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LATIN AMERICA | 10-04-2020 15:31

Latin America, world’s most crime-ridden region, is suddenly serene

In Latin America, coronavirus has driven people into their homes, disrupting patterns of work and school. One change has been welcome – a huge drop in the burglaries and killings that mar daily existence across much of the region.

-In crime-ridden Rio de Janeiro, killings by guns in the past month were a third of the same period a year ago. In El Salvador, one of the deadliest countries, March saw the fewest homicides in its history. And in Caracas, the often lawless capital of Venezuela, crime has fallen to near zero.

In Latin America, as in most of the world, coronavirus has driven people into their homes, disrupting patterns of work and school. One change has been welcome – a huge drop in the burglaries and killings that mar daily existence across much of the region, the global leader in crime.

Unfortunately, there are countervailing trends: like in the United States, a spike in domestic violence as abusive men beat partners and children cooped up with them. And – unique to the region – gangs, which run vast swathes of territory, are entrenching control, often enforcing government lockdown or food distribution as self-appointed guardians of civic responsibility.

“Criminal gangs are seeing what they can get away with,” noted Falko Ernst of the International Crisis Group in Mexico. In Michoacan state, he said, some gangs are extorting businessmen or robbing semitrailers to distribute food and goods, Robin-Hood style. “It might be a renaissance of benevolent displays,” he added.

In Medellin, Colombia 18 murders were recorded in March, down 46% from a year earlier and the lowest in 40 years. Shootouts in Rio have halved since the quarantine began. And in El Salvador, the 65 homicides last month were the lowest ever registered.

Mexico’s crime data for March contrast with those of most of the region – they were up, including drug-related murders and lootings. But Mexico bucked international trends in March by keeping markets and shops open, shutting society down only toward the very end of the month.

The ‘Muchachos’

In San Salvador, gangs have enforced quarantines and also extorted crowds that rushed government offices to collect the US$300 promised them as part of a stimulus and recovery project.

“The intelligence chief in San Salvador said he sent agents to infiltrate the crowd that was seeking its payments and they recognised multiple criminal gang members,” said Paul Consoli, a US law enforcement intelligence specialist working as a consultant there.

He said his house cleaner couldn’t come to work because the gang that rules the streets around her house (she calls its members the “muchachos”) barred anyone from leaving home to reduce infection rates.

In Colombia, dissidents from the terrorist group that signed a peace deal with the government in 2016, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, or FARC, remain active. A pamphlet dated March 23 and claiming to come from a group of such dissidents instructed those living in the areas where they operate to stay inside, threatening sanctions to those who disobey.

Smiling guerrilla

Bearing the photo of a smiling guerrilla, the leaflet tells citizens to “please stay inside with husbands, wives, parents, children and cousins” or “we will be forced to impose sanctions on violators of these instructions.”

A smaller Colombian guerrilla group, the National Liberation Army, or ELN, that wasn’t a part of the peace accord, issued a declaration of cease-fire for April due to the virus, saying it expected the same from government forces.

It took the opportunity to urge the government of President Ivan Duque to free prisoners, provide free testing and offer a range of relief efforts to small businesses the elderly, poor and those in debt.

Domestic abuse has also risen. Colombian Vice-President Marta Lucía Ramírez said this week that the government is using dozens of properties seized from drug-traffickers and money-launderers, including warehouses, buildings and hotels, to house women escaping the mistreatment at home.

Official data show that during the last week of March and first week of April calls to report domestic violence in Colombia doubled to 1,221 from 602 over the same period a year earlier.

Argentina, where crime has plummeted during the lockdown, is also using property seized from drug dealers for the crisis, transporting coronavirus patients in their luxury vehicles and housing the patients on seized estates and hotels.

Calm before the storm

Guatemala, another of the world’s deadliest nations, saw its lowest number of killings in March in at least a decade, according to the coroner’s office.

But Anthony Fontes, a scholar at American University in Washington DC who specialises in gangs and violence in the region, said it will not take long for things to turn dark again. He notes that policing at Guatemala’s ports has fallen off, making drug trafficking easier, and there are signs of car thefts creeping up.

“So many people lost their jobs in March and most Guatemalans have virtually nothing to fall back on,” he said. “Right now, the streets are empty after 3 pm, making them easy to police. But this is the calm before the storm.”

by Andrea Jaramillo, Michael McDonald & Michael O'Boyle

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