Brazilian Prison Gangs: Message Delivered

Source: The Washington Post/Alex Gomes/AP

Author: Cameron Cassar

The newly elected right wing president of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, had just been newly inaugurated when he had to deal with his first security crisis; terrorism attacks led by prison gangs in the Brazilian state of Ceara. The attacks have been centered on the capital of Ceara, Fortaleza, which is a metropolitan home to about 4 million Brazilians. These attacks have destroyed homes, businesses, modes of transportation, and has left many residents stuck in their homes due to threats of violence.

All of these attacks have been motivated by a desire to get the Brazilian government to end the practice of segregating gang factions in the Brazilian prison system. This goes completely against Bolsonaro and his ideologies. In fact, a major point of his political platform was that he vowed to enact strong policies to combat crime in Brazil. These policies include military takeovers in crime ridden Brazilian cities and shoot to kill policies for violent criminals.

This current wave of violence in Brazil shares many similarities to the wave of violence led by Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel during their reign of narcoterrorism in Colombia. However, while the Brazilian prison gangs have opted to mainly use violence, the Medellin Cartel not only committed violence to instill fear in lawmakers in Colombia, but they also bribed police officers to turn a blind eye towards their criminal activities. Importantly, both of these organizations have used “violent lobbying” tactics to scare lawmakers into implementing policies that benefit them. Pablo Escobar wanted to get rid of extradition while the Brazilian gangs want to eliminate desegregation in prisons. The gang leaders want to end the prison reform which includes ending the separation of rival gang members and the blocking of cell phone service in the prisons.

These reforms would hinder the effect of the gang leaders who are locked up inside of the prison by disconnecting them from the outside world, which gives them the chance to coordinate their attacks. However, many gang leaders do not want desegregation in the prisons because they fear for their safety amongst the other prisoners who are often times rival gang members with a personal vendetta against one another. Incidentally, the violent lobbying of the gangs has united them in an unusual alliance due to the “common enemy”. The First Capital Command and the Red Command, two of the biggest gangs in the area have already formed a pact and there are plenty more that will be formed as the conflict ensues.

Brazil has the third highest prison population behind China and the US (of course). The problem is that President Bolsonaro wants to be even tougher on crime, which will result in even more Brazilians being sent to prison. Some of the policies he wants to implement include lowering the age of criminal responsibility from age 18 to age 16, which will only increase the number of Brazilians in the prison system. More Brazilians in the Brazilian prison system will not help reform the broken prison system. If anything, the country needs less prisoners so they can focus on improving the conditions in the prisons due to the overcrowding. The point of prison is to rehabilitate the prisoners so they can be reintegrated into society when they are released, but a prison in bad condition and ran by the prisoners instead of the guards is not suitable for rehabilitation.

President Bolsonaro must now deal with the crisis that has begun to unfold in his country. However, many members of the left saw this wave of terror coming. As Renato Roseno of the Socialism and Liberty Party stated, “This crisis was entirely predictable, we were sitting on a barrel of gunpowder and it just needed someone to light the fuse”. It is now up to him to decide if he will counter these actions, if he will send in foreign help, will peacekeeping troops be deployed, and will he still be able to stick to his tough on crime policy? It will be interesting to see how Bolsonaro deals with his first major crisis as a president. Will he be able to stick to his hard right policies or will he be pressured to renege on the promises that got him elected as president in the first place?

Guerrilla Warfare in Latin America

When a nation is invaded, or succumbs to an authoritarian government, its people usually are no match for either foreign or national military; these well trained troops would likely defeat them on a battlefield. However, as the road toward victory using conventional warfare is blocked, a side road featuring unconventional guerilla warfare can open. Many revolutions and resistance movements have used these side roads and more unconventional tactics to achieve great success. They paved the way for Yugoslavia’s President for almost the entirety of the Cold War, created chaos for the Colombian government, and even challenged the great military mastermind of Napoleon.

