The world’s most violent region needs a new approach to crime 

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

Illustration of gang members, guns and a gavel.
illustration: ben jones

In 2019 ecuador was a peaceful tourist destination. The homicide rate was under seven per 100,000, roughly the same as in the United States. By 2023 it was almost 45 per 100,000, making it the deadliest country in mainland Latin America, itself the world’s most violent region (see chart 1). Durán in Ecuador, the world’s most violent city, had a jaw-dropping murder rate of 148 per 100,000 last year. The country has been swept by a wave of organised crime, focused on smuggling cocaine from Colombia to Europe via Ecuadorian ports. The rest of Latin America is suffering too, as transnational criminal groups expand. Even sleepy Costa Rica and Uruguay are seeing increased

In response, the region’s governments (including Ecuador’s) have become fond of mano dura, or iron-fist policies. These include calling states of emergency, indiscriminate mass incarceration, and sending the army onto the streets to keep order. Such tactics have received a boost from their apparent success in El Salvador. In March 2022 the president, Nayib Bukele, declared a state of emergency after gangs killed 87 people in a single weekend. Since then, the government has thrown almost 80,000 people—over 1% of the population—into jail. The homicide rate has fallen to near-European levels, and Mr Bukele has become perhaps the world’s most popular elected leader. In a referendum on April 21st Ecuadorians overwhelmingly backed tougher anti-crime measures proposed by President Daniel Noboa, including overturning a constitutional ban on the extradition of criminals, letting the army permanently patrol streets and prisons, and removing the possibility of early release for well-behaved inmates.

But while mano dura seems to have helped El Salvador, it will not work in the rest of Latin America. Organised crime groups elsewhere are richer, better armed and more globalised than the ragtag outfits in El Salvador. A more patient, focused approach, led by the civilian police forces and the courts, is the best way to curb violence in the long run.

chart: the economist

To see why, consider how violent organised crime has proliferated across the region. Gangs have built up increasingly lucrative and diverse portfolios. Production of cocaine has doubled in the past decade, while demand is rising worldwide, particularly in Europe. Synthetic opioids, human-trafficking, illegal mining and oil theft are all profitable, too. The allure of these revenue streams, combined with misguided state-security policies, has led to fighting between rival gangs and the fragmentation of criminal networks. The availability of powerful firearms, easily smuggled in from the world’s largest legal gun market, the United States, makes the struggle more deadly. Impunity is rife (see chart 2).

These conditions increase violence, which in turn damages democracy and retards economic growth. Crime costs the region, on average, around 3% of gdp, reckons the Inter-American Development Bank: roughly what the region spends on infrastructure. This quickens a spiral of decline. Crime-blighted economies provide fewer chances for young men, making criminal groups more attractive, perpetuating violence and heavier costs.

Mr Bukele’s mano dura has worked—for now—because El Salvador’s gangs were “poor and predatory”, says Christopher Blattman of the University of Chicago. They relied heavily on extortion, taking over neighbourhoods and setting up checkpoints, charging anyone who wanted to pass. Murders soared as gangs scrapped over territory, even though returns were meagre. The average gang member made only around $15 a week. Children were often recruited, sometimes by force, because they could be paid badly and were treated leniently by the courts. (Between 2010 and 2014, 219 children were killed travelling to or from school for refusing to join a gang.) The extortion business model meant gangs had to operate openly in the densest urban areas to maximise profits, so were easy to round up. Tattoos with gang insignia helped identify members.

Some of the initial decline in violence may have occurred because Mr Bukele bought the gangs off, irrespective of his mano dura. Court documents suggest that his administration brokered a secret pact whereby gang leaders got money, prostitutes and protection from extradition in exchange for supporting Mr Bukele’s party in elections and reducing the murder rate (the government denies this). When the truce broke down, gangs carried out the weekend massacre and the president changed tactics, ordering a clampdown.

It is unclear how many gang leaders had escaped by then. In a recording obtained by El Faro, an investigative outlet, the government’s lead negotiator speaks to a gang member shortly after the massacre and says he personally got a gang leader out of prison and drove him to neighbouring Guatemala. The us Treasury has placed sanctions on the negotiator and on El Salvador’s prisons director.

Many of those in jail are low-ranking gangsters, or simply young men with tattoos. At least six leaders of the country’s main gang, Mara Salvatrucha, have recently been arrested outside El Salvador and are awaiting trial in the United States.

Tired of violence, Salvadoreans have welcomed the crackdown. Homicides have fallen from 53 per 100,000 in 2018 to 2.4 last year, according to government data. In February, after side-stepping a constitutional ban on re-election, Mr Bukele won a second term with 85% of the valid votes. He was then feted at the Conservative Political Action Conference, an annual pow-wow of the American right. Politicians have flocked to El Salvador to learn about the “Bukele model”. Ecuador’s clampdown has a whiff of it too, though Mr Noboa is more democratic.

The policy pillars of mano dura—mass incarceration and militarised policing—may be crowd-pleasers, but they create problems even as they appear to solve them. Take prisons. Gangs in the region have turned jails into “headquarters, recruitment centres and economic units”, says Javier Acuña, a former adviser to Ecuador’s prison bureau. Emiliano (not his real name), who recently got out of Latacunga jail south of Quito, the capital, related how prisoners could buy booze, sex and even drone-delivered fried chicken if they coughed up enough money or cocaine, the preferred currency. Watchtowers were not staffed; gangs turned them into arsenals.

