Sadistic Capitalism: Six Urgent Matters for Humanity in Global Crisis

“Professor William Robinson of UCSD visited the University of Denver Latin America Center within our series entitled, “Capitalist Crisis and Global Disorder.” Join us for our next event in the series on April 11 with Professor Vijay Prashad.

Repost: Original Article can be found at


Peaceful protesters join in a general strike in Oakland, California, November 2011. “The systemic critique of global capitalism must strive to influence, from this vantage point, the discourse and practice of movements for a more just distribution of wealth and power,” writes William I. Robinson. “Our survival may depend on it.” (Photo: Rainforest Action Network / Flickr)

In these mean streets of globalized capitalism in crisis, it has become profitable to turn poverty and inequality into a tourist attraction.

The South African Emoya Luxury Hotel and Spa company has made a glamorized spectacle of it. The resort recently advertised an opportunity for tourists to stay “in our unique Shanty Town … and experience traditional township living within a safe private game reserve environment.” A cluster of simulated shanties outside of Bloemfontein that the company has constructed “is ideal for team building, braais, bachelors [parties], theme parties and an experience of a lifetime,” read the ad. The luxury accommodations, made to appear from the outside as shacks, featured paraffin lamps, candles, a battery-operated radio, an outside toilet, a drum and fireplace for cooking, as well as under-floor heating, air conditioning and wireless internet access. A well-dressed, young white couple is pictured embracing in a field with the corrugated tin shanties in the background. The only thing missing in this fantasy world of sanitized space and glamorized poverty was the people themselves living in poverty.

Escalating inequalities fuel capitalism’s chronic problem of over-accumulation.

The “luxury shanty town” in South Africa is a fitting metaphor for global capitalism as a whole. Faced with a stagnant global economy, elites have managed to turn war, structural violence and inequality into opportunities for capital, pleasure and entertainment. It is hard not to conclude that unchecked capitalism has become what I term “sadistic capitalism,” in which the suffering and deprivation generated by capitalism become a source of aesthetic pleasure, leisure and entertainment for others.

I recently had the opportunity to travel through several countries in Latin America, the Middle East, North Africa, East Asia and throughout North America. I was on sabbatical to research what the global crisis looks like on the ground around the world. Everywhere I went, social polarization and political tensions have reached explosive dimensions.

Where is the crisis headed, what are the possible outcomes and what does it tell us about global capitalism and resistance? This crisis is not like earlier structural crises of world capitalism, such as in the 1930s or 1970s. This one is fast becoming systemic. The crisis of humanity shares aspects of earlier structural crises of world capitalism, but there are six novel, interrelated dimensions to the current moment that I highlight here, in broad strokes, as the “big picture” context in which countries and peoples around the world are experiencing a descent into chaos and uncertainty.

1) The level of global social polarization and inequality is unprecedented in the face of out-of-control, over-accumulated capital. In January 2016, the development agency Oxfam published a follow-up to its report on global inequality that had been released the previous year. According to the new report, now just 62 billionaires — down from 80 identified by the agency in its January 2015 report — control as much wealth as one half of the world’s population, and the top 1% owns more wealth than the other 99% combined. Beyond the transnational capitalist class and the upper echelons of the global power bloc, the richest 20 percent of humanity owns some 95 percent of the world’s wealth, while the bottom 80 percent has to make do with just 5 percent.

This 20-80 divide of global society into haves and the have-nots is the new global social apartheid. It is evident not just between rich and poor countries, but within each country, North and South, with the rise of new affluent high-consumption sectors alongside the downward mobility, “precariatization,” destabilization and expulsion of majorities.

Inside the world’s green zones, privileged strata avail themselves of privatized social services, consumption and entertainment.

Escalating inequalities fuel capitalism’s chronic problem of over-accumulation: The transnational capitalist class cannot find productive outlets to unload the enormous amounts of surplus it has accumulated, leading to stagnation in the world economy. The signs of an impending depression are everywhere. The front page of the February 20 issue of The Economist read, “The World Economy: Out of Ammo?

Extreme levels of social polarization present a challenge to dominant groups. They strive to purchase the loyalty of that 20 percent, while at the same time dividing the 80 percent, co-opting some into a hegemonic bloc and repressing the rest. Alongside the spread of frightening new systems of social control and repression is heightened dissemination through the culture industries and corporate marketing strategies that depoliticize through consumerist fantasies and the manipulation of desire.

