Thursday, June 2, 2011

No coherent crime-prevention policy? Shift the burden to the people

The OAS San Salvador Meeting of Foreign Ministers June 2011.
The top diplomats of the Western Hemisphere meet this week in El Salvador to discuss how to free their citizens from violence, crime and insecurity.  This new session of Organization of American States (OAS) member nations is overdue.  Crime is rampant everywhere. 
Latin America, which comprises two-thirds of OAS members, is the second most dangerous place in the world. Its homicide rate averages 25 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants (Puerto Rico's rate in 2010!).  And the U.S./Mexico border is notorious as a crime infested, drug cartel-controlled, no-man's land where s/he who musters the guns rules.  Not surprising, as 90 percent of all U.S. bound cocaine enters through its southern border (along with a good share of Mexican grown heroin and cannabis).  This illicit trade has left thousands of people dead, justice and police systems in shambles and led to significant de-population of key urban areas such as Ciudad Juarez, which has lost over 200,000 inhabitants (fleeing this turmoil or having become its victims).
Throughout the Americas, the new democratic governments of the last thirty years have proven moderately capable of securing a safe, just society for their citizens.  Curiously, these same nations boast “free", frequent elections, impressive voter turnout, and relatively peaceful government changes.  In not a few nations, however, the "democratic state" is a mirage, hostage to inequality and arbitrary application of the law, lacking in legitimacy.   
Public opinion polls show that a majority of people in the Americas think that “democracy” has failed.  Those polled are willing to restrict civil rights if necessary to promote safer, "law and order" communities.  What is the point of elections, they claim, if government after government proves incapable of addressing economic stagnation, stopping the widening gap between those who own most and the poor, and eliminating the scourge of crime and drug-related activity?  And, it must be said, what is to be done with the sellers' market in illicit drugs in North America?  These important challenges remain compelling as ever. 
Leaders at the OAS meeting will work on more international collaboration and a new policy that focuses on citizen empowerment to reduce crime and protect people.  “Empowerment” and “collaboration” are pretty, trendy words that ring hollow against a backdrop of personal, environmental and societal factors that cause crime and insecurity in many of these countries. Whether this initiative succeeds will depend on its ability to lead to sustained improvements in crime prevention while securing respect for human rights and the rule of law.  Given the region’s track record, much work remains to be done.

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