Not any more. Axel now attends the Juvenile Affairs police headquarters in Managua, where he is given free meals and tuition every day. Besides subjects like maths and English, he is learning how to be a barber (his blade skills now applied with scissors). Hundreds of troubled kids voluntarily study with him, and the police chief knows most of them by name. They are neatly dressed and ooze self-esteem.
Nicaragua’s police force is in danger of giving socialism a good name. The country is one of the poorest in the hemisphere. Yet its annual murder rate, 11 per 100,000 people, is among the lowest in Latin America and eight times lower than in neighbouring Honduras (see map).
Few countries would want to reproduce the history out of which that success was born: the National Police is a product of the 1979 Sandinista revolution and civil war. But some of its best practices are easy to copy. The force requires community approval for each of its new recruits, who enjoy at least a year’s obligatory training at a police academy, smart uniforms and a strong esprit de corps that policemen say makes low pay easier to bear. In the continent most scarred by crime, such lessons are too important to ignore.
According to the UN Development Programme (UNDP), Latin America is the only region in the world where murder rates increased in the first decade of this century. Robberies have nearly trebled over the past 25 years; extortion is growing fast. So fed up are clothing businesses in Gamarra, the centre of Lima’s rag trade, with paying an average of $3,000 a month to extortionists that they held a conference in June to publicise the problem.
Plenty of factors explain Latin America’s crime disease. The external demand for cocaine, and attempts to suppress the drug trade, prompted the spread of organised criminal mafias; growth in domestic consumption of drugs has since compounded the problem. A bulge in the number of young men, many of whom are poorly educated and command low wages in the legal economy, is another factor. So is income inequality. The ubiquity of firearms means that crime is often violent.
But none of these is more important than pervasive weaknesses in the basic institutions of the rule of law—the police, the prosecutors, the courts and the prisons. Trust in the criminal-justice system remains low: majorities of the population in almost every country in the region have little or no faith in it. Criminals act with impunity. The global rate for homicide convictions is 43 for every 100 murders; in Latin America it is close to 20.
As ever, regional aggregates mask wide variations. Honduras is the region’s most violent country: at present homicide rates, a boy born there today has a one-in-nine chance of being murdered. Peruvians feel least secure, according to a 2012 poll by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP), based at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee. The police there are allowed to double as private security guards under a scheme in which they work one day on and then one day off. With the complicity of corrupt senior officers, many police work 20 to 25 days a month privately, according to Gino Costa, a former interior minister. (One of his successors, who wanted to reform the practice, was sacked last month.)
At the other end of the scale, in a 2008 poll only 11% of Chileans felt an attempt to bribe a local policeman would be successful, far fewer than in any other country. “It’s almost impossible to bribe a Chilean policeman,” says Marta Lagos, director of Latinobarómetro, a pollster. “Say what you like about them—they might be inefficient, lazy, heavy-handed, whatever—but they’re not corrupt.” Colombia’s police force has had considerable success in reducing the prevalence of armed conflict and the drug trade. Since 2009 they have been training other forces from around the region on riverine operations, managing informants, extortion investigations and the like.
But these countries still have their problems. If Colombia has become a model to learn from in major crimes, the country’s on-the-street policing has lagged behind. Every 30 seconds in Colombia someone has their mobile phone stolen; but only one out of every 65 victims of this crime ever reports it to the police. Chile’s police may not be corrupt but almost a third of its citizens say their neighbourhoods are affected by gangs, according to a LAPOP poll. Everyone has something to learn.
In the realm of policing, the lessons embodied in Nicaragua’s police force are the most valuable. Instead of mano dura, or the militarised iron-fist policies of its northern neighbours, it offers a “friendly hand” to prevent similar levels of gang penetration. Instead of jailing wayward youths, it offers them counselling, education and job opportunities. In one slum policemen are to be found clapping along awkwardly with baggy-clothed breakdancers.
A big focus is on violence against women, including an alarming recent rise in “femicides”, the killing of women out of sheer misogyny. The police believe violence at home starts the cycle of insecurity in society at large. Teams of female police officers working with community volunteers walk through poor neighbourhoods urging women to denounce abuse, and telling them they are backed by a new law.
Community policing has become a watchword in other parts of the region, too. In 2010 the Colombian police implemented a “Quadrant Plan” dividing urban areas into territorial beats in order to adopt a more localised approach. São Paulo created Brazil’s first community police force in the wake of the grisly 1990s. Crime mapping was introduced to focus attention and resources. Paulista police also invested heavily in solving homicides. The murder rate in the state capital fell from 69 per 100,000 in 1999 to 12 in 2011 (though it has since crept back up to 15).
In 2002 Belo Horizonte, capital of Minas Gerais state, also began tracking where crimes happened. It turned out that most occurred in just six of the city’s 81 favelas (shantytowns). Special community-police teams patrolled these areas. Social programmes lured young people there away from crime and to computer training, football and other activities.
