Latin America's political class debates the merits of free-market or populist-statist reforms, they are dangerously ignoring one of the most important reforms needed in the region: improved security.
Crime is one of the major concerns of foreign investors in Latin America. It deters companies from investing more to expand existing facilities and bringing in key foreign personnel.
Despite knowing this, Latin American policy-makers have failed to adequately invest in law enforcement. Politicians typically promise to fight crime while running for office, but once in power the status quo continues.
PART OF THE PROBLEM
One major problem is that many policemen have increasingly and tragically become part of the problem, not the solution.
At best, many policemen are inefficient, solving only a miniscule number of crimes and acting too slow when they occur. They probably think to themselves Since the government pretends they're paying me a decent salary, I'll pretend I'm doing a decent job.
At worst, police are getting involved in crimes. In one of the latest examples, Mexican prosecutors filed kidnapping charges against seven police officers that were accused of protecting assasins who worked for the Arellano Felix drug-trafficking gang.
And in between these two scenarios, are the many "silent partners" of crime - accepting bribes to look the other way.
So, what's the solution? A combination of factors, including attractive salaries, ample health and life insurance, better training (as well as free higher education for those who want that), better equipment and - last, but not least, efficient administration. (I remember the case in Panama a few years ago when the police received new U.S.-donated vehicles, but couldn't use them because of insufficient gas money).
The value of attractive salaries cannot be under-estimated. In most Latin American countries the low police salary not only is a key driver behind corruption, but also a major hurdle in recruiting the kind of honest, ambitous officers the police needs. Interestingly enough, paying higher salaries was one of the key recommendations the US Southern Command recently made to the Dominican government in a study on how to improve security at the Dominican-Haitian border through a new border force.
A good salary, coupled with improvements in the status of police, will be an attractive alternative for the young and smart cadres of Latin America that today dream of private-sector jobs.
Also needed are more policemen - and of these, more patrols on the street. If not, countries risk repeating the scandal in the Dominican Republic recently, where the Minister of the Interior revealed that only 3,085 police units were available for patrol - out of a total of 32,000 units!
How to pay for all this, you may ask. Well, here's a quick solution that won't increase total government budgets: Use the military. But not as military. Rather, merge the military with the police. Abolish the military and replace it with a strong national police force. One of the major problems with Latin America's military - apart from spending billions of dollars on expensive fighter jets and other advanced war equipment that's mostly unecessary today - is the fact that most of the soldiers are idle most of the time, waiting for a war that will never come.
What better use of these young men than to have them patrol the streets as policemen? Of course, not all soldiers can become policemen. After all, most of Latin America's armies are based on mandatory conscription. But since most of the soldiers come from low-income backgrounds, giving them another opportunity to earn a decent salary should be attractive for many.
What about border patrols - one of the key roles played by the military today? Do as Costa Rica, which abolished its army in 1948. During tensions with the Sandinistas in neighboring Nicaragua during the 1980's, Costa Rica had a police patrol with full military equipment. There's no reason why the new police force shouldn't have a similar solution - a permanent special border patrol with sufficient equipment (heavy artillery and heavy conflict gear) just as most police forces already have special anti-terrorism units.
Is more police really a solution, though? Yes, in large part, it is. Witness the reduced crime in Colombia after the Uribe government boosted the number of police by 24,000. And in Brazil, a dramatic increase in police helped reduce a crime wave that struck Copacabana beach area in Rio de Janeiro in the early 1990's.
Needless to say, just as important as more police is the quality of those policemen. Having a larger number of corrupt officers won't help, but hurt. So the criteria for being a policeman is that in return for the benefits (attractive salary, health insurance, education and training), you will be fired immediately upon evidence of corruption.
Of course, improved law enforcement is not enough to reduce crime. The roots of much crime - poverty - has to be addressed as well. But strong law and order will deter many criminals who will make a simple risk-calculation. Also, simply arresting criminals that may post bail is not enough. Latin America also needs an improved judiciary. But neither of these issues stand in the way of reforming the region's police now.
It's time for Latin American policymakers to take a serious - and practical - look at how to reduce crime. If not, Latin America only risks losing further investments to other destinations that offer more security just as the region needs more investment than ever.
Joachim Bamrud is the editor-in-chief of Latin Business Chronicle and author of Panama Jack, a spy novel set in Panama and China.
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