Guerrilla warfare, or unconventional war, occurs when a small group of combatants use military tactics such as sabotage, raids, landmines, and hit-and-run operations, to fight a traditional and often less mobile conventional army. Their aim is not only to kill enemy troops, but to attack the psyche and moral ensuring the enemy or oppressive government understands that they may occupy the territory, but they will not be able to control it. After they strike, guerrilla forces often go back to their hiding place, and wait for the next attack. This type of warfare is successful in irregular terrain, thick forests, caves, or hills which provide cover and places to hide.

Historically the tactic has been successful against more well-trained larger armies. The Roman Empire struggled with the hit and run tactics of Germanic Tribes, the Crusaders struggled against the lighter equipped mamelukes, and Napoleon suffered during the Peninsular War, between 1807 and 1814. More recently, during World War II the Nazis faced guerrilla tactics from local resistance in the Western Front, with an honorable mention to the French Resistance that was crucial for the operation of D-Day, and by Partisans in the Eastern Front, usually fighting against SS divisions. In more modern warfare, the Vietnam War quickly became an unconventional war between the U.S. and the Vietcong, and tribal guerilla combatants have successfully fought in Afghanistan against the Russians and more recently the U.S.

Latin America has been plagued by guerilla factions which challenge existing governments. In Mexico, these groups, such as the Zapatistas, affected the revolution; while in Brazil, guerrilla movements occurred throughout the 20th century, starting as early as the 1930’s in the so-called Coluna Prestes and continued with the Guerrilha do Araguaia, during the military dictatorship. More recently, the FARC guerillas in Colombia and the Sendero Luminoso in Peru, have shown the impact that small bands of unconventional troops can have on standing governments. The most successful, however, was the Cuban Revolution, led by Fidel Castro and Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevara.

In the Cuban Revolution, before the guerillas could properly engage in opposition to Fulgencio Batista’s oppressive regime, they went to Mexico to learn how to fight. It was in Mexico where Guevara joined Castro, and strengthened his movement. Although Guevara initially joined as the medic of the group, he played a key role in the eventual overthrow of Batista. Once the group concluded training, they want to Cuba and entrenched themselves in the mountainous region of the island, using radio as their primary propaganda tool and voice to the people, they waited for Batista’s army to come after them. Little by little, Castro and his fighters beat the regime’s armies and gained popular approval. A common misconception is that Castro’s regime was born a socialist, but that only occurred when the U.S. sent a guerrilla group formed by Cuban refugees that had fled when Castro took over and was decisively defeated in the Bay of Pigs.

While in other regions, bands of guerrillas are usually focused on foreign occupation, in Latin America the focus has been on government troops and oppression. This type of unconventional warfare is also related to socialist models, and more specifically, the Chinese model. One of the reasons why this approach has failed to inflict definitive change in Latin America is that they target the wrong population by focusing on peasants rather than urban dwellers, or the proletariat, as Latin American societies have a radically different organization to the Chinese ones, based on rural peasants.

Guerillas are much like terrorist organizations. Repression and counter-conflict may work to disband them in the short term, but it does not address the reasons why these groups are formed. In Latin America, like many other places in the world social unrest is caused by the marginalization, corruption, and lack of opportunities for people. Guerilla warfare has many parallels to terrorism including tactics and outcomes. In theory, guerilla warfare does not involve civilians, and is focused on groups of paramilitary individuals fighting another military group. Civilians may get caught in the cross-fire, but they are generally not the targets. In fact, many governments will not violate the Rule of Discrimination, by killing civilians together with guerrilla fighters, thus when they hide out in civilian areas, it is difficult for the government to retaliate. While terrorists have less regard for the distinction of civilian and military, and in fact often engage with or met out their violence against civilian targets. Despite this distinction, the outcome is often the same, communities engulfed in violence. While guerillas often seek to protect and be protected by the community, terrorists direct their efforts on expelling an enemy. In Latin America, the guerillas have traditionally sided with the common people in hopes of greater opportunities, and thus it is imperative that governments understand the distinction and work with these guerrillas to create a more peaceful and just society in the Latin American countries.

Latin American Military Dictatorships

The period from 1964 – 1990 is a dark chapter in Latin American history.

