THE MIAMI HERALD
Posted on Tue, Sep. 28, 2010
Living on constant alert
BY CARLOS ALBERTO MONTANER
How does one measure the success or failure of a region? Is the level of violence useful as a parameter? Is there anything about it to celebrate in Latin America? Yes, of course, but rather than congratulate ourselves for the successes we achieved, we should do so for the mistakes we didn’t make.
In general, the Latin American scene has not been overly deadly, especially during the past century. While our European cousins engaged in making war and killing each other in the cruelest forms in the name of antifascism or communism, or under absurd pretexts such as “the balance of power” and “living space,” 20th-Century Latin America was frugal in terms of international conflict.
War — what passes for war in Latin America — broke out only once, between Paraguay and Bolivia, from 1932 to 1935. About 100,000 soldiers from two of South America’s poorest countries left their bones on the Chaco, an arid, almost uninhabitable stretch of land that was almost useless. It was the first time that someone defined a bellicose confrontation as “two bald men fighting over a comb.” (Borges used the phrase years later to describe the Falklands episode.)
True, there were skirmishes and brief battles between Honduras and El Salvador in the so-called Soccer War (1970), and Peru and Ecuador clashed over their jungle-covered border in 1995, but both episodes were scarcely important armed conflicts — except to the dead, wounded and homeless, of course.
We had several lamentable domestic butcheries, however: the Mexican revolution in 1910, the Central American slaughters in the 1970s and ’80s, the thousands of murders committed by the Southern Cone countries during the same period as a reaction to Marxist-left violence, the old murderous insurgence of the Colombia narcoguerrillas and the opposing paramilitaries, and the intermittent executions by firing squad in communist Cuba, a country exhausted by half a century of bloody turmoil.
It seems like a lot, and it may be, but the number of victims is only one hundredth of the number recorded in Europe during the same period.
That sinister tally does not include the growing violence generated by the criminal mafias that lack any political color. It is perfectly legitimate to measure Latin America’s success or failure by the scant relative worth of life in some regions. John Locke, the father of the West’s modern states, stated that a government’s primary function was to safeguard the right to life, property and freedom.
Buenos Aires dangerous
In some Latin American countries, any talk about the right to life is a joke. In Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, some Mexican cities, and Caracas, hired killers charge a fistful of dollars to murder almost anyone. Paying for an assassination costs less than buying a cell phone or a pair of fine shoes.
The most serious development, however, is that the trend is spreading and intensifying. Buenos Aires, that great Latin American urban center, is becoming a very dangerous city. In Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, many people live in terror. The same happens in Guayaquil and Quito, albeit on a smaller scale. Santo Domingo, which until a few years ago was a safe city, and San Juan de Puerto Rico, two capitals in the party-going, merry Caribbean, are two places where citizens live in constant alert, their windows barred for fear of burglary and robbery.
Nobody knows quite how to slow down this phenomenon. There are places where calling the police makes matters worse. Writer Raúl Rivero swears that he once read the following headline in a Mexican newspaper: “A train and a bus collide; survivors flee in panic as police arrive.” Might be a joke, might be the truth.
According to Mexican president Felipe Calderón, half the police officers in his country, a quarter of a million men and women, are corrupt. When they arrive at the scene of a crime, the safest thing for everyone to do is to hide.