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The enigma of violence

The daily violence that plagues much of Latin America is emerging as one of the most serious obstacles the region faces in its efforts to meets its economic and social development goals and build more democratic societies.

In nearly every country, violence is becoming more pervasive, spilling over its historic socioeconomic boundaries into cities, regions and neighborhoods that used to be free of this scourge. According to recent estimates, the region has a homicide rate six times higher than the world average, and costs related to violence amount to some 14 percent of the region’s gross domestic product.

Although studies of the origins of this wave of violence and crime differ in their conclusions, they concur that it constitutes a huge challenge for long-neglected government institutions, especially in the areas of justice, law enforcement, and jails.

In some cases, the hard evidence about violence in Latin America contradicts widely held assumptions. For instance, according to Fernando Carrillo Florez, senior specialist in the IDB's State and Civil Society Division, "the poorest countries in Latin America are not necessarily the most violent, and the most developed not necessarily the least violent." Carrillo, who was speaking at an IDB-sponsored conference in 1998 in San Salvador, added that the greatest challenge is reform of the judiciary and law enforcement systems. The conference was held with support from the government of Norway.

The paper Carrillo presented at that conference, along with those of several other contributors, have been published as a book (Spanish only) entitled Convivencia y seguridad, un reto a la gobernabilidad ("Coexistence and Security–A Challenge to Governance").

According to Carrillo, the current wave of violence is not caused by factors that can be isolated individually–be they biological, psychological, or other personal–but by a conjunction of structures, processes, and behaviors in the general social environment.

As such, the fight against violence must be waged on many fronts, including schools, hospitals, courts, police academies, and the streets, says Carrillo. In many of these areas, the IDB is already funding programs to help governments increase their effectiveness.

Another factor in the rising tide of violence is the media, both print and electronic. According to Santiago Real de Azúa, a journalist and contributor the new book who is now the IDB’s press chief, "there is no simple, universal, automatic connection between the media and violence." But at the same time, he notes, "we are not denying that a substantial part of the problem ultimately stems from the fact that violence sells, is a commodity, and is rewarded with publicity and an audience."

Rather than incite violence, Real de Azúa says that the media "reinforces attitudes, forges a vision of the world, and inspires conduct that almost imperceptibly shapes our agendas and guides our societies."

One undeniable force behind escalating violence in some countries is armed conflict, both present and past. This situation, which is the case in several countries in Central America, raises concerns over the degree of success that can be expected from efforts to carry out socioeconomic reforms and modernize the state.

In Guatemala, for instance, where a peace accord formally ended almost four decades of virtual civil war in 1996, a subsequent outbreak of citizen insecurity is prompting some to lobby for the military to take over the civilian government again, noted Richard Aitkenhead Castillo, a former minister in Guatemala and another contributor to the book.

El Salvador is another painful case of exploding violence, in part a result of a lengthy internal armed conflict. Its annual homicide rate of 120 to 140 per 100,000 inhabitants is 10 times higher than the annual rate in the United States, which itself has the highest rate of violence of any developed country in the world.

Bruno Moro, coordinator of United Nations activities in El Salvador, notes that violence should be distinguished from crime. Conflating the two phenomena, he says, would imply that they should both be addressed through prevention and repression.

"Violence is a broader phenomenon that can only be understood as a social construct combining learned behaviors and cultural patterns, marginalization and social and economic exclusion, uncertainty and a precarious vision of the future," Moro writes.

In other countries, rising violence is often attributed to increasing inequality and unemployment, the side effects of the necessary economic restructuring. As such, the causes and consequences of violence can be likened to the threads of a spider’s web, which are so interconnected that no one strand can be separated.

"The only thing that’s clear," said Rodrigo Guerrero, a former mayor of Cali and now an IDB consultant, "is that the eradication of poverty and inequality must be an integral part of any program to fight violence."

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