In Rio de Janeiro the fall in crime owes much to the “pacification policy” begun in 2008. First, special forces evict gang leaders from favelas; then “Pacifying Police Units” (UPPs) are set up, manned by officers trained in community policing. In 2008-12 homicides fell by 75% in the pacified favelas, twice as fast as elsewhere in Rio.
But the UPPs also demonstrate the need for sustained effort. Critics allege that Brazil’s UPPs merely displace criminals to poorerfavelas without such outposts. Community-policing skills often lag behind those of the initial armed incursion; drug-dealers seem to be edging back into “profitable” favelaswhere demand for their wares is high. The importance of commitment and co-ordination cannot be overstated. Sometimes there are overlaps to manage between, say, municipal and federal police forces. Often, as in Peru, police wages need to go up, which requires more money in the budget.
The police are only the first link in the criminal-justice chain. Once people are arrested, they enter into the judicial system; and given the widespread practice of pre-trial detention, often straight into the hell of Latin America’s prisons. In the courtroom itself, there is a general move in the region towards oral, adversarial trials rather than written, inquisitorial ones. Colombia made the transition during the 2000s; as part of its 2008 package of judicial reforms, Mexico is currently in the throes of the same change. That is broadly welcome. Oral trials require prosecutors to do a better job of gathering evidence and building a case. Even the criminals are impressed. A study of convicts in the State of Mexico, which uses the oral system, found that 43% of them thought their trial and sentences were unfair; in Mexico City, which is still using the old system, the figure was 67%.
Efforts are also being made to speed up the snail’s pace of justice. In Brazil the National Council of Justice (CNJ), an external auditor of the judiciary, was created in 2004. Its “justice in numbers” online database monitors courts’ performance and, the CNJ hopes, goads laggards into action. But such is the scale of the backlog that even the CNJ does not think cases opened before the end of 2010 can all be brought to a close this year.
Keeping people out of prison in the meantime is another goal for reformers. A recent paper by Rafael Di Tella of Harvard University and Ernesto Schargrodsky of Universidad Torcuato Di Tella looked at recidivism rates among people awaiting trial in Buenos Aires. Because the wheels of the legal system grind so slowly, meaning that evidence is lost and witnesses forget what they have seen, many of these people never end up in court. But some of them spend time in jail awaiting trial; others are luckier and are monitored using an electronic bracelet. The researchers found a significantly lower re-arrest rate among people who were electronically tagged. Mexico’s 2008 judicial overhaul set more limits to pre-trial detentions; others should follow.
Scars and bars
The last link in the chain of criminal justice, the penal system, is the least enlightened. The region’s prisons are notoriously brutal and overcrowded. The homicide rate in prisons in Latin America is three times higher than it is in the general population. Prisoners are routinely beaten by staff and other inmates (see chart). Yet even in this darkness, there are chinks of light.
Pampered hotel guests at Punta Cana, a resort in the Dominican Republic (DR), may be appalled to learn that their spinach is cultivated in a local jail. But before they push aside Popeye’s favourite vegetable, says Roberto Santana, an architect of prison reform, they should reconsider the jails themselves. Of the DR’s 34 prisons, 18 are a new sort known as Correctional and Rehabilitation Centres, that focus on education and rehabilitation. Within six months of incarceration, the prison teaches illiterate inmates to read and write. Some go on to higher education. They learn skills, from spinach-growing to furniture- and uniform-making. Proceeds from these activities generated 39% of the prisons’ income in 2012.
Most remarkable, says Mr Santana, is the effect the new jails have on prisoners’ behaviour. Though it costs $12 a day per prisoner, which is more than the old system, the burden is offset by the number of prisoners who go straight upon release. Last year the reoffending rate was a remarkable 2.6%. (This compares with 70% in parts of the United States.)
Dominicans’ attitudes towards prisons have changed since the new system was introduced in 2004. Businesses and the community now accept ex-convicts as rehabilitated citizens. Staff in the new prison system go through extensive training and develop a career in the service; directors are not shunted rapidly from prison to prison, nor are they from the army or the police. Mr Santana now heads a regional academy overseeing the training of new prison staff in parts of Latin America.
The country that has most to learn from this model is Brazil, whose 550,000 inmates live mainly in squalid, overcrowded cells. Many who land behind bars for trivial offences, such as the possession of drugs, leave as hardened criminals. Recidivism rates exceed 60%. This falls below 10% for those held in Associations for the Protection and Assistance of the Condemned (APACs), not-for-profit institutions financed by private donations and staffed mostly by unpaid volunteers.
Their emphasis on Christianity and prayer have limited their spread in a nominally secular country like Brazil: it has about 41 APACs, holding 2,750 people. The regime is characterised by rigid discipline but also trust: “rehabilitees” hold the keys to their own cells. As a result, each costs only about one-third as much to house as a standard prisoner. Critics point out that laxer security and a lack of armed guards favour escapes or the abuse of prison as a centre for criminal operations. Perhaps, but persisting with a “lock ’em up” strategy that does not work is criminal, too.