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Surging gang violence across Latin America challenges aid sector to respond

‘We need to put Latin America’s humanitarian issues on the map.’

The photo is taken through prison bars. We see several rows of prisoners who are sat on the floor with their head between their knees and their hands behind their necks. Most prisoners have tattoos on them. ULAN/ Pool/Latin America News Agency
Authorities carry out a security check in a prison in El Salvador in March 2022. As part of his hardline response to a wave of gang violence, President Nayib Bukele decreed a maximum emergency in all prisons where gang members are serving sentences.

Latin America and the Caribbean have been plagued by gang violence for decades, but many countries in the region are facing new surges of deadly criminal activity that are leading to societal breakdowns and overwhelming the efforts of humanitarian groups to respond.


The regional homicide rate has risen 3.7% a year on average over the past decade, more than three times the population growth rate of 1.1%. The knock-on effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasing ruthlessness of the drug cartels, and gang fragmentation have all contributed to the spread of insecurity through the region, including into several countries until recently considered safe.


“Gangs have gained so much power that they are the ones imposing the law, and we citizens abide by them to save our lives,” Javier Chávez, a Honduran who has worked for several aid organisations in his country, told The New Humanitarian.


Life is being disrupted for millions of Latin Americans on a daily basis. Gang-related extortion rackets force local businesses to pay for protection, hampering economic activity. In some areas, forced confinement prevents residents from even getting to work to earn a living. Shootings force schools to close, leaving idle children and teens more vulnerable to gang recruitment. Women face chronic abuse, and entire families live under constant threat, causing a cascade of health impacts that often go unaddressed.


"We need to put Latin America’s humanitarian issues on the map,” said Sophie Orr, Americas director for the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC). “The very high levels of violence are of critical concern with massive consequences for communities, and it is dragging down any progress that could happen.” 


The spiralling violence presents a relatively new and unorthodox challenge for humanitarian actors more accustomed to operating in traditional war zones and disaster settings.


“National and international relief agencies are grappling with how to ensure protection, provide basic services, and safeguard human rights to people living in neighbourhoods under the control of drug factions and criminal gangs,” Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, a Brazil-based think tank focusing on security issues, told The New Humanitarian. 


In this series, we’ll go on to explore how the rise of gang violence is affecting different countries in different ways: in Haiti, gangs control 80% of Port-Au-Prince and use rape as a “weapon of war”; in Honduras, killings in the countryside outnumber those in urban areas; in Colombia, changing conflict dynamics are complicating aid efforts; in Peru, an increasing number of women are victims of sex trafficking; in Ecuador, homicides rose more than 86% just between 2021 and 2022.


But first, in this overview, we consider the broader regional trends.


Why is this more important now? What has changed?

Gang violence in the region has long been a neglected issue. However, security has now deteriorated so much in a clutch of long-troubled countries that it is demanding a higher place on the humanitarian priority list.


In Colombia, the splintering of armed groups and their rivalry over drug trafficking routes saw new conflict displacements rise in 2022 to a decade high of 339,000, while extortion cases reportedly jumped 40% year-on-year in the first quarter of 2023. In Mexico, the number of criminal groups doubled between 2010 and 2020. To give just one example of what that means for civilians, disappearances of women in northern Zacatecas state soared by 50% last year. In Haiti, gang violence led to 106,000 displacements in 2022, and this year the situation is unravelling towards anarchy. Rampant extortion, meanwhile, in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras is estimated to be generating profits of over $1 billion a year.


In recent years, as the International Crisis Group flagged in a 12 May commentary, there has also been a prolific spread of gang violence into new countries, driven not only by record levels of drug production and lucrative new trafficking routes, but also by widespread economic hardships in the wake of the pandemic. 


2022 homicide rates in Latin America

“Extraordinary upsurges in violence have plagued the port cities of Guayaquil and Rosario, in Ecuador and Argentina respectively, as well as Costa Rica, Panama, and Paraguay,” the ICG said. “Criminal groups in Ecuador have intimidated local communities by engaging in violent tactics such as hanging bodies from a pedestrian bridge, bombing shops and residential areas, and beheading rival group members.”


Even in Chile and Uruguay, long considered bastions of regional calm, crime is skyrocketing. In 2022 alone, murders in Chile increased by 32%, reaching a record high, as did rapes and the illegal use of firearms. In Uruguay, a transit nation for cocaine smuggling, a surge in crime last year saw a 25% increase in murders. Feeding the region’s epidemic of violence is the unchecked flow and circulation of illegal weapons.


Why is gang violence a humanitarian issue?

