Commentary on Political Economy

Monday 8 April 2024

 In this valuable piece, Eduardo Portes discusses a theme on which we have focused for years now: - the inability of the Left to deal with the salus publica, with the law and order that is the fundamental and imprescindible concern of the vast majority of citizens. For this and other reasons we have often highlighted, the Left earns its epithet as loony and grows evermore irrelevant. - Worse still, it paves the way to authoritarian regimes and dictatorships.

Why can’t the left deal with crime?

El Salvador's president, Nayib Bukele, in San Juan Opico on Nov. 23, 2022. (Marvin Recinos/AFP/Getty Images)
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Shaken by the headlines about violent crime in New York City’s subway, Gov. Kathy Hochul went on TV last month “to demonstrate that Democrats fight crime.” Deploying the National Guard to help police the subway system, she said, would disprove “this narrative that Republicans have said, and hijacked the story that we’re soft on crime.”

The governor’s point amounts to an uncomfortable proposition to many in her party: When crime becomes a political problem, Democrats find nothing better to do than resort to cops, prisons and other Republican-branded strategies to address it.

The implicit corollary is that the standard Democratic prescriptions can’t cut it. It might be a good idea to attend to poverty, homelessness and mental illness — the many forms of destitution and social alienation that are the root causes of crime. But when voters are worried about the safety of their families or communities, it’s cops who win the day.

This conundrum is not unique to American liberals. Violent crime has long been an intractable challenge for the political left in countries around the world.

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In Europe, for instance, rising crime has gradually pushed left-leaning liberal parties to embrace punitive platforms over the years. The politics, however, have not always worked out. Less than two years ago, the left-leaning Social Democrats in Sweden were voted out of the premiership largely because of voters’ impatience with gang violence.

Opinions about the Americas
Why can’t the left deal with crime?

I was in Bogotá, Colombia, a few weeks ago, at a conclave of center-left and left-leaning politicians and policy experts from across Latin America to discuss precisely this subject: What should the progressive prescription to combat rampant crime be? The left there, it appears, is stuck, too.

Violence in Latin America is in its own class, an order of magnitude deadlier than anything happening in the United States. Latin America and the Caribbean are home to 8.2 percent of the world’s population but 29 percent of its homicides, according to the latest report from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime. In 2022, Honduras suffered 35 homicides for every 100,000 people. Jamaica suffered 53; Ecuador 27; Mexico 26. The world average is fewer than 6.

Organized crime groups in the region have branched out from illegal drugs to human trafficking, protection rackets, gold mining and logging in the Amazon. They are even involved in the avocado business in Mexico. Multiple gangs — splinters from larger criminal cartels and former guerrilla groups — fight bloody wars over disputed markets. And frustrated citizens from Quito, Ecuador, to Buenos Aires are calling on their rulers to get “tough on crime.”

President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador, credited with slashing the homicide rate to fewer than 8 per 100,000 from some 107 in 2015, is seen as the country’s savior, despite (or perhaps because of) scorched-earth tactics that ignore human rights and due process to imprison anyone who looks even vaguely like a gang member.

These policies have turned the Salvadoran right-winger into the most popular president in Latin America — so much so that he ran for reelection, despite a constitutional ban against doing that, and in February handily won.

And the policies have further discombobulated the left.

“The relationship of progressivism, and maybe other movements on the left, with the security agenda, remains problematic,” said Lisa Sánchez, who runs the nonprofit Mexico United Against Delinquency. But, she emphasized, “it is urgent to stop this vicious cycle of degradation of security and democracy.”

Focused on addressing deep poverty and vast inequality with threadbare social safety nets and weak, corrupt states, the Latin American left often treats public security as an afterthought. As in the United States, when pressed for a response to rising crime, it pulls from the right’s hard-line playbook.

Xiomara Castro, the candidate from the left who assumed the presidency of Honduras in 2022, quickly took a U-turn to emulate Bukele’s approach, declaring states of exception across much of the country. And though Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to office offering “hugs not bullets” to combat crime, he has continued to rely on the military as his main tool.

Consider the Brazilian state of Bahia. It has been governed by the left-wing Workers’ Party for the past 16 years. Still, in 2022, Bahia’s cops killed 1,465 people, making them the most lethal police force in the country.

The irony here is that the left’s core conviction is not wrong: Repression and mass incarceration will not quell crime and violence for long.

The United States has locked up about 1.9 million people, 583 people for every 100,000 residents, still one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world. But there is next to no evidence that ramping up incarceration deters crime. And recidivism is rampant: Sixty-three percent of prisoners released from state prisons are rearrested within three years.

At the end of the day, it is impossible to build less violent societies without bolstering the precarious communities all but abandoned by the state and addressing the needs of thousands, even millions, of citizens who opt into crime because it is their best — and perhaps only — opportunity.

More than 100,000 Salvadorans, mostly young people, are in prison — 1.7 percent of the population. Will they stay there until ripe middle age, past the peak age for crime? What will happen to their children? What will happen to the labor force? Ultimately, Bukele’s strategy must founder because it fails to produce what combating crime most requires: justice.

Moreover, El Salvador’s model doesn’t travel. Bukele’s strategy requires absolute control of the courts and the legislature. And El Salvador is a tiny, overwhelmingly urban country — where criminals are easier to pinpoint, pursue and imprison; its gangs have nowhere near the resources and firepower of the criminal cartels in Mexico, Colombia or Brazil.

In Latin America as a whole, a burgeoning prison population has done nothing to quell violence. Prisons have become headquarters for criminal groups across the region. Trying to emulate the diminutive Central American country’s approach to crime is likely to make matters worse.

The inability to investigate criminal activity and adjudicate culpability undermines public trust in the justice system across the region. Impunity allows corruption to flourish and crime to persist undeterred. Bukele’s iron-fisted tactics — trampling on due process to indiscriminately incarcerate the young — do nothing to address these ills but deepen them.

So how can the left act on its ultimately correct diagnosis to deliver public security in a time frame that fits desperate communities and impatient political systems?

The challenge, for sure, is easier in New York than in Ecuador. Ellen Flenniken at the American Civil Liberties Union points to recent polling suggesting almost two-thirds of voters in the United States believe that mass incarceration exacerbates conditions that make communities unsafe, such as mental health issues, poverty and drug abuse.

“It’s a pretty well-worn playbook: When voters complain about crime, politicians believe they must lean into punishment,” Flenniken said. Criminal justice reform could provide a promising path for Democrats, she added. “Unfortunately, we haven’t had enough candidates courageous enough to offer a different vision.”

It will be a heavier lift to develop a progressive strategy against crime in Latin America — one that guarantees justice and human rights. It certainly requires addressing the long-term causes of crime — the poverty, exclusion and lack of opportunity for millions across the region, as well as the corruption and impunity. But it also must offer a quicker fix to meet the public’s immediate demand for security.


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