10 Oct 2008

Blame the criminal gangs in power

The Guardian

Letters, Friday October 10 2008

I'm from Argentina and have just returned from Bolivia and Peru. Rory Carroll (Rampant violence is Latin America's 'worst epidemic', October 9) ignores the main culprits: not criminal gangs, but rightwing governments organised from Washington, which have ruled with impunity.

Argentina, like Chile and others, is still recovering from military dictators who disappeared 30,000 people and from the laws which gave them impunity. Most countries have suffered electoral fraud, and the current presidents of both Colombia and Mexico are accused of crimes against humanity. All have been prey to Washington's free-market policies, which caused rampant corruption.

Argentina's 2002 meltdown, which left 50% of its population in poverty, should have served as a warning against today's banking crisis.

In the past decade, massive social movements have elected popular governments to tackle this legacy of poverty, corruption and impunity. Bolivia, Ecuador and Venezuela are held back by racist elites which have governed by the gun for 500 years, in the last century with the complicity of the courts and the US embassies.

In Bolivia, I interviewed survivors of the recent massacre of small farmers shot and tortured by gangs and police working for Leopoldo Fernandez, the prefect of Pando. Eighteen bodies had been recovered and over 100 were still missing, among them pregnant women and children. Impunity was on everyone's lips: how to prevent judges from releasing Fernandez and the US from offering him asylum, despite overwhelming evidence against him?

Impunity has allowed the US to remove a democratically elected government in Haiti and to invade Iraq. It allows banks to steal and be rewarded with public funds. Impunity is what makes the biggest crimes pay.
Nina Lopez
Global Women's Strike

Published in full in response to the article below

Rampant violence is Latin America's 'worst epidemic'

Violent crime in Latin America kills more people and wreaks more economic havoc than Aids, the head of the Organisation of American States warned this week. Drug trafficking, gang warfare, kidnapping and other crimes pose one of the gravest threats to the region's stability, said José Miguel Insulza. "It is an epidemic, a plague on our continent that kills more people than Aids or any other known epidemic. It destroys more homes than any economic crisis."

The warning came amid a backdrop of horrific violence in Mexico, where drug cartels are waging war against the state, and evidence that cities from Caracas to Buenos Aires are becoming more dangerous.

The number of people killed by gun crime in central and south America is four times the world average, according to UN estimates, with a homicide rate of more than 25 per 100,000 people. In parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela the rate is more than 100 per 100,000.

The violence has been blamed on factors including poverty, inequality, cocaine trafficking, the legacy of civil wars, a bountiful supply of guns and corrupt, ineffective state institutions, notably the police, prisons and courts.

Anger at crime and distrust of the police often leads to lynchings, with several suspects recently beaten and hacked to death in Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru. There are even grimmer stories from jails which are controlled by inmates.

Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala's human rights activist and Nobel laureate, has referred to crime as a cancer.

Crime stories, often accompanied by grisly images, dominate media coverage and rank at or near the top of public concerns. Most victims are impoverished slum-dwellers but the perception of danger still hinders tourism and investment, with several Caribbean countries feeling the sting of recent high-profile murders.

Some studies suggest Latin America"s income could be 25% higher if its crime rate, which began soaring in the 1980s, was similar to the rest of the world.

Aids, in contrast, has stayed largely in check, with HIV prevalence remaining at under 1% in most countries.

Insulza made his dramatic warning at a two-day security meeting of the OAS in Mexico City. He praised the host government's controversial decision to deploy 20,000 soldiers against powerful drug cartels, a move which provoked a vicious backlash. Thousands have died, the state has lost control of several areas and headless bodies are discovered with numbing regularity.

Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, called for a pan-regional database on criminals and a "continental front" which would include the US. "We must attack simultaneously not only drug smuggling, but the world's main market," he said.

Some countries, such as Costa Rica, are relatively untouched by the violence and in Colombia, once-notorious cities such as Bogotá and Medellín have enjoyed a renaissance as leftwing insurgency has ebbed before a US-supported military offensive. Brazil's favelas, however, remain killing zones for gangs and police and a perceived crime wave in Argentina has driven anxious middle-class families into South Africa-style gated communities.

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