Figures for conflict displacement often don’t give a true reflection of the extent to which higher levels of gang activity cause people to abandon their homes. Other common byproducts include higher gender-based violence, economic deprivation, and increased hunger.


A March monitoring report by the UN’s refugee agency (UNHCR) from the Darién Gap – a key escape route for many – revealed that three in ten migrants or asylum seekers interviewed had left their country of origin because of threats or attacks directed against them or their families.


Read more: Why the Darién Gap needs more attention than ever


Along with food shortages, a breakdown in the healthcare system, and runaway inflation, growing insecurity is one of the key factors that has forced more than seven million Venezuelans to flee their country since 2015. This exodus has spread south as well as north, pushing migrants to new host countries unprepared to protect and integrate vulnerable incomers.


According to UNHCR, by mid-2022, 42% of the world’s new asylum applications came from Latin America and the Caribbean. But a growing number of countries – including Argentina, Costa Rica, Chile, Peru, and the United States – have been toughening their asylum policies, fuelling a surge in irregular migration and creating crushes at chokepoints. 


“We see people who are displaced several times from one place to the other, because they are followed by criminal groups… and permanently threatened while they travel,” said Álvaro De Vicente, regional head of office at the EU’s humanitarian agency, ECHO. 


For the ICRC’s Orr, other far-reaching costs often go overlooked. “There is a normalisation of this armed violence that is not healthy,” she told The New Humanitarian. “The effects on mental health of the constant fear of what might happen to you or your family are long-lasting and affect future generations.”


In the worst-hit countries like Haiti, violence is so extreme that it is driving some communities towards starvation – famine is now feared as half the population of 10 million is gripped by a hunger crisis, even as the insecurity often means aid agencies are unable to reach those in need.


What part did COVID-19 play in driving up insecurity?

The pandemic reduced the police presence in many communities, and in its absence, lawlessness and violent crime increased, especially in peripheral cities and border areas, experts say.


Despite the initial disruption to their drug supply operations, gangs and criminal networks were quick to adapt and to establish new routes, fuelling competition over territorial control. The international cartels found their way into new countries, moving large volumes of product and utilising ports that were previously seen as secure. 


Since the onset of the pandemic, cocaine production has reached record levels in several countries – notably Bolivia, Colombia, and Peru – spurring increased trafficking of drugs, humans, and, more specifically, women for the sex trade. Gangs are behind most of this activity.  


“These organisations started handling extremely high amounts of money, which means they can recruit more, have more armaments, and a higher capacity to corrupt [authorities],” said Andreas Feldmann, an associate professor at the University of Illinois who specialises in migration, terrorism, and criminal politics. 


Simultaneously, the COVID-19 lockdowns allowed armed groups to wield more power and gain greater control of communities that were reeling from the economic pressures.


“People were not able to move, so, as armed groups could operate more easily, they also took on a role of providing support,” Orr explained, hinting at what others have referred to as a kind of “gang humanitarianism”.


Are donors stepping up to address the humanitarian fallout?

Aid agencies have criticised donors for being slower to fund emergencies in the region compared to others elsewhere. Humanitarian response plans for Latin America and the Caribbean were among the least well funded in the world in 2022, and combined are less than 11% funded for this year so far.


Organisations relying on donors, such as the ICRC, have also seen their funding shrink and expect to receive less in the next few years because of the ongoing disruption caused by the war in Ukraine.


USAID has deployed by far the most money in Latin America and the Caribbean – $960 million in the 2021 fiscal year. It has also made a particular effort to respond to Haiti’s crisis, delivering, since 2021, $228 million in humanitarian aid, which includes $56.5 million to date in the 2023 fiscal year to respond to heightened insecurity and the cholera outbreak. 


In 2022, ECHO disbursed $160 million in humanitarian aid to the region, a significant increase over the $40 million it provided in 2016-2017. While most aid was previously directed towards coping with disasters, more than half now goes to broader humanitarian needs, many related to violent crime. However, it still represents only 6% of ECHO’s total annual aid funding.


“Even when there is more humanitarian funding, we meet a lower percentage of the needs, because they increase more than the financing,” De Vicente acknowledged. 


El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras only received between a quarter and a half of the amount needed to address their UN-identified humanitarian needs last year – among the lowest ratios in the world. “70% of all funding for [Central America] in 2022 came from the United States, highlighting the failure of other donor countries in Europe, the Gulf and large Asian economies to play their part,” the Norwegian Refugee Council recently noted.


So there’s a lack of money, but what are the other response challenges?

