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Open borders of Latin America

Fernando A. Chinchilla

Organized crime fuels border violence, presents a challenge to democratic governance.

Photo: Fernando A. Chinchilla
Ecuadorian soldiers survey the Colombian-Ecuadorian border. On the other bank is Colombia, where armed confrontations often occur.

In June 2011, the tortured bodies of 21 Mexican youth bearing written messages calling them “thieves and rapists” were dumped throughout the city of Morelia, in the Mexican state of Michoacán. It was reminiscent of the worst of the state terrorism that plagued Central America in the 1970s and 1980s. Even though Morelia is not located at the border, where violence linked to organized crime is commonplace, such an incident can only be understood within the general context of the dynamics typical of Mexico’s border areas, while bearing in mind its links to violence in Central America and the Andes. By studying the “hotspots” of transborder violence, it is possible to appreciate the full extent of the regional, national and individual threat posed by organized crime, which is weakening the rule of law by justifying repressive approaches and by rendering the idea of citizenship meaningless. Organized crime is even beginning to take its inspiration from ideologies in competition with state authority, thus becoming a factor of political instability in the Americas.

Organized crime —linked as much to drug production and the drug trade as to human and arms trafficking— is a transnational problem particularly prevalent along borders and is characterized by the de-localization of its activities. Fernando Carrión, professor at the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO-Ecuador), proposes that there is a new form of violence, “border violence,” which can “break out” anywhere within a country but is invariably linked to a border enclave economy fuelled by foreign capital, where the distinction between “legal” and “illegal” is not clearly defined and where the state is practically non-existent. In order to comprehend the dynamics of organized crime in Latin America, one must re-examine common assumptions by taking three factors into account.

First, Latin American borders —as historically neglected peripheral regions— are the epicentre of violence, bearing political repercussions whose shockwaves are amplified in cases where the state is either weak or absent, and where para-state armed actors are vying for a monopoly on the use of force. The insecurity these groups cause has compelled residents in affected areas to support a “mano dura” (heavy-handed) approach, which consists in increasing police and military repression in an attempt to counter the strong feeling of insecurity, documented by the Latinobarómetro 2010 poll. Several governments across the ideological spectrum have taken this route. For example, the right-wing government of President Felipe Calderón deployed 36,000 soldiers in Mexico in 2006 as part of his “war on drug traffickers,” while Ecuador’s “leftist” President Rafael Correa strengthened his presence in the North by 7,000 troops in order to contain the Colombian armed conflict's spill-over into Ecuador, of which his government claims to be a victim. In these regions, the police or the military guarantee the only unbroken link between the individual and the State. However, what should be done if, despite the military presence, the authorities find that the situation is beyond their control? One could declare an indefinite state of siege, as did Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom in May 2011 after the decapitation of 27 peasants. By prioritizing an increasingly marked military presence in the management of internal affairs, violence linked to organized crime is weakening the democratic rule of law or becoming an obstacle to its implementation in cases where it has been absent.

Second, this violence is a political phenomenon in its own right. Along the border between Colombia and Ecuador, for example, there is a myriad of armed groups. Some claim to be guerrillas of days gone by, while others are following in the footsteps of the paramilitarism of the 1990s. All of these groups are, to varying degrees, governed by economic interests linked to illegal activities. However, their original leitmotiv, structure, relations with civilians, or means of controlling “their territory” give them a political dimension. Their interaction with the state can lead to infiltrations, convergences or collusions with potential political consequences for transparency and democratic accountability. Finally, some information sources hint at the possible emergence of new ideological identities in the region, and perhaps even the rise of new fundamentalisms. Leaders of the La Familia cartel (Michoacán, Mexico), for example, have already claimed to draw their inspiration from a fusion of biblical messages and “pop psychology.” In short, criminal groups may be currently involved in a process that could result in the production and development of “ideologies” in competition with state authority.

Photo: Fernando A. Chinchilla
The population of Tobar Donoso, a small village located on the Colombian-Ecuadorian border, is directly impacted by the violence of the Colombian armed conflict. In this region, illegal armed groups rule the land, and the state is absent.

Third, the violence of organized crime affects security in the Americas at all levels. At an individual level, the reign of terror and arbitrariness brought about by violence denies all of its victims the very principle of citizenship. Can an individual who must vote in accordance with specific guidelines, who is denied the right to criticize or who leaves home at night without the reassurance of returning home safe and sound be considered a “citizen,” meaning an individual with effective rights and duties? At a national level, the lack of control over the territory in the hands of non-state armed groups combined with the temptation to short-circuit the rules of the game in the name of a diligent backlash constitute a danger for the rule of law. Thus the discussion returns to the supposed effectiveness of non-democratic solutions. With more than 20 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, Latin America ranks with Sub-Saharan Africa as among the world’s most violent regions (Global Burden of Armed Violence, 2008). Nevertheless, are we willing to accept increased authoritarianism and militarism as the answer? At an international level, the need for efficient inter-state co-operation continues to prove vital as a means of avoiding tense situations such as, for example, the military incident at the Colombia-Ecuador border in 2008 that resulted in a 32-month-long rupture in diplomatic relations between the two countries.

Despite some progress, the process of building peace and the rule of law in the region is far from complete. In fact, according to the Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública of Mexico, 59,374 voluntary homicides were recorded in the country between 2007 and 2010. A few years earlier, when observers expected the dawn of a form of liberalism that would promote peace, defend human rights and foster development, few could have imagined that 15 years later, at an average rate of 14,843 homicides per year, Mexico would take just five years to surpass the 75,000 mark, comparable to the number of deaths occurring over 12 years of civil war in El Salvador. Therefore, an in-depth understanding of the new forms of political violence —particularly those erupting along the open borders of Latin America— proves paramount: the security of residents in affected areas, the health of young democratic governments and the stability of the inter-American system depend on it.

Fernando A. Chinchilla is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institut d’études politiques de Bordeaux and visiting professor at the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO-Ecuador).

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