The period from 1964 – 1990 is a dark chapter in Latin American history. Nearly all of the countries in the region were engulfed by the Cold War, and with American support, many overturned their democratically elected leaders. They turned to military dictatorships in what was an extension of the Red Scare, i.e. a paranoia regarding communist politicians and parties. Of these countries, three are of particular relevance due to their size and the violence of their regimes: Brazil, Argentina, and Chile.

The military took power in Brazil in 1964. This coup d’état deposed the elected government of Joao Goulart, who was perceived as having been a communist. Gradually, the general-presidents restricted civil and political rights. This culminated in the issuance of Institutional Act Number Five. AI-5 was a major decree that allowed the military to interfere as it wished in any level of Brazilian city or state government. It could even gerrymander its localities. AI-5 suspended constitutional guarantees, including those protecting Human Rights. Institutionalized torture became part of the state’s modus operandi. The regime was responsible for 191 deaths, 243 disappearances, and more than 50,000 arrests in a brutal season of oppression.

Security forces, right-wing death squads, along with military elements all went after socialists, left-wing guerrillas, and populist Peronists.

Argentina endured a similar convulsion. 10 years after Brazil’s lurch toward dictatorship, an Argentinian military junta took power. Unlike Brazil, in Argentina, the focus was on killing not on torture. The military junta launched what became known as The Dirty War on its opponents. Security forces, right-wing death squads, along with military elements all went after the opposition. Opponents included socialists, left-wing guerrillas — known as Montoneros — and the populist Peronists. As many as 22,000 Argentines were either killed, dumped into the river Mar del Plata, or disappeared into clandestine detention camps.

Estimates hold Pinochet responsible for the deaths of 10,000 – 30,000 Chileans.

A year before Argentina’s coup d’état, Chile had its own. It was 1973, and with American support, the Chilean military bombed the Chilean presidential palace. The incumbent, the leftist president Salvador Allende, reportedly committed suicide — albeit under circumstances so suspicious they remain under investigation today. What followed until 1990 was an end of civilian rule and the rise of Augusto Pinochet. During this time, repression of the population was rampant. Estimates hold Pinochet responsible for the deaths of 10,000 – 30,000 Chileans.

With extreme-right wing movements resurgent the world over, including in Latin America, it behooves us to reflect on the past’s pain and suffering. This is to say nothing of the economic woes that the appearance of right-wing military dictatorships augurs. When we forget history we doom ourselves to repeating it. Today, tools such as social media, international law, and prosecution of human rights violators act as a bulwark against abuses. However, populations must remain vigilant. The international community must rebuff any prospect of a brutal regime take-over to avoid irreparable losses. May Latin American military dictatorships remain a dark part of history and not a resurgent part of our present, or worse, our future.

Latin America: Transcending the Crime Epidemic

Police reform has contributed to an improvement in public safety in São Paulo.

Despite milestones like 2012’s peace agreement between the Colombian government and FARC rebels, Latin America remains a region fraught with unconventional conflict. We are not talking about guerrilla war. As institutionalized state oppression largely becomes a memory – most of the region’s military dictatorships crumbled in the wake of the Cold War – homicides have become the most common form of violence. High murder rates, driven by daily criminal activity, plague Latin American streets.

43 of the globe’s 50 most murderous cities are concentrated in Latin America.

Civil violence in Latin America is a sad reality. The region includes 43 of the globe’s 50 most murderous cities. El Salvador has the highest murder rate per capita, earning it the dubious distinction Murder Capital of the World. Furthermore, Mexico’s President Felipe Calderon and his War on Drugs have let loose state security and police forces on organized criminals. This has led to unprecedented levels of violence. For the first time in its history, Mexico will be among the world’s top 20 most murderous countries.

Despite staggering murder rates and the heavy hand of organized crime, some parts of Latin America are showing promise. Previous comments notwithstanding, the murder rate in El Salvador dropped an impressive 26% between 2016 and 2017. Yet despite being significantly below even 2015 levels, it is still high enough to stay in the global top spot. Honduras saw a 28% drop in its homicide rate during the same period. Guatemala and Belize reported similar reductions, lighting a beacon of hope that the continent can overcome the violence that plagues it.

Sao Paulo’s conspicuous reduction in criminal activity is intriguing. Usually it is the largest cities that have the most crime.

