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Column 033015 Brewer

Monday, March 30, 2015

The Paradoxes of Law Enforcement in the Western Hemisphere

By Jerry Brewer

While the United States boasted in 2004 that the “objective quality of policing in America” had improved in recent decades, nations from Mexico to the southern tip of Argentina appear to be losing the enforcement of the rule of law battle.

Corruption, insecurity, and poverty are frequently labeled as the root causes of those failures. Consequently, enforcing the law through “policing,” despite sound reasoning from acceptable premises, leads to a conclusion that seems senseless, logically unacceptable, or self-contradictory.

Certainly it is much more than just enforcing the law, but in addition to some attempts at reforms made by many Latin America nations, many find their systems of justice are simply dysfunctional.  Many have a total lack of policing capabilities and infrastructure, and little hope of acquiring them.

Many of those must turn to their military for superior armament and manpower to counter heavily armed resistance, ambush, and organized criminal insurgency. Lacking of course are trained police to competently investigate, process crime scenes for evidentiary value, and build cases against suspects for successful judicial prosecution.

There could be an interesting international debate on whether police performance or the quality of police practices is being enhanced or is digressing. The 2004 National Academy of Science report on U.S. policing boldly announced, “police are more effective in fighting crime; they are less corrupt; and they are less likely to engage in unprofessional acts.”

U.S. Senators last week criticized federal programs that outfit and equip police departments with military gear, saying, “they waste funds and sow mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they police.”

Many Latin American countries could not imagine their police attempting to enforce the law and keep the peace with anything less than military grade weaponry, albeit the sight of oppressive-like enforcement is obviously not pleasant but needed to “outgun” superior force used against them.

In El Salvador last Thursday, in the city of San Jose Villanueva, just south of San Salvador, eight gang members were killed in a confrontation with police. Police in January of this year were given authorization by the government to shoot “without any fear of suffering consequences” if threatened by gangs.

The Barrio 18 and the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) are two of the largest gangs in El Salvador. These and other gangs, over the last year, have accounted for many violent confrontations with police – during which dozens of gang members have been killed, with more than 40 police officers shot.

In Honduras, which is said to be the most dangerous country on the planet, the president recently sent military troops to protect a “lost city” that was rediscovered deep in the jungle.  This due to fears that gangs and looters “could pillage ancient artefacts from the abandoned home of an unknown civilization.”

Mexico continues to experience head-on ambushes of their police and military patrols by criminals. While Mexico is attempting to work valiantly to build capable policing infrastructure and increase training and professional development, the government’s spending on defense equipment has “skyrocketed in the past year.”  This spending has been described as necessary for use in fighting organized crime.

Violence is increasing in Belize, with increased homicides, whereas Costa Rica has increased its police spending due to fears of drug related crimes and the presence of foreign cartels. Illicit drug distribution, manufacturing, and addiction are contributing to high levels of murder and violence in Argentina, Brasil, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

Transforming police to be effective and legitimate in their policing practices throughout Latin America appears to be failing. Latin America leads the world with 31 percent of the world’s murders, despite having approximately 9 percent of the world’s population.

Latin America is the most insecure region in the world, with 1 in every 3 people reported being a victim of a violent crime in 2012.”  If transnational organized crime is allowed to reach uncontrollable levels and threatens the state, turning to the military may be the only options available for some.

The criminality and violence destabilizing many of the countries in the Western Hemisphere are much more than an estimated annual US$80 billion drug demand. Extortion, kidnapping and human trafficking for a myriad of purposes are running rampant, and leaving a huge death toll – as well as thousands that are reported missing.

And few cases are ever solved. 

The discrepancy between high violent crime and death, and the critical need for effective policing, suggests the need for an acute focus on police legitimacy that can also change deficit levels of public support and cooperation. Justice leads to legitimacy.

The public perception of justice and accountability is measured by the actual policing practices and the results. Professionally trained police, and the proper equipping of police forces, with strategic oversight, are keys to the answers.


Jerry Brewer is C.E.O. of Criminal Justice International Associates, a global threat mitigation firm headquartered in northern Virginia.  His website is located at

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