization. In short, the Chavismo system has created clear pro and anti-Chavez groups, thereby generating evermore stark class conflict. “Today, Caracas is not only divided along the lines of socio-economic strata, but also along political allegiances, with zones of violent clashes between supporters and opponents” (Tremaria 2016: 70). While such political polarization has certainly affected social relations in Venezuela, the sweeping changes also affect public policy and security provision by the state.

In fact, the lack of cohesion among both the state and criminal organizations in Venezuela is another distinguishing aspect of illicit markets and criminal activity in the country. “Political polarization has led to an institutional fragmentation of long-standing political alliances, incompetence, and incapacity to establish a coordinated security policy addressing the problem of urban violence across different levels of governance and all Caracas municipalities” (Tremaria 2016: 71). Tremaria goes on to note that twelve ministers of the interior were appointed during Chávez’s fourteen-year rule, while twenty-two plans for citizen security were launched. Clearly, the country lacks a cohesive long-term strategy for realizing a more robust and effective criminal justice system. This lack of cohesion and coordinated policy action may be a result of diminished state capacity or incapable civil servants, but it may also be – at least partly – due to government reluctance to enact strict overhauls of the criminal justice and public security systems.

Government Corruption

 

Corruption within the Venezuelan civil service is an endemic problem (Coronel 1996), which likely plays a role in the dire failings of the prison system. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that nearly twenty percent of the active Venezuelan workforce is employed by the government as part of the socialist government’s agenda (162). Despite these challenges, neither the state bureaucracy nor the judiciary has taken sufficient steps to address high rates of corruption and malfeasance on the part of government employees. Coronel (1996) highlights the fact that only a handful of high profile corruption cases have resulted in jail time for offenders, despite the fact that all actors are aware of the pervasiveness of corruption among government employees. As noted by Naím (2012),

“Owing in part to such ties [between criminal organizations and government officials], the cocaine business has flourished in Venezuela in recent years, and the country now supplies more than half of all cocaine shipments to Europe…And the drug trade is not the only illicit activity that has flourished in Venezuela’s era of state-sanctioned crime: the country has also become a base of operations for human trafficking, money laundering, counterfeiting, weapons smuggling, and the trade in contraband oil.”

 

While the ubiquity of corruption clearly brings with it a number of economic and efficiency costs, it also results in a crisis of legitimacy between the state and its populace. A history of corruption, coupled with impunity for many offenders, erodes trust in political institutions and disrupts the government’s ability to win public support for broader reforms (Coronel 1996). The results are self-reinforcing in that a lack of legitimacy only leads to a greater degree of mistrust on behalf of citizens. Not surprisingly, widespread corruption and a severe lack of government accountability and legitimacy creates an environment in which illicit activity is allowed to flourish.

Furthermore, the judiciary in Venezuela serves largely as a tool of the ruling party and its President, Nicolas Maduro. The erosion of an institutionalized and objective rule of law dismantles norms which help to govern social and political life, thereby creating both opportunities and incentives for individuals and groups to pursue their desired objectives through extralegal means (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia 2016).

“The problem is compounded in the justice system. According to the Organization of American States, Venezuela has far fewer prosecutors – 2.47 per every 100,000 inhabitants – than a country of its size requires. It also has only 6.86 judges per 100,000 inhabitants, far fewer than it should have, and way below the norm on the continent. In comparison, Chile, a less violent country, has 50.41 judges per 100,000 inhabitants. And the few judges that the country does have faced enormous pressures to keep people out of jail, since Venezuela has one of the most overcrowded, and hence violent, prison systems in the world” (Nagel 2014: 83).

 

Armed Groups of Different Persuasions

 

The Venezuelan state often finds itself in direct confrontation with a number of armed groups of various orientations. The activities of these different groups produce a high rate of uncontrolled violence that may contribute to the capacity of gangs both within and outside of the prison system while simultaneously weakening of the role of the state.

One of the most long-standing groups is the Bolivarian Liberation Forces (FBL), a leftist guerrilla organization which emerged in the early 1990s as a counterforce to the potential influence of right-wing Colombian paramilitaries (Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium). Given that Colombia and Venezuela share a border of over 2,000 kilometers, it is not surprising that Colombian paramilitary groups such as the FARC and ELN would make inroads in Venezuela, strategically using the territory as a safe haven outside the purview of the Colombian government (Insight Crime 2016). Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez (1999-2013) maintained a complicated relationship with the FARC, cooperating with the group solely when it was to his own benefit. For the FARC, Venezuela provided strategic locations to develop and coordinate plans outside the watchful eye of the Colombian state, particularly when during periods of heightened pressure against FARC activities. For Chávez, the FARC provided a strategic ally against perceived external threats from alternative groups (BBC 2011).