As “Trumpism” in the United States so well illustrates, another strategy of co-optation is the manipulation of fear and insecurity among the downwardly mobile so that social anxiety is channeled toward scapegoated communities. This psychosocial mechanism of displacing mass anxieties is not new, but it appears to be increasing around the world in the face of the structural destabilization of capitalist globalization. Scapegoated communities are under siege, such as the Rohingya in Myanmar, the Muslim minority in India, the Kurds in Turkey, southern African immigrants in South Africa, and Syrian and Iraqi refugees and other immigrants in Europe.

As with its 20th century predecessor, 21st century fascism hinges on such manipulation of social anxiety at a time of acute capitalist crisis. Extreme inequality requires extreme violence and repression that lend to projects of 21st century fascism.

2) The system is fast reaching the ecological limits to its reproduction.We have reached several tipping points in what environmental scientists refer to as nine crucial “planetary boundaries.” We have already exceeded these boundaries in three areas — climate change, the nitrogen cycle and diversity loss.

There have been five previous mass extinctions in earth’s history. While all these were due to natural causes, for the first time ever, human conduct is intersecting with and fundamentally altering the earth system.

If the capitalist system stops expanding outward, it enters crisis and faces collapse.

We have entered what Paul Crutzen, the Dutch environmental scientist and Nobel Prize winner, termed the Anthropocene — a new age in which humans have transformed up to half of the world’s surface. We are altering the composition of the atmosphere and acidifying the oceans at a rate that undermines the conditions for life. The ecological dimensions of global crisis cannot be understated.

“We are deciding, without quite meaning to, which evolutionary pathways will remain open and which will forever be closed,” observes Elizabeth Kolbert in her best seller, The Sixth Extinction. “No other creature has ever managed this … The Sixth Extinction will continue to determine the course of life long after everything people have written and painted and built has been ground into dust.”

Capitalism cannot be held solely responsible. The human-nature contradiction has deep roots in civilization itself. The ancient Sumerian empires, for example, collapsed after the population over-salinated their crop soil. The Mayan city-state network collapsed about AD 900 due to deforestation. And the former Soviet Union wrecked havoc on the environment.

However, given capital’s implacable impulse to accumulate profit and its accelerated commodification of nature, it is difficult to imagine that the environmental catastrophe can be resolved within the capitalist system. “Green capitalism” appears as an oxymoron, as sadistic capitalism’s attempt to turn the ecological crisis into a profit-making opportunity, along with the conversion of poverty into a tourist attraction.

3) The sheer magnitude of the means of violence is unprecedented, as is the concentrated control over the means of global communications and the production and circulation of knowledge, symbols and images. We have seen the spread of frightening new systems of social control and repression that have brought us into the panoptical surveillance society and the age of thought control. This real-life Orwellian world is in a sense more perturbing than that described by George Orwell in his iconic novel 1984. In that fictional world, people were compelled to give their obedience to the state (“Big Brother”) in exchange for a quiet existence with guarantees of employment, housing and other social necessities. Now, however, the corporate and political powers that be force obedience even as the means of survival are denied to the vast majority.

Global apartheid involves the creation of “green zones” that are cordoned off in each locale around the world where elites are insulated through new systems of spatial reorganization, social control and policing. “Green zone” refers to the nearly impenetrable area in central Baghdad that US occupation forces established in the wake of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The command center of the occupation and select Iraqi elite inside that green zone were protected from the violence and chaos that engulfed the country.

Urban areas around the world are now green zoned through gentrification, gated communities, surveillance systems, and state and private violence. Inside the world’s green zones, privileged strata avail themselves of privatized social services, consumption and entertainment. They can work and communicate through internet and satellite sealed off under the protection of armies of soldiers, police and private security forces.

What is required is a redistribution of power downward and transformation toward a system in which social need trumps private profit.

Green zoning takes on distinct forms in each locality. In Palestine, I witnessed such zoning in the form of Israeli military checkpoints, Jewish settler-only roads and the apartheid wall. In Mexico City, the most exclusive residential areas in the upscale Santa Fe District are accessible only by helicopter and private gated roads. In Johannesburg, a surreal drive through the exclusive Sandton City area reveals rows of mansions that appear as military compounds, with private armed towers and electrical and barbed-wire fences. In Cairo, I toured satellite cities ringing the impoverished center and inner suburbs where the country’s elite could live out their aspirations and fantasies. They sport gated residential complexes with spotless green lawns, private leisure and shopping centers and English-language international schools under the protection of military checkpoints and private security police.

