Human Rights Watch's annual global report underscores how impunity for both criminal groups and corrupt and abusive state institutions is one of the main obstacles to improving citizen security in the Latin American countries most affected by organized crime.
Of the countries most affected by impunity, the 2014 report (pdf) by the US-based human rights watchdog gives particular emphasis to Colombia, Mexico, Honduras and Guatemala.
In Colombia, Human Rights Watch (HRW) highlights two legal reforms that could promote impunity. The first is the Legal Framework for Peace, which is designed to provide the structure for transitional justice if peace talks with the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) prove successful. According to HRW, the reform "paves the way for widespread impunity for atrocities by the guerrillas, paramilitaries and the military."
The report also calls attention to the currently stalled reforms to the military justice system as potentially problematic. The reform, it says, could see "false positive" cases -- the extrajudicial killing of civilians to boost army kill counts -- tried in heavily bias military courts, while it also contained a clause giving military personnel "dangerously broad" leeway on the use of lethal force.
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In Mexico, HRW also highlights the use of military courts for security forces, which it says offers near blanket impunity for the abuses committed during the military's deployment in the fight against organized crime. The report also identifies corruption and complicity of members of the judicial system for continuing failures to provide justice.
Impunity for rampant crime in Honduras was attributed to security forces that are "largely ineffective and marred in corruption," and the undermining of the independence of the judicial system.
In Guatemala, HRW praises the efforts made to tackle impunity by Attorney General Claudia Pay y Paz and United Nations body the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG). However, it adds impunity remains high due to "the intimidation and corruption of justice system officials" and the lack of an effective witness protection program.
InSight Crime Analysis
Whether because of corruption, ineffectiveness or lack of resources, the inability to bring criminals and human rights abusers to justice is one of the primary reasons criminal and armed groups are able to take root and prosper. It is also one of the main conditions that organized crime will seek out as it crosses borders, as the ability to operate without fear of prosecution is at the top of any group's wish list.
High impunity levels not only facilitate the spread of organized crime, they are also intrinsically linked to high violence levels; the most violent countries in the world, Honduras and Venezuela, both have impunity rates in excess of 90 percent.
However, breaking down the rings of corruption and intimidation that create high impunity is not easy. In this, the CICIG in Guatemala has proved one of the most effective initiatives in the region, overseeing a 23 percent drop in impunity. However, even after seven years of activity, high level organized crime elements and corrupt officials continue to operate relatively freely in the country.