In some of the region’s most acute crises – like those in Colombia, Central America, Haiti, and Venezuela (both within and the exodus) – the UN has detailed response plans that outline clearly what the humanitarian needs are, even if they aren’t nearly being met.


But in places like Ecuador, where emergency needs are recent, or in more remote areas like the Amazon, this data is lacking. Greater efforts are required to identify what the most urgent needs are – and where – so that relief efforts can be more efficiently targeted, aid experts say.


Assessing those needs is a challenge, especially as disasters, drought, and food insecurity are also driving displacement, according to De Vicente. These “complex situations”, as ECHO calls humanitarian crises caused by multiple factors, have led to an exponential growth of existing needs even as the funding to address them shrinks. “There is little information about the humanitarian consequences of rising violence,” De Vicente added.


Chávez, the Honduran aid worker, said local mismanagement is also a problem: Local NGOs tend to compete instead of working together, and government cooperation is not forthcoming.


“The resources are not properly used,” he said. “The projects are not well designed and can’t help generate long-lasting changes.”


To provide long-standing relief, international aid organisations are learning that they need to strengthen the capacity of governments and local entities to find their own solutions. For example, the ICRC is helping local governments to guarantee access to health and education services in violence-prone areas.


“If there is an armed confrontation in an area and schools close for days or weeks, the impact on the children is huge,” said Orr. “But if you can get to a stage where the schools don’t need to close, because municipalities know how to manage the situation, have measures in place, and know how to react when there are shootings, the staff feels empowered and the results are pretty positive.”


Read more: How are Latin American governments responding?

Pressured to fight crime by fearful citizens, governments across Latin America are scrambling for ways to curb gang violence. Sitting at different ends of the spectrum are the Mano Dura (iron fist) approach of Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele and the more conciliatory style of President Gustavo Petro’s “Total Peace” plan in Colombia. 


In El Salvador, Bukele achieved a 56,8% drop in crime in 2022 compared to the year before, using states of emergency, huge military police deployments, mass detentions, and the construction of a monumental prison. Increasingly controversial for violating constitutional and human rights, Bukele’s policies have nonetheless been praised by a portion of Latin America’s politicians and citizenry for regaining public spaces from gang control and allowing Salvadorans to resume a less disrupted daily life. Whether the impact will last, and what the end costs will be remains to be seen. In Colombia, Petro has aimed to reduce violence through negotiations with drug dealers and armed groups, including the two largest – the National Liberation Army (ELN) and Clan del Golfo. But talks have proven difficult and breaches in ceasefire agreements have made negotiations stall. 


Robert Muggah, co-founder of the Igarapé Institute, said most nations in the region are currently leaning more towards Bukele’s heavy-handed policies.


“Many Latin American and Caribbean countries are resorting to militarised Mano Dura-style approaches to resolve the crime surge. For example, in Ecuador, the president declared 10 separate states of emergency and deployed the military to fight Ecuadorian, Albanian, and Mexican gangs,” he noted. “Honduras also extended a state of emergency to half the country.”


The most common strategy to fighting crime, Muggah said, is simply to deploy more military personnel and police, or, in a pinch, to arm citizens. 


In Ecuador, for instance, President Guillermo Lazo allowed civilian use of guns last April, lifting a 12-year ban, while in Chile, the Congress passed a privileged legitimate defence bill that expands police use of force.


“In Argentina, the government is pursuing a policy of ‘police saturation’, flooding the streets with officers,” said Muggah. “In Mexico, over 92,000 soldiers were deployed from Acapulco to Cancún with the mandate to undertake traditional law enforcement and public safety functions.”


Countries that have opted to be less heavy handed are more likely to be trying to address the root causes of violence. For example, Petro’s approach also involves programmes aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty that leads residents to fall into crime. In some Colombian cities, initiatives giving greater opportunities and skills to at-risk young people have been successful. 


Brazil is now taking a similar path. After four years of his predecessor’s hardline policies, President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva “is reintroducing a national security strategy focused on expanding state presence in under-policed areas and promoting social programmes,” Muggah noted.


But what do you do when governments are unable or unwilling to intervene? For example, in Haiti, because the state can’t guarantee security, humanitarian responders must negotiate with gang leaders if they want to operate more safely.


For Orr, such efforts to strengthen ties with community members so that at least some rules can be established with the armed groups and criminal actors are essential.


“Often armed groups are very much part of the community, their family members live there, so there are messages you can try to pass: avoid confrontations around the health centre, or don’t go in there with weapons, the staff must be left to help patients,” she said. “It’s all about relating in terms of elements that any armed actor can understand because they might use the same services.” 


Edited by Tom Brady and Andrew Gully.

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