In other cities, green zoning is subtler but no less effective. In Los Angeles, where I live, the freeway system now has an express lane reserved for those that can pay an exorbitant toll. On this lane, the privileged speed by, while the rest remain one lane over, stuck in the city’s notorious bumper-to-bumper traffic — or even worse, in notoriously underfunded and underdeveloped public transportation, where it may take half a day to get to and from work. There is no barrier separating this express lane from the others. However, a near-invisible closed surveillance system monitors every movement. If a vehicle without authorization shifts into the exclusive lane, it is instantly recorded by this surveillance system and a heavy fine is imposed on the driver, under threat of impoundment, while freeway police patrols are ubiquitous.

Outside of the global green zones, warfare and police containment have become normalized and sanitized for those not directly at the receiving end of armed aggression. “Militainment” — portraying and even glamorizing war and violence as entertaining spectacles through Hollywood films and television police shows, computer games and corporate “news” channels — may be the epitome of sadistic capitalism. It desensitizes, bringing about complacency and indifference.

In between the green zones and outright warfare are prison industrial complexes, immigrant and refugee repression and control systems, the criminalization of outcast communities and capitalist schooling. The omnipresent media and cultural apparatuses of the corporate economy, in particular, aim to colonize the mind — to undermine the ability to think critically and outside the dominant worldview. A neofascist culture emerges through militarism, extreme masculinization, racism and racist mobilizations against scapegoats.

4) We are reaching limits to the extensive expansion of capitalism.Capitalism is like riding a bicycle: When you stop pedaling the bicycle, you fall over. If the capitalist system stops expanding outward, it enters crisis and faces collapse. In each earlier structural crisis, the system went through a new round of extensive expansion — from waves of colonial conquest in earlier centuries, to the integration in the late 20th and early 21st centuries of the former socialist countries, China, India and other areas that had been marginally outside the system. There are no longer any new territories to integrate into world capitalism.

Meanwhile, the privatization of education, health care, utilities, basic services and public land are turning those spaces in global society that were outside of capital’s control into “spaces of capital.” Even poverty has been turned into a commodity. What is there left to commodify? Where can the system now expand? With the limits to expansion comes a turn toward militarized accumulation — making wars of endless destruction and reconstruction and expanding the militarization of social and political institutions so as to continue to generate new opportunities for accumulation in the face of stagnation.

5) There is the rise of a vast surplus population inhabiting a “planet of slums,” alienated from the productive economy, thrown into the margins and subject to these sophisticated systems of social control and destruction. Global capitalism has no direct use for surplus humanity. But indirectly, it holds wages down everywhere and makes new systems of 21st century slavery possible. These systems include prison labor, the forced recruitment of miners at gunpoint by warlords contracted by global corporations to dig up valuable minerals in the Congo, sweatshops and exploited immigrant communities (including the rising tide of immigrant female caregivers for affluent populations).

Furthermore, the global working class is experiencing accelerated “precariatization.” The “new precariat” refers to the proletariat that faces capital under today’s unstable and precarious labor relations — informalization, casualization, part-time, temp, immigrant and contract labor.

As communities are uprooted everywhere, there is a rising reserve army of immigrant labor. The global working class is becoming divided into citizen and immigrant workers. The latter are particularly attractive to transnational capital, as the lack of citizenship rights makes them particularly vulnerable, and therefore, exploitable.

The challenge for dominant groups is how to contain the real and potential rebellion of surplus humanity, the immigrant workforce and the precariat. How can they contain the explosive contradictions of this system? The 21st century megacities become the battlegrounds between mass resistance movements and the new systems of mass repression. Some populations in these cities (and also in abandoned countryside) are at risk of genocide, such as those in Gaza, zones in Somalia and Congo, and swaths of Iraq and Syria.

6) There is a disjuncture between a globalizing economy and a nation-state-based system of political authority. Transnational state apparatuses are incipient and do not wield enough power and authority to organize and stabilize the system, much less to impose regulations on runaway transnational capital. In the wake of the 2008 financial collapse, for instance, the governments of the G-8 and G-20 were unable to impose transnational regulation on the global financial system, despite a series of emergency summits to discuss such regulation.

Elites historically have attempted to resolve the problems of over-accumulation by state policies that can regulate the anarchy of the market. However, in recent decades, transnational capital has broken free from the constraints imposed by the nation-state. The more “enlightened” elite representatives of the transnational capitalist class are now clamoring for transnational mechanisms of regulation that would allow the global ruling class to reign in the anarchy of the system in the interests of saving global capitalism from itself and from radical challenges from below.

