And Latin America

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Faced with epidemic rates of violence, Latin American and Caribbean countries are expanding their investment in security and development cooperation. Many are doing so under the rubric of “citizen security”. Citizen security implies a commitment to responsible statehood and proactive citizenship in achieving public safety.

It differs markedly from national security and law and order paradigms of the past.

Governments from across the political spectrum are urgently exploring new ways to promote safer and more secure societies. Since the late 1990s, there has been explosion of innovation with more than 1,300 distinct citizen security interventions launched across Latin America and the Caribbean, according to the preliminary results of a mapping exercise.

So what kinds of trends are emerging in the twenty first century? Although the United States still plays a dominant role in shaping the direction and character of security priorities, there are nevertheless new patterns of cooperation that privilege regional and local priorities over international ones. Three overall trends stand out.

  • A move from hard law enforcement to softer prevention

Historically, the focus of security cooperation in Latin America and the Caribbean has been on mitigating transnational threats, especially fighting drug production and trafficking and combating organized crime. This continues to be the case. A great many hard measures – including military and police-led efforts to eradicate transnational gangs, reduce illicit drugs trafficking, curb illicit arms transfers, and counter human trafficking, money laundering, and cyber-crime – are being pursued across the region. Yet there is evidence from a new paper by the Igarapé Institute of a turn in cooperation toward softer preventive initiatives such as community and proximity policing, youth and gender violence reduction, and environmental design efforts which are all intended to reduce routine threats to citizens.

  • A new approach to thinking about drug policy

Over two decades the United States committed roughly $10 billion to supporting counter-narcotics and anti-gang activities in a small number of countries such as Mexico and Colombia, along with others in the Andean region, Central America and the Caribbean. Although a preoccupation with transnational threats continues to profoundly influence regional priority-setting, there are signs that the narrative may be changing. For one, many national, state and city governments across the region are openly challenging the “war on drugs” model and exploring alternative approaches to dealing with the production, retail and consumption of illicit drugs. Likewise, the United States and many European Union members, while reducing overall assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean, are increasingly advocating for “balanced” citizen security strategies that emphasize both transnational and localized threats.

  • International cooperation is less generous, more focused, and more south-south

A fundamental shift in the form and function of international cooperation is taking place among most bilateral and multilateral actors in Latin America and the Caribbean. Owing to the economic rise of most countries in the region, donor countries are recalibrating their partnerships away from development and towards political and trade cooperation. Meanwhile, states in Central and South America are also actively seeking to deepen inter- and intra-regional cooperation and exchange of experience and expertise in the citizen security domain. There is a perceptible re-concentration of assistance in a smaller selection of lesser developed countries and simultaneous push to enhance regional solutions. While this re-alignment is supported by Brazil, Colombia and Mexico, many Central American countries continue to be heavily dependent on the United States.

A common (citizen) security community?

The apparent commitment to citizen security in Latin America and the Caribbean is contributing to the gradual transformation in the character of international cooperation in the region itself. The concept purposefully broadens how “security” is conceptualized by governments and societies from a narrow preoccupation with transnational priorities and threats to also account for more parochial local ones.

Across the region, the adoption of regional and national plans and policies emphasizing citizen security is forcing a recalibration of cooperation strategies. They are inspiring states to focus not just on repression to generate short- term results, but also on preventive strategies designed to empower citizens and promote resilience in the long-term. In this way, they are seeking to bridge democratic deficits and restore and repair the state-citizen relationship.

All of this is contributing to the regionalization of citizen security responses in Latin America, particularly in relation to issues such as illegal drugs, gangs, arms smuggling, human trafficking and cyber-crime. Responses to transnational security threats in Latin America were traditionally shaped by the United States with, in some cases, the imprimatur of the OAS. Lately, Latin American countries are reformulating risks and constructing responses – including a possible citizen security justice and coordination council –  through sub-regional organizations such as UNASUR. And while these regional strategies are nascent and lack teeth, there appears to be a conscious effort to re-conceptualize Latin America and to some extent the Caribbean as a common security community. The question is whether the rhetoric will be matched by action.

Dr. Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé Institute. He also directs research at the SecDev Group and is a senior adviser to the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. 

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