Facing years of failed efforts to combat the drug trade, gangs and violence, Latin American countries are expanding their focus to include “softer” policies focused on crime prevention and citizen participation, and increasing intra-regional cooperation to combat transnational threats. The question begged by a provocative new report is: will this paradigm work better?

The report by Brazilian think-tank the Igarape Institute discusses the rise of “citizen security” strategies in Latin America, which, “in practical terms, consists of the organization and delivery of effective public safety measures in the context of broader democratic norms.”

While these policies continue to be coupled with the use of “hard” strategies and a focus on mitigating transnational threats, the conception of what security means has begun to broaden, everywhere from the regional to the local level. As this has occurred, alternative strategies favoring prevention and violence reduction, and taking a more localized approach to crime, have begun to take root.

This shift has also involved a move toward alternative sources and types of funding — and away from traditional forms of security assistance provided largely by the United States — and the formation of strategic regional partnerships. So-called “south-south” cooperation has increased, with economic giant Brazil stepping up to define regional security strategies and Colombia helping to provide training to regional security forces.

Sub-regional organizations such as the Union of South American Nations (UNASUR) have also emerged as important facilitators of the regional dialogue on citizen security responses. Meanwhile, development banks, non-governmental organizations and private sector institutions have begun to direct funding toward programs aimed at institutional development and the provision of opportunities for at-risk youth, among other things.

With waning support for traditional security approaches, even the United States has now begun to change — at least rhetorically — its tune in the region. The US, for instance, included “citizen safety” and institutional strengthening as objectives of the Central American Regional Security Initiative.

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There is a growing perception across Latin America that “muscular” approaches to fighting criminal activity — such as the so-called “war on drugs” and “mano dura” (iron fist) policies against gangs — are not working, and perhaps even exacerbating the problem. Mass roundups of potentially gang-affiliated youth in Central America’s “Northern Triangle” region (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) helped turn those countries’ jails into havens for gang recruitment, while harsh anti-drug policies and frontal attacks on cartels have led to thousands dead with few results.

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The US has been an important player in shaping the region’s security policies and providing technical and material support, but the only country it could arguably stand up as even a partial success story as the result of this involvement is Colombia. While the billions pumped into Plan Colombia failed to end the country’s conflict or the drug trade, the country’s security forces have now become a model for other countries in the region.

HOWEVER, as countries including Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras continue to flounder, it is clear the old-school security strategies promoted by the United States, in addition to their human rights costs, have largely been a failure. The question is whether, as the region broadens its conception of citizen security and begins to focus on prevention and localized strategies, these new security models will prove more effective than the old.

There have been some ostensibly successful examples of violence prevention programs implemented in the region. These include the youth training program “A Ganar” (To Win) in Honduras, run by the US Agency for International Development (USAID), and the “Cure Violence” program in Trinidad and Tobago, which uses people from at-risk communities as “violence interrupters” to prevent violent situations from spreading. At the local level, two programs in Juarez, Mexico aimed at providing alternative opportunities to at-risk youth have seen some success in curbing gang involvement.

In regards to security force strategies, Nicaragua’s policing model, which in theory is “community-oriented” and based on “shared responsibility,” and Chile’s community policing policies have been held up as regional examples.

However, the Igarape report identifies a number of issues with the new model. These include an uneven application of the “citizen security” concept due to a lack of clarity regarding what this term encompasses, as well as differing levels of commitment to soft versus hard strategies. Furthermore, security and justice institutions in many parts of the region remain weak and corrupt, reducing chances that alternative crime prevention and policing policies may be applied effectively.

The success of such policies may depend largely on the situations of individual countries, and regions within countries. For example, it is difficult to measure to what extent the fact Nicaragua has until now been comparatively unaffected by the gang and drug violence seen in the Northern Triangle is due to its security policies versus external factors and patterns. 

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A paper by Corporacion Nuevo Arco Iris columnist Ariel Fernando Avila Martinez examining the apparent success of security policies implemented in Bogota, Colombia, meanwhile, indicates prevention strategies must be combined with various other factors in order to function. The study posits that these strategies were one factor facilitating a drop in homicides there between 1993 and 2012, but were coupled with effective monitoring systems, coordination among government and security bodies, and the differentiation of strategies based on the needs of a given neighborhood.

Meanwhile, continued mistrust among the region’s countries, in addition to sometimes contradictory security focuses, raises problems in regard to south-south cooperation, as noted by Igarape. Various countries in the region have been resistant to Brazil’s attempts to position itself as a regional security giant. The country’s strategy, similarly to that of the US, has been largely reactive, based on concerns of crime from other countries spreading across its borders, and some are concerned about the impact of this on their sovereignty.

In terms of combating transnational threats, there is also the issue of how countries with limited technological capacity can successfully work together to combat organized crime. To name just one case, Peru and Bolivia have agreed to increase antinarcotics cooperation, but both lack radar technology that might allow them to successfully combat the cocaine air bridge linking them. The report also notes some of the poorer nations in Central America are forced to continue relying heavily on the US for security support.

The shift taking place in Latin America will be an interesting test of whether the region can successfully begin to move away from highly militarized policies and traditional development assistance. While neither of these is likely to fade from the scene anytime soon, the introduction of alternatives is a welcome change, but these new policies will have to be carefully formulated and include a real commitment to comprehensive institutional reform.

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