At the same time, the division of the world into some 200 competing nation-states is not the most propitious of circumstances for the global working class. Victories in popular struggles from below in any one country or region can (and often do) become diverted and even undone by the structural power of transnational capital and the direct political and military domination that this structural power affords the dominant groups. In Greece, for instance, the leftist Syriza party came to power in 2015 on the heels of militant worker struggles and a mass uprising. But the party abandoned its radical program as a result of the enormous pressure exerted on it from the European Central Bank and private international creditors.

The Systemic Critique of Global Capitalism

A growing number of transnational elites themselves now recognize that any resolution to the global crisis must involve redistribution downward of income.

However, in the viewpoint of those from below, a neo-Keynesian redistribution within the prevailing corporate power structure is not enough. What is required is a redistribution of power downward and transformation toward a system in which social need trumps private profit.

A global rebellion against the transnational capitalist class has spread since the financial collapse of 2008. Wherever one looks, there is popular, grassroots and leftist struggle, and the rise of new cultures of resistance: the Arab Spring; the resurgence of leftist politics in Greece, Spain and elsewhere in Europe; the tenacious resistance of Mexican social movements following the Ayotzinapa massacre of 2014; the favela uprising in Brazil against the government’s World Cup and Olympic expulsion policies; the student strikes in Chile; the remarkable surge in the Chinese workers’ movement; the shack dwellers and other poor people’s campaigns in South Africa; Occupy Wall Street, the immigrant rights movement, Black Lives Matter, fast food workers’ struggle and the mobilization around the Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in the United States.

This global revolt is spread unevenly and faces many challenges. A number of these struggles, moreover, have suffered setbacks, such as the Greek working-class movement and, tragically, the Arab Spring. What type of a transformation is viable, and how do we achieve it? How we interpret the global crisis is itself a matter of vital importance as politics polarize worldwide between a neofascist and a popular response. The systemic critique of global capitalism must strive to influence, from this vantage point, the discourse and practice of movements for a more just distribution of wealth and power. Our survival may depend on it.


Back to the Future: Trump’s National Security Strategy

Co-Authors: Fernando Horta and Aaron Schneider*


“Despite widespread opposition, President Trump decided to remove temporary protected status for 200,000 Salvadorans and their approximately 190,000 US-born children on January 8th. They now have 18 months to decide if they will divide their families, return to a violent and inadequately prepared country, or seek some other remedy. The Latin America Center condemns the callous policy that places individuals in this dilemma. On December 26th, Latin America Center director manifested his opposition in the Miami Herald article below.”

  • Link to a Miami Herald article about TPS, is located at the bottom of the page.

At the end of 2017, Donald Trump revealed his National Security Strategy (NSS) to great global consternation. In the most aggressive speech since the Cold War, Trump openly asserted, “the US will preserve peace through strength,” and the US “is back in the game.”

For nearly a century, since the end of the Second World War, the US committed itself to building a liberal order backed by global institutions. The US claimed an exception to those rules, sending American troops to Asia, intervening in Central America, and using diplomatic maneuvers to undermine the Soviet Union. Still, the US maintained three pillars of foreign policy: (1) no single country can dominate the world; (2) even as the most powerful, the US remains a country among others, and (3) economic integration should be pursued through specifically created international organizations. With a single policy-document and speech, Trump shattered this tradition.

“The American people are generous” stated Trump, but the US will no longer be the “paymaster” of international order. The statement implies more than requiring other countries pay a share for international order; Trump justified withdrawing from agreements that might constrain US actions, such as the Paris Agreement and the Transpacific Partnership. As the paramount principle, building a liberal order cedes priority to the pursuit of national security.

The new “security strategy” further redefines the relationship between the market and the state. Massive programs of tax cuts and deregulation promote corporate profits as matters of “security,” and rather than a measure of economic activity or a tool towards well-being, the “GDP will be one of the American weapons.” One potential implication of this logic is a return to gunboat diplomacy, using international military power to settle economic disputes.

A further implication is a military-industrial strategy of economic growth, with national military expenditure increased to more than US$ 700 billion. To put the amount in perspective, this equals more than 40 percent of the Brazilian GDP of US$ 1,7 trillion. When paired with the “most massive tax-cutting plan” in US history, cuts to social programs will balance fiscal accounts, with Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security on the block. Alongside the military-industrial stimulus, the president offered a vague “reconstruction of American roads, bridges, airports,” but with none of the detail for this supposed investment.

