Monday, September 02, 2013

Danger Zone

Central America does not get a good press. Apart from Costa Rica there is a pervading stereotype of violent crime and gangs. some of that is justified. Honduras's economic capital San Pedro Sula has the unenviable distinction of being the most violent city in the world with a murder rate of almost 170 per hundred thousand inhabitants (to put that into perspective there are more murders in San Pedro Sula, a city of some 720,000 inhabitants, than in Germany and Italy together, with a combined population of 160 million i.e. a 220 times greater murder rate). Most of this violence is perpetrated by gangs on other gangs and so does not generally affect normal people. Nevertheless there is a level of violent crime that is of an order of magnitude more than in most other parts of the world. Why is that?

The ubiquitous razorwire gives Central America a war zone feel.

It would be too facile to simply brush it off as a product of poverty, as there are many countries where people are poorer and yet crime is very low. Inequality is perhaps a more reasonable argument, as Latin America has some of the highest rates of inequality in the world. Here the rich often live in separated, gated communities, guarded by gun-toting guards, drive around in expensive cars with heavily tinted windows whilst the poor live in squalid favelas and are routinely ignored by the political classes. But high inequality is just one part of the problem, and doesn't explain why 40 of the 50 most violent cities in the world are in Latin America (and the only ones outside of the Americas are in South Africa). There has to be something more at work here. The only thing I can come up with that is different in, or unique to, Latin America is drugs and guns. The violence parallels the drug trafficking routes, either from the coca fields of the Andes through Central America to the United States, or via Brazil across the Atlantic to Africa and ultimately Europe (it's interesting to note that the most violent Brazilian cities are on the northeastern coast i.e. the departure point for drugs crossing the Atlantic). Tellingly the countries that are off the drugs routes - Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay - have significantly lower rates of violent crime, despite comparable levels of poverty and inequality. And although most of these countries have strict gun control laws, all it needs is for one country to have lax ones, and porous borders do the rest. A perfect example is Mexico, where US weapons are implicated in the majority of gun-related homicides. That these weapons then trickle down to the rest of Latin America is more than probable.

I know I sometimes harp on about the Evil Empire of America, but here one can see how actions that have no intended outside consequences (drug-taking in Western societies or American gun control laws) can still profoundly impact other countries. Of course the continued refusal to accept responsibility for knock-on effects, both at a governmental and societal level, means that the forces driving the violence continue to overpower the best efforts of the affected countries. This is further compounded by the fact that, under US law, people who have been convicted of serious crimes, and have dual nationality, can be stripped of their American citizenship and deported. This happened to many Salvadorean and Honduran youths who, although born and raised in the US, grew up in poor, gang-controlled neighbourhoods of California, got caught, did time and then got sent "back" to El Salvador/Honduras (despite most of them never having set foot in their supposed home countries before). In doing so America managed to export its gang culture to countries that, following years of shattering internal conflicts, didn't have the resources to cope with an influx of hardened criminals. The Maras, as these gangs are known, now control large swathes of urban areas and don't flinch from enforcing their rule with excessive violence, knowing that the authorities are largely powerless to stop them.

And so you are left with a situation whereby guns, guards and paranoia are ubiquitous. Even a simple, cheap fast food restaurant can't survive without hiring shotgun-wielding guard. Guidebooks are overflowing with warnings about not going to this place alone, keeping an eye on your bag at all times, take taxis rather than public transport, don't trust anyone, to such an extent that even I, who am a very trusting and carefree traveller, am beginning to get worried. And I hate it. I don't want to be distrustful and paranoid. Of course something bad can happen, and unfortunately it does sometimes. And yes, the likelihood is somewhat higher here, but the perception of the risk seems to me far greater than the reality, and the constant emphasis on it only serves to reinforce it like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I lived in France for two years, and in that time our house was burgled twice, my bike stolen twice and I once had bags stolen on the train, and yet at no point would I tell anyone not to go to France because it's a dangerous country and you'll be robbed.

The bustling San Isidro market in Tegucigalpa is, according to the Lonely Planet "especially dodgy". Seemed like a pretty ordinary big city market in a developing country.

Decades of heavy-handed approaches to the persistent problem of drugs and the violence it engenders has had no discernible effect. Perhaps alternative approaches could be attempted.

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