Enhancing Citizen Security in Latin America

Spotlight on Fellow Mark Ungar

Dec 05, 2004

Latin America has one of the highest crime rates in the world. Across the region, governments are starting to implement reforms to make their nations safer. But police have resisted such changes and their lack of cooperation has both delayed reform efforts and undermined their governments' credibility.

Wilson Center Fellow Mark Ungar has spent his career studying citizen security in Latin America. He began this pursuit 15 years ago, working in Venezuela for a human rights organization that fought against police violence. Venezuela had an oppressive police force then, and is even harsher now.

Ungar, an associate professor at Brooklyn College, is at the Center working on a book that will assess police reform in Venezuela, as well in Bolivia, Honduras, and Argentina.
"Iron-fist policing continues to plague Latin America," Ungar said. Police have increasing, unchecked power while new criminal codes are even more repressive. In Honduras, for example, the government passed a provision last year that incarcerates members of youth gangs for 9-12 years. Ungar recently visited three prisons in Honduras on a Ford Foundation grant and observed that nearly half of the inmates were in jail under this provision, and had not committed any crime.

Despite such setbacks, Latin American countries are undertaking reforms. Earlier this year, Ungar submitted a paper to Argentina's president, evaluating the country's policing and recommending new management and training measures. The government pledged to implement these changes, but Cabinet shuffling kept postponing such efforts. Today, the Interior Minister-now in charge of the police-agreed to act on the proposal and Ungar has met with him to discuss it in greater detail.

Some countries have begun to revise their criminal procedure codes and changed from written to oral trials, which will be faster and more transparent. In addition, authority to conduct criminal investigations will shift to prosecutors. Police, who previously led them, often failed to secure crime scenes and mishandled evidence.

A second reform priority in Latin America is decentralizing police forces, which will allow cities to form their own units. Although police have generally resisted change, the government plans to offer incentives such as health services, job security, and better equipment and training to encourage support for reorganization. "There is room to improve working conditions in exchange for the reconstruction they may not want," said Ungar.

Over the past 20 years, as Latin American countries moved toward democracy, police capacity and procedure have remained the same, yet crime rates are even higher than before. The governments are committed to reform but still experience resistance and institutional problems, and authorities often fail to enforce progressive measures. In Bolivia, a large, diverse population makes decentralizing police forces more urgent, whereas the smaller, more homogenous Honduras is slower to reform.
A third area of planned reform is community policing, with the intention that giving greater authority to citizens through neighborhood watch groups and policy committees would empower communities.

Ungar recommends backing up reforms with education and oversight. He characterized current police management as insular and advised that police be disciplined with clear standards and promoted based on actual improvements. "The police must change internally and understand the causes of crime. A new culture is needed."