The strategy also affects the relationship between state and civil society. Trump praises the US citizen as “the real reason of American greatness,” but woe to the non-citizen or the citizen disloyal to his vision of the state. He calls for citizens to be “vigilant” against “inflexible doctrines,” and Trump outlined potential threats in “the radical Muslims” and “illegal immigrants.” Isolationism and xenophobia rise to national security strategies, with predictably chilling impacts on free expression and civic organization.

At least three immediately troublesome contradictions appear for these security policies: (1) a securitized notion of economic growth threatens nationalist economic competition the world can ill-afford. Among named “rival powers” of Russia and China, Trump could trigger an arms race, something he would appear to welcome for creating “millions and millions of jobs.” Among allied powers, especially developing country proxies, the Trump Doctrine raises the specter of intervention, as the economic becomes a pawn to the strategic. The revival of Cold War ideas resurrects Cold War perils, constructing a hostile world order through narrative means.

The second contradiction in Trump’s speech is the strategy of “peace by strength.” The fading Roman Empire resorted to this idea in “we vis Pacem, para bellum” – “to build peace, prepare for war.” The immense economic effort required to counter an interminable and diffuse idea of “international menace,” brought down Rome and has historically spelled the downfall of all empires. This is more than an economic impossibility; it is an ideological and pragmatic impossibility. Security is not the same as defense. Security is the way a government sees the world, and Trump sees the world as a nasty place. By pursuing defense within this view of the world, Trump forces other countries, both rivals and allies, to enter a spiraling “security dilemma,” forced to react to the menace he believes they represent.

The third and almost inescapable problem is that the globe cannot support another arms race. The planet is on the brink of an irreversible ecological tipping point, threatened by a global arms race that will depend on national industrial capacity. The Trump decision to exit the Paris Agreement frees the US to pursue national economic acceleration, even if it heightens the possibility the planet will not survive.

Trump justifies his doctrine with the claim that “we have no choice,” but we do. In fact, the US has all the choices. As the sole superpower remaining from the XX century, the US has more options than any other country, and it is up to the US to lead the way to a better world. Instead, Trump looks backward by fostering anger, creating an arms race, and disrupting the international system. As the 21st century opens, he returns to the worst of the 20th century.

*Fernando Horta is Ph.D. candidate in History at the University of Brasilia and Fulbright postdoctoral fellow at the University of Denver. Aaron Schneider is Leo Block Chair of International Studies and Director of the Latin America Center at the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver.

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.

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

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.




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


Bernas, Frederick & Rayan Hindi. (2017 Apr 9). The Uruguayan prison where inmates set up shop. BBC News. Retrieved from


Flores, Gloria and Nelson Rauda. (2014 dec 4). Ampliarán modelo “Yo Cambio” a todo el sistema penitenciario. La Prensa Gráfica. Retrieved from


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


Grillo, Ioan. (2017 Mar 2). The Mayor Saving Minors. Time. Retrieved from


Insight Crime (2017 Mar 9). “El Salvador.” Insight Crime. Retrieved from


King, Quentin. (2016 Jan 12). Bolivia Prepares for 2016 Drug Policy. InSight Crime. Retrieved from


Krumholtz, Michael. (2016 Aug 9). Hell spilling over: Is Costa Rica’s preventative prison system in need of reform? The Tico Times. Retrieved from


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


La Prensa Gráfica. (2017 feb 17). Implementan “Yo Cambio” en el Penal de Gotera. La Prensa Gráfica. Retrieved from


Panam Post. (2015 Feb 25). Report: Hundreds Die Each Year in Overcrowded Venezuela Jails. Panam Post. Retrieved from


Robertson, Ewan. (2012 Jan 27). Venezuela Moves Ahead with Prison Reforms. Retrieved from


Tegel, Simeon. (2016 Sept 21). Bolivia ended its drug war by kicking out the DEA and legalizing coca. Vice News. Retrieved from


US State Department. (2013). Venezuela 2013 Human Rights Report. United States Department of State. Retrieved from


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


Wyss, Jim. (2015 Apr 27). Study: Organized crime undermining Venezuelan institutions. Miami Herald. Retrieved from


Yagoub, Mimi. (2016 Nov 17). Report Highlights Overcrowding, Other Problems in Bolivian Prisons. InSight Crime. Retrieved from



[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











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






[18] Information obtained from local contact in Chiapas



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.



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