Rebel and guerilla groups in Venezuela differ from other forms of organized violence in the country because they are predominantly located in rural areas and rarely engage directly in violent activity in larger urban areas. Furthermore, these groups are not directly targeted for disarmament and demobilization by the state given the government’s ability to manipulate them for its own purposes. Because guerrilla organizations do not directly challenge the authority of the state, their presence is tolerated and often exploited to the regime’s benefit.

Finally, Venezuela possesses a number of highly localized street gangs, particularly in urban centers such as Caracas. In contrast to large-scale cartel organizations in Mexico or Colombia, these groups are more similar to gang-based organizations such as MS-13 in El Salvador. They often consist of a just few dozen individuals seeking to assert control over a small geographical area, such as a few city blocks (Grillo and Benezra 2016). The groups, along with paramilitaries, often provide security services in the country’s poorly patrolled barrios, areas in which the country’s high levels of homicide are disproportionately located (Pardo 2016). Due to their control of local geographies, local gangs in Venezuela are often contracted by larger criminal organizations to facilitate smuggling or trafficking through their respective areas (InSight Crime 2016).

*    *    *    *    *

Today, as popular protests mount in the streets, the Maduro regime continues its efforts to retain control over the vast state apparatus. The social and economic strain placed on the country provides prime breeding ground for illicit activity among the country’s wide range of informal criminal actors and armed groups. Similarly, high levels of social unrest, economic insecurity, and increasingly violent police tactics generate more conducive conditions for the proliferation of localized armed gangs and criminal actors. Meanwhile, the country’s neglected prison system continues to operate under the control of prison gangs to the detriment of all who remain incarcerated.

Bibliography

 

“Bolivarian Liberation Forces.” Terrorism Research & Analysis Consortium. Retrieved on May 25, 2017. Accessible at: https://www.trackingterrorism.org/group/bolivarian-liberation-forces-fbl

 

Camacho, Carlos. “Venezuela becoming the capital of organized crime, amid raging scarcity.” Fox News. October 12, 2015. Accessed on May 15, 2017. Retrievable at: http://www.foxnews.com/world/2015/10/12/venezuela-becoming-capital-organized-crime-amid-raging-scarcity.html

 

“Colombian Farc rebels’ links to Venezeuala detailed.” BBC. May 10, 2011. Accessed on May 16, 2017. Retrievable at: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-13343810

 

Coronel, Gustavo. “Curbing Corruption in Venezuela.” Journal of Democracy, Vol. 7:3 (July 1996): 156-165. (https://muse-jhu-edu.du.idm.oclc.org/article/16760)

 

“A journey into hell.” The Economist. September 22, 2012. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at: http://www.economist.com/node/21563288

 

“GameChangers 2016: Criminality and Organized Crime Thrives in Venezuela.” InSight Crime. January 2, 2017. Accessed on May 15, 2017. Retrievable at: http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/gamechangers-2016-criminality-and-organized-crime-thrives-in-venezuela

 

Grillo, Ioan, and Jorge Benezra. “Inside the Hell of Venezuelan Police Prisons.” TIME. June 8, 2016. Accessed on May 20, 2017. Retrievable at: http://time.com/4360758/inside-the-hell-of-venezuelan-police-prisons/

 

Grillo, Ioan, and Jorge Benezra. “Venezuela’s Murder Epidemic Rages on Amid State of Emergency.” TIME. May 20, 2016. Accessed on May 22, 2017. Retrievable at: http://time.com/4341450/venezuela-state-of-emergency-murder-caracas/

 

“Mass Grave Found in Venezuelan Prison.” Human Rights Watch. March 21, 2017. Retrieved on May 15, 2017. Accessible at: https://www.hrw.org/news/2017/03/21/mass-grave-found-venezuelan-prison

 

Nagel, Juan Cristóbal. “Venezuela: A Crisis Three Years in the Making.” Caribbean Journal of International Relations and Diplomacy, Vol. 2:1 (2014): 75-88. (http://libraries.sta.uwi.edu/journals/ojs/index.php/iir/article/viewFile/454/400)

 

Naím, Moisés. “Mafia States: Organized Crime Takes Office.” Foreign Affairs, May/June 2012. Accessed on May 18, 2017. (accessible at http://www.relooney.com/NS3040/0_New_14032.pdf)

 

