The coronavirus has upended crime. But measuring it has not been easy. And predicting its impact going forward may be even more difficult.
The virus has had wildly different effects around the region. On the one hand, crime is down. Regional statistics during the lockdown show an overall drop in criminality across Latin America. Besides homicides, where statistics are less clear, cases of robberies, muggings and assaults appear to be sharply down.
The capital of Argentina, Buenos Aires, reported a 90 percent drop in robberies in mid-April, down from an average of 225 cases to just 30 per day. Peru has registered a similar drop in street crimes of 84 percent.
But while crime may be down overall, enterprising criminals have been able to take advantage of a diminished police presence, with officers busy coping with other consequences of the coronavirus. In Ecuador, for example, almost 250 police officers and soldiers had been infected by the virus as of mid-April and many of their colleagues were busy helping the overwhelmed country cope with hundreds of deaths. Regionally, the enforcement of quarantine measures has monopolized numerous state security resources.
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At the same time, some traffickers have continued doing business. Repeated seizures in Ucayali, Peru, indicate shipments of cocaine are still moving along Peru’s borders with Brazil and Bolivia. Major seizures in April also show that tons of drugs are still being moved by sea and air, even as land borders have become more supervised.
Homicide rates – a traditional barometer in normal times to measure predatory criminal activity – are even harder to gauge. In some countries across Latin America, homicides have continued unabated. In others, they’ve dropped off considerably.
Just after a reported drop in homicides in March in Honduras, residents of the northern industrial hub of San Pedro Sula witnessed two massacres in less than 24 hours on April 13 as local gangs reportedly wage a turf war for control. Across Mexico, authorities recorded 105 homicide victims on April 19, the most violent date so far in 2020.
In neighboring El Salvador, on the other hand, authorities recorded two consecutive days without a single homicide on March 24 and March 25 before a wave of at least 76 killings between April 24 and April 29. Authorities in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil’s second-largest city, have also documented a considerable drop in homicides amid the state government's lockdown orders.
Criminal groups have responded differently to the coronavirus since it first landed in the region in late February. For now, it’s too early to tell how exactly the global pandemic will impact homicide rates, although the national quarantines ordered to try and fend off the virus do seem to be lowering levels of crime with fewer people in circulation.
What we do know is that unsanitary conditions and overcrowding mean coronavirus could spread like wildfire in many of Latin America’s prisons. Worried inmates have reacted accordingly, with riots seen in Brazil, Colombia, Venezuela, Argentina and Peru, among others.
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And while some of the region’s more infamous inmates have been moved to house arrest, responses from authorities have been mixed. A number of countries have moved thousands of inmates to house arrest that are mostly from at-risk populations and that have committed non-violent crimes. Given the violence caused by overcrowding, prison systems could choose to not return these detainees to prison after the coronavirus outbreak, although monitoring so many under house arrest could prove challenging.
The coronavirus uprisings have also been met with brutal repression. On May 1, members of the Venezuelan National Guard (Guardia Nacional Bolivariana – GNB) opened fire on prisoners at the Los Llanos Penitentiary in the city of Guanare, leaving at least 47 dead and 67 wounded. The prisoners were reportedly protesting over a lack of food since the coronavirus lockdown prevented their relatives, on whom inmates are largely dependent for supplies, could no longer visit.
Still, even in this case, it’s uncertain how prison gangs will seek to take advantage of this situation. In Brazil, groups such as the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) and Red Command (Comando Vermelho) have so far tried to establish measures to keep the virus at bay, but they could eventually use the virus as leverage with the government to secure more control inside prisons.
What’s more, part of what happens in prisons is related to what happens with judicial systems in general. A large percentage of pretrial detainees in many of Latin America’s prisons has contributed to severe overcrowding and resulting security concerns, with some inmates waiting months to go to court. In the wake of the coronavirus, some governments have suspended the majority of judicial cases and imposed other restrictions to try and combat the spread of the disease, offering no alternatives to those yet to be convicted or that are jailed for low-level offenses or non-violent crimes.
It’s unclear how much these changes have impacted the system just yet, but proceedings for some high-profile cases have been delayed. In the United States, for example, former Honduran congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández had his sentencing postponed for the fourth time until June 29. He was convicted on drug charges in October 2019.
Other countries like Ecuador, Bolivia and Argentina are experimenting with virtual judicial hearings for pre-trial detainees, but a lack of access to technology for those facing charges and other barriers make this a difficult solution to scale up.
It remains to be seen how governments in the region will continue reacting, but judicial delays could see an already hamstrung prison system burst at the seams.