Crime threatening democracy in Latin America, survey finds

New research shows fear of violence is fueling support for authoritarian solutions

Miss Honduras, who was found dead last Wednesday, is laid to rest.
Miss Honduras, who was found dead last Wednesday, is laid to rest.STR (EFE)

Violence and crime are the main destabilizing factors in Latin American democracies because they make citizens lose faith in their institutions and favor tough-approach policies that could lead to violations of fundamental rights.

That is one of the main conclusions of the 2014 Americas Barometer survey, which is produced by the Latin America Public Opinion Project at Vanderbilt University.

The report is based on 50,000 interviews in 28 countries, and the preliminary findings were presented in New York on Monday.

The conclusions are that the persistence of crime and violence in Latin America and the Caribbean puts “democracies at risk” and provides fertile ground for centralization of power and, in extreme cases, populist and even illegal or violent solutions such as paramilitary groups, vigilante patrols and lenient attitudes to public lynchings.

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While the economies of Latin America and the Caribbean have experienced growth in the last decade, and their middle classes keep expanding, there is still enormous inequality. Eighty million people live in extreme poverty and over 40 percent of respondents believe that their country’s economy got worse in the last year.

This, together with the pervasive feeling of insecurity, has caused democratic legitimacy indicators to drop since 2012.

Vanderbilt University researchers Mitchell Seligson and Elizabeth Zechmeister presented the figures, noting that they were “scholars, not politicians.”

“We are sure that the governments of Latin America have better tools than us to adopt the policies that will solve theses problems,” they said, speaking at the Americas Society/Council of the Americas.

One of the clearest trends to emerge from the survey is that citizens in the Americas are much more concerned about crime than they were 10 years ago. One in three respondents said it was their country’s top problem. Seventeen percent said they had been the victim of a crime, a figure that remains constant since 2004. Two out of five people confessed they were afraid of walking around some parts of their own neighborhood.

Together Latin America and the Caribbean have the highest homicide rate in the world: 23 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2012, according to the United Nations. That is twice the rate of sub-Saharan Africa, the second region on the list. And 30 percent of homicides involve criminal gangs. Central America has a higher-than-average rate of 34 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.

A decade ago, the economy was what citizens worried about the most, with personal safety a distant second

A decade ago, the economy was what citizens worried about the most, with personal safety a distant second. But the picture has changed dramatically in the last 10 years. Fear has reached its highest level, with 35 percent of respondents saying they don’t feel safe on public transport and 37 percent reporting they felt afraid at school. Venezuela led the charts on the last two issues.

Violence also plays a role in people’s desire to emigrate, which peaked in 2014 compared with previous years.

Half of respondents expressed dissatisfaction with their law enforcement agencies. Bolivia, Venezuela, Peru, Haiti and Mexico were the countries where the police has the worst public image, in that order. Trust in the courts has also fallen to its lowest level in a decade. The feeling of impunity is strongest in Venezuela, Brazil, Chile, Bolivia, Peru and Mexico.

As a result, 55 percent of those surveyed support a tough attitude towards certain crimes, compared with 29 percent who prefer preventive policies. Support for this type of authoritarian solution rose from 28.9 percent in 2012 to 32 percent in 2014.

Views on corruption did not improve in this period, with 80 percent of respondents considering it endemic in their own governments.

The institutions that fared best in the survey were the armed forces and the Catholic Church. Those that did worst were parliaments and, above all, political parties.

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