“2016: OVV estima 28.479 muertes violentas en Venezuela.” Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia. December 28, 2016. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at: https://observatoriodeviolencia.org.ve/2016-ovv-estima-28-479-muertes-violentas-en-venezuela/

 

Pardo, Daniel. “Catuche, el barrio de Venezuela donde las madres tomaron el poder y acabaron con la violencia.” BBC Mundo. June 9, 2016. Accessed on May 23, 2017. Retrievable at: http://www.bbc.com/mundo/noticias-america-latina-36489141

 

Tremaria, Stiven. “Violent Caracas: Understanding Violence and Homicide in Contemporary

Venezuela.” International Journal of Conflict and Violence, Vol. 10:1 (2016): 62-76.

 

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Wallis, Daniel. “Venezuela violence puts focus on militant ‘colectivo’ groups.” Reuters. February 13, 2014. Accessed on May 17, 2017. Retrievable at: http://www.reuters.com/article/us-venezuela-protests-colectivos-idUSBREA1C1YW20140213

 

Werlau, Maria C. “Venezuela’s Criminal Gangs: Warriors of Cultural Revolution.” World Affairs 2014: 90-96.

 

Wyss, Jim. “Study: Organized crime undermining Venezuelan institutions.” Miami Herald. April 27, 2015. Accessed on May 20, 2017. Retrievable at: http://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/world/americas/venezuela/article19759443.html

Getting “Tough on Crime”: How Mano Dura Strengthens Gangs in El Salvador – Chloe Fisher

In El Salvador, the use of mano dura and other punitive policies against suspected gang members has been prevalent for many years. These policies include the use of repressive police tactics and mass incarceration as a means of clamping down on criminal gangs that emerged after the end of the civil war in 1992. Rather than deterring crime and gang activity, however, crime including homicide rates have risen significantly and gangs are as strong as ever. The crowding of the prisons due to mass arrests has made Salvadoran prisons some of the most crowded and miserable in the hemisphere. At the same time, these prisons have become a kind of headquarters for Central America’s two largest street gangs, MS-13 and Barrio 18.

Origins of Gang Activity

MS-13, a particularly dangerous gang, had its origins in the neighborhoods of Los Angeles, California. During El Salvador’s prolonged civil war, some 700,000 Salvadorans immigrated to the U.S. as refugees, many of whom settled in southern California.  Many of these refugees attained legal status in the U.S but not necessarily citizenship. As outsiders, their children were frequently intimidated by existing gangs and responded by establishing their own, the Mara Salvatrucha or MS-13.  As some of the youth had come armed with guns or machetes used during the war, it quickly became one of the most violent gangs in Los Angeles ( Flynn 2017).

After the civil war ended, the U.S. government revoked the Temporary Protected Status law, which had allowed Salvadorans to remain in the U.S. during the war. U.S. laws regarding the deportation of ex-convicts were also changed to enable the government to deport Salvadoran gang members thereby reducing pressure on the crowded California prison system. The result was a steady flow of deported former prisoners and other Salvadorans from the U.S. to El Salvador between 1998 and 2014. In total, over 81,000 ex-convicts were deported to El Salvador as well as Honduras and Guatemala (InSight Crime 2017).

In El Salvador, repatriated gang members were not welcomed back into society. They were heavily tattooed, had American tastes and habits, and in many cases did not even speak Spanish.  In addition, the post-war demobilization of thousands of soldiers and police resulted in high levels of unemployment and there were few jobs waiting for them. In light of this reception, many chose to remain active members of their gangs and so adapted the Los Angeles gang structure for the purpose of taking over local neighborhoods in El Salvador.

MS-13 and its rival Barrio 18, also originating on the streets of Los Angeles, soon emerged in the poorer neighborhoods of the Northern Triangle countries. In El Salvador, the two major gangs were bitter enemies and fighting was rampant. With violence peaking inside jails and juvenile detention centers, the public demanded action. In the year 2000, authorities responded by segregating the prisons according to gang membership choosing Centro de Internamiento de Menores de Tonacatepeque for the exclusive incarceration of MS 13 members and El Espino to house members of Barrio 18.

Mano Dura

The policy of Mano Dura, or the “iron fist”, followed in 2003. This policy stepped up police raids in gang dominated areas, increased sentences for suspected gang members, and expanded the presence of the military in neighborhoods throughout the country. In addition, the police were allowed to arrest suspected gang members based only on physical appearance – clothing, tattoos, and even gestures.

