Can Governments Deter Violence Committed by Crime Groups?

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For decades, governments throughout Latin America have responded to violent criminal groups with militarized campaigns aimed — in many cases futilely — at dismantling or destroying them. These crackdowns often exacerbate violence, but there may be a better way to handle the problem.

A recent book by University of Chicago professor Benjamin Lessing, titled “Making Peace in Drug Wars,” lays out the case for an approach he calls “conditional repression.”

The thrust of his argument is that governments can deter criminal organizations from committing violence against the state by focusing increased repression on more violent groups.

While Lessing’s study concentrates specifically on anti-state violence, he says conditionality can also be applied to other types of criminal behavior.

“You can use the threat of state repression, or the threat of law enforcement, to deter whatever you want,” he told InSight Crime.

But, Lessing said, the state has to make clear what kind of behavior it is trying to discourage, and it has to signal the consequences of engaging in it.

“Whatever thing you’re trying to deter, you need to have a bright line,” he said.

Repression in Rio

Lessing explores three case studies from Latin America to illustrate how conditional policies have played out in practice.

The “most obviously conditional policy” examined in the book, he writes, is Rio de Janeiro’s “pacification” strategy. The initiative was conceived in the late 2000s to address high rates of violence in Brazil’s second-largest city, particularly in the disadvantaged neighborhoods known locally as “favelas.”

The primary aim of pacification was not the dismantling of the drug trade, but rather the establishment of a state presence in areas traditionally dominated by crime groups.

In order to accomplish this, officials gave advanced notice of their intent to sweep into favelas with large numbers of security forces. This gave members of crime groups “a chance to flee … or disarm and melt into favela society,” Lessing writes.

After occupying the targeted area and establishing a special outpost known as a Police Pacification Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP), authorities deprioritized enforcement of laws against drug trafficking in favor of seeking to keep levels of violence to a minimum.

Initially, pacification was widely praised for bringing about dramatic drops in violence in the areas where it was implemented. However, Lessing says, the program eventually became a victim of its own success.

“Pacification proved that you can reduce violence,” the author told InSight Crime. “You can convince the drug traffickers, at least for a while, to put down their arms.”

But, he added, “When these programs exhibit initial success … there will be this demand to replicate the program.”

As authorities moved to implement UPPs in more favelas, resources were stretched thin. A resurgence of violence followed, including incidents of excessive force by police, undermining support for the initiative.

“It couldn’t be scaled up quickly enough, not in a way that would stay true to the principles of the program,” Lessing said.

Conditionality in Colombia

Lessing also considers the case of Colombia during the 1980s and 1990s, the heyday of Pablo Escobar’s Medellín Cartel.

He argues that the Colombian government’s unconditional crackdown on drug trafficking beginning in the early 1980s pushed the Medellín Cartel to carry out wanton violence as a means of trying to pressure the government into changing course.

Eventually, after the 1990 election of President César Gaviria, the government did change course. Gaviria’s administration came up with a policy known as “sometimiento,” which offered judicial leniency to drug trafficking suspects who voluntarily turned themselves in.

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Lessing argues that the policy was conditional, “implicitly offering forgiveness for past violence conditional on nonviolence going forward.”

And, he argues, sometimiento succeeded in containing Escobar’s penchant for bloodshed — until the drug lord made an infamously embarrassing escape from prison, resulting in a year-and-a-half-long manhunt that ended in his death.

Lessing says that the declining violence seen in post-Escobar Colombia is the result of a different type of conditional policy, which a former US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) official he interviewed described as “mowing the lawn” — essentially, “targeting the most prominent and troublesome traffickers for repression and extradition.”

Militarization in Mexico

The third case study in the book examines Mexico’s spiraling drug war, which has been a major driver of the country’s record-high homicide rates in recent years.

Lessing argues that, although deeply corrupt, the policy toward drug trafficking practiced by the Institutional Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Institucional – PRI), which ruled Mexico for most of the 20th century, was nonetheless a type of conditional repression that helped keep levels of violence low. As long as crime groups paid bribes and avoided bloodshed, they faced no repression, and thus had little motivation to commit violence.

This system began to erode in the 1990s when Mexico’s political system became more democratic and previously sidelined political parties began to gain power. This shift disrupted the corrupt but stable relationships between criminal organizations and the state.

As trafficking groups increasingly turned to violence, the government ramped up repression in an unconditional manner, with former President Felipe Calderón’s “war without quarter” the prime example, thereby encouraging crime groups to fight back.

According to Lessing, the lack of conditionality in Mexico is a key reason why violence has continued to escalate there.

“With stakes so high, and with leaders explicitly promising not to condition repression on cartel behavior, is it any wonder that bribe negotiations became so violent?” he writes.

Constraints on Conditionality

If conditional policies are so successful at containing criminal violence, why aren’t they more widely adopted?

Lessing names two broad categories of constraints that he says policymakers face in implementing conditional security strategies.

The first type is what he calls “logistical constraints,” like fragmented security institutions that are difficult for policymakers to coordinate and get on the same page. Weaknesses in law enforcement and judicial institutions can also undermine conditional policies, as in the case of the overly rapid expansion of Rio’s pacification program.

Lessing says these types of stumbling blocks are relatively “straightforward.” Often, what he calls “acceptability constraints” — political distaste for seeming soft on crime or complicit with trafficking — are the bigger obstacle to effectively implementing conditional strategies.

“The optics of drug policy and the optics of conditional repression are a little wild. They’re hard to predict,” Lessing told InSight Crime.

“Conditional repression doesn’t require tackling all of the hard problems, at least not all at once.”

He cited the example of El Salvador’s gang truce, which has been credited for bringing about dramatic decreases in sky-high homicide rates, but was carried out in a way that ultimately undermined the public’s tolerance and policymakers’ political will for further government negotiations with gang leaders.

“We have to pay attention to the way we describe these policies,” Lessing added. “We have to pay attention to what their observable impacts are going to look like, and we have to anticipate that.”

Ultimately, though, Lessing believes conditional policies — if implemented thoughtfully — represent a valid alternative to more traditional approaches to controlling criminal violence.

“I think that a lot of police action, especially ‘mano dura’ policies, runs the risk of aggravating inter-cartel fighting,” he said. “What should the state be doing to keep the cartels from fighting each other? That’s not something we normally ask.”

“Conditional repression doesn’t require tackling all of the hard problems, at least not all at once,” Lessing added. “What it requires is using the repressive or coercive force of the state more intelligently or more effectively.”

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