Brazil, on the one hand, reported an uptick in murder per capita. And on the other hand, Brazil and Latin America’s largest city, Sao Paulo with its 12 million inhabitants, followed the declining pattern reported in El Salvador and Honduras. There, the murder rate declined from 52.5 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1999, to 6.1 in 2017 – 5 times lower than the Brazilian national average. Nearly every type of crime has declined there during this period. Sao Paulo’s conspicuous reduction in criminal activity is intriguing. Usually it is the largest cities that have the most crime. Thus, it is important to understand how Sao Paulo achieved this drop. Hopefully other areas can replicate its strategy and its results.

So, how did they do it? Well, where Mexico reportedly increased state-supported violence and suppression, Sao Paulo improved accountability around policing (one in four murders there is perpetrated by police), limited the sale of alcohol after 11 pm, and created economic opportunities for unemployed youth. El Salvador has instituted strong criminal justice reforms.

No doubt there remains much to be done. However, these examples illustrate that political will, sound policy, and transparency can help Latin America turn its problems around. Other localities therein would do well to take note: structural, and social reforms reduce conflict better than meeting brutality with more brutality.

Latin America: How Safe From Terror?

Hall de Las Americas

Latin America has avoided the terrorist wave that has brutalized other parts of the world. That’s not to say that 7.5 million square mile swath of territories stretching from the northern border of Mexico to the southern tip of South America, including the Caribbean is immune to violence or that life there is a utopian paradise.

The region is rife with gun violence, murders, gang fights, drug traffickers, and civil wars. But, it has mostly avoided terror attacks and their brutal consequences.

This region has marginalized populations. It has poverty, and there are few opportunities to escape inequalities common in other regions such as the Middle East. But no corollary incidence of terror. The aforementioned characteristics – violence, marginalized populations, poverty, and injustice are the principal criteria that drive recruits to terror organizations.  However, the datasets diverge when you consider what the hostiles are fighting for. Usually, they are fighting what they perceive as the oppression of a foreign group invading their lands.

In the last century, terror groups have executed attacks against oppressive powers the world over. The Black Hand, which assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, initiating World War I, intended theirs to be a blow against the oppressive Austro-Hungarian Empire, and an advancement in the cause of a free Serbia.

Several Middle East groups arose from French and English occupation following the Treaty of Versailles. Across the Mediterranean, nationalist groups such as IRA and ETA were formed with the intent to gain statehood for their people, the Irish and Basques. Famously, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the 1980s saw terror groups spring up – in the context of the Cold War – sometimes with military support from a superpower like the United States. With the US invasion two decades later, this infrastructure was turned against what in some cases were those very groups.

Latin America has not gone through similar processes. Since its colonization in the 16th and 17th centuries, there have not been similar invasions or occupations. There was the Falklands War in 1982, but the island considered itself British and not Latin American. Most of the wars since have been between their European colonizers or didn’t lead to comparable military occupations. 

Latin America is more ethnically homogenous than the Middle East, or even the U.K., Spain, and the Balkans. This too keeps it away from the sectarian nature of terrorism. Foreign influence is indirect, unintrusive, it focuses on politicians. Civil wars in this region were contained to settling internal politics. Notable exceptions such as the FARC shifting from revolutionaries to narco-terrorists, and 1994’s AMIA bombing in Argentina, notwithstanding.

On the flip side, there are vulnerabilities that come from Latin America’s relative freedom from terror: it is in no way prepared to deal with an attack should one happen. The Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean calls attention to how such extreme events are incredibly expensive, citing 9/11 as a case in point. More than $50 billion in damages occurred, necessitating, “…some degree of state intervention to secure the solvency of insurance market institutions in the wake of large contingencies.”

The countries comprising Latin America, coupled with the Organization of American States (OEA) must take steps to vouchsafe markets and continuity of day-to-day life should an attack occur on Latin American soil. Hezbollah has unmistakably established a foothold in the border region between Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay.

Besides, with globalization, terrorist organizations can plan attacks in one region while executing it in another. Latin America may be more exposed to harm than it realizes. If it doesn’t take steps to protect itself the consequences could be devastating.