Corruption, not correction

In these circumstances, putting more people in prison simply swells gang membership. Many inmates join a gang in order to survive. When João was jailed in the Brazilian city of São Paulo in 2008, the first inmate he met handed him a bar of soap, a change of clothes, a towel—and an ethics manual that banned rape and theft. The man was part of the First Capital Command (pcc), a gang founded after a police massacre in a São Paulo jail. João joined the pcc and quickly climbed the ranks. Though he has since left it, he says the pcc looked after him better than the state. Many inmates agree. As Brazil’s incarceration rate ballooned, the gang spread. Today it is the biggest in South America, with links to the ‘Ndrangheta, Italy’s most powerful mafia, and to Balkan drug lords.

Giving policing duties to the army can also backfire. Armies are trained to defend states from foreign threats, not to do investigative work and fill out police reports. After Andrés Manuel Lopéz Obrador became Mexico’s president in 2018, he disbanded the federal police and replaced it with a National Guard. He also increased the armed forces’ budget by 150%.

The results have been disastrous. Mr Lopéz Obrador’s six-year term was Mexico’s bloodiest this century. Violence has blighted the upcoming elections, with 63 candidates and people connected to them murdered so far. The National Guard is incompetent. In 2018 the federal police seized some 2,500 kilos of cocaine. In 2022 the National Guard managed about half that, with three times as many people.

Part of the idea of using the army is that soldiers are thought to be harder to corrupt than police or judges. Yet this may simply be because they spend less time with criminals. Once they run prisons and patrol streets, “there is no structural guarantee they won’t be bought off too”, says Jan Topic, a former Ecuadorian presidential candidate. In 2020 Salvador Cienfuegos, a Mexican general who was defence minister from 2012 to 2018, was arrested in the United States on charges of colluding with gangs. (He was released after Mr Lopéz Obrador kicked up a fuss. His lawyers say he is innocent and should never have been charged.) On April 30th Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, announced that thousands of weapons, including missiles, had “gone missing” from two military bases.

On top of the problems of mass incarceration and militarised policing, Latin America’s major criminal groups are richer and more powerful than the brutes who terrorised El Salvador. Mexico’s state-owned oil firm, Pemex, lost $3bn to oil theft during Mr Lopéz Obrador’s time in office. Colombia’s most powerful gang, the Clan del Golfo, earns $4.4bn a year not just from drug exports, but also from people-trafficking, extortion and illegal mining, according to the International Crisis Group, a think-tank. Parts of the Amazon have become more lawless as gangs battle over wildlife-trafficking, illegal logging and gold mining. Whereas El Salvador’s gangs sucked money out of their communities, these businesses create jobs and generate cash.

The limits of force

International co-operation makes Latin America’s gangs more powerful, too. In 2016 Colombia’s farc guerrillas, which had controlled the cocaine trade in neighbouring Ecuador, signed a peace deal with the government and stood down. This left a vacuum just as the cocaine market was exploding. Spying an opportunity, Albanian mafia groups, dissident Colombian guerrillas and Mexico’s rival Sinaloa and Jalisco New Generation gangs all muscled in. They subcontracted Ecuadorian gangs, often paying for cocaine shipments with military-grade weapons. Ecuador’s murder rate surged. No single state can defeat the gangs operating in their country because they operate in all of their neighbours’ territories too.

In the face of these challenges, Ecuador and other Latin American countries in the grip of gang violence would do better to home in on the most savage individuals rather than trying to dismantle all organised crime gangs at once. A targeted approach, known as focused deterrence, means leaving the less bloody groups alone. “No police force in the world has the capacity to go after everything at once,” says Rodrigo Canales of Boston University. “But when you focus on extreme violence you can make the group’s life miserable. The whole group becomes invested in lowering violence.”

chart: the economist

When Claudia Sheinbaum, the front-runner in Mexico’s presidential election, became mayor of Mexico City in 2017, she invited police and academics from the United States (including Mr Canales) to test focused deterrence in a neighbourhood called Plateros, with 260,000 inhabitants and a homicide rate of 22 per 100,000. They brought together police intelligence, the attorney-general’s office and social services, and scrutinised fatal shootings.

The team identified 25 men who were very likely to kill and in turn be killed, then offered them a mix of carrots and sticks. Carrots included mentoring and, in extreme cases, relocation. The stick was that the men knew they were being constantly watched and would be found quickly if they committed a crime. The team also created a database which plots homicides and gunshot injuries against the five-year average in Plateros and similar neighbourhoods nearby. By 2023 Plateros was down to nine murders per 100,000 residents.

In the short term, focused deterrence may reduce violence. But it could also let gangs consolidate. Peace means residents are less likely to snitch and the state more likely to leave gangs alone. The most successful criminal groups prefer peace to war. São Paulo became safer after the pcc won a monopoly of force. In the Colombian city of Medellín, homicides plummeted after high-level gangs reached a pact in 2009. Municipal Mexican data suggests that high levels of gang saturation can lead homicides to taper off (see chart 3).

Illustration of a fist cracking under the pressure of a prison cell.
illustration: ben jones

That is why longer-term solutions are needed. Once the level of violence is stable, states should focus on hurting gangs’ income by imposing heavier costs. This means purging institutions of corrupt officials and bolstering or creating specialised units to track money-laundering and arms-trafficking. Between 2016 and 2020 there were only 12 convictions for money-laundering in Ecuador. In 2022 the government created a special unit to tackle corruption and organised crime. The attorney-general, Diana Salazar, is leading a bold probe into the police, politicians and magistrates who collude with gangs.

Ultimately, states must focus on reducing gangs’ recruitment and publicising the grim realities of membership. The world homicide rate for men aged 15-29 is 16 per 100,000; in Latin America it is 60. Schools, where children are often recruited, must be the starting-point. A paper published last year in Science, a journal in the United States, estimates that if the gangs’ rate of recruitment in Mexico were halved, deaths would drop by half too. In the long run gangs have more to fear from the likes of Ms Salazar and a nanny state than from strongman clampdowns. ■

Excerpts: The economist

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