The following year, however, this early version of Mano Dura was annulled by the Constitutional Court and replaced with one known as Super Mano Dura. This second iteration gave extensive new powers to the police to stop, search, and detain suspected gang members for minor circumstances such as a tattoo or an alleged association and led to a tremendous increase in the prison population. In fact, where the prison population had been around 7,754 in 2000, by 2016, it had risen to 35,879 or more than four times the previous number.

While separation of the gangs did reduce violence between gang members, it also granted them unofficial control of the penitentiary system. Gang leaders, now safe from their enemies in prison, were restored to command and control as guards and other authoritative figures in the prison system came to play a more symbolic role in the order. In this way, Super Mano Dura actually “accelerated gang control on the inside, and made gang networks even stronger.” (InSight Crime 2017).

Prison Conditions

Prison conditions in El Salvador are notoriously deplorable. Prisoners sleep in overcrowded rooms with makeshift bedding on top of one another. Cells that are suitable for ten people, hold up to as many as 50 prisoners (World Prison Brief 2017). Serious problems with ventilation and light drive many inmates to psychotic breaks. Health care services are essentially non-existent, and gang members are not sent to the public hospitals until they are near death from dehydration, delirium, and anemia. Food services are provided by the community outside the prison and prisoners are not allowed to have eating utensils, causing the spread of disease. Most prison time is spent in communal recreation areas. There are usually small arts and crafts rooms that prisoners can use to make cards for their families but resources are slim. Jails lack job training programs and there is little contact with professionals outside of the prison such as doctors and psychologists. In a recent report, the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) noted that adult prisons have the capacity to hold 8,110 beds yet house over 24,000 inmates or 300 percent over their capacity. Health, sanitation, and hygiene conditions were found unsuitable, and the overcrowded facilities were rampant with untreated respiratory illnesses and skin infections among inmates. In light of these conditions and the high rate of violence within the prisons, IACHR urged the construction of new prisons and renovation of existing ones (IAHCR 2013).

The IACHR also pointed out the degrading treatment of the relatives of prisoners, who are mainly women. As the army has seized control of the country’s major prison housing MS-13 inmates, misconduct and abuse by the armed forces was reported in this facility. This includes inappropriate and unhygienic vaginal and anal searches applied to all women visiting the prison including pregnant and elderly women. Refusing to submit to such a search results in the inability to visit family members.

Mass Incarceration and Gang Hierarchy

Through mano dura policies, the Salvadoran prison system has actually played a role in the organizational structure of the two major gangs. With the two separated from each other within the system and therefore protected from attack, gang leaders are able to carry on their criminal operations while inside the prison. In fact, gang structure benefits from the greater cohesion, efficiency, and elaborated hierarchy that is possible in the segregated prisons. Gang leaders are also able to take advantage of abysmal prison conditions by controlling incoming goods such as food, toiletries, medicines, and illegal substances in exchange for loyalty. As in the U.S., cellular phones are one of the most important items in the system, as they allow for communication to the outside world. (Dudley 2013)

*   *   *   *   *

Far from deterring criminal gangs, then, the current prison system in El Salvador has served to make them stronger. In segregated prisons, the shared misery of prison life creates a kind of bond among members within the same gang and has produced new efficiencies in the organizational structure of gangs. While prisons are home base for many criminal operations in El Salvador and across international lines, violent crime remains in this country. Unfortunately, as incarceration rates continue to rise, these trends are likely to continue along with the inevitable recruitment that takes place within the prisons. As in the U.S., the problem of mass incarceration and recidivism will go unchanged unless legal measures are implemented to reduce the size of prison populations and ways are found to allow more of the population to become productive members of society.

 

Bibliography

Dudley, Steven & Elyssa Pachico. (2013 June 11). A Look Inside El Salvador‘s Prison Nightmare. Video. InSight Crime. Available at: http://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/a-look-inside-el-salvadors-prison-nightmare-video.

 

Flynn, Sheila (2017). The History of MS-13 According to a Former Member, Daily Mail, March 14, 2017. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-4313038/The-history-MS-13-according-former-member.html.

 

Insight Crime (2017). The Prison Dilemma in the Americas. InSight Crime. Accessed June 04, 2017. http://www.insightcrime.org/investigations/the-prison-dilemma-in-the-americas.

 

Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). (2013 Mar 18). Report of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on the Situation of Persons Deprived of their Liberty. IAHCR, 44. Available at http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/pdl/docs/pdf/HONDURAS-PPL-2013ENG.pdf.

 

World Prison Brief. (2017). El Salvador. Institute for Criminal Policy Research. Accessed June 04, 2017. http://prisonstudies.org/country/el-salvador.