Monday, January 04, 2016

Murder rates and national histories

Last week Josh Marshall offered the thought-provoking suggestion that a better way to think about the U.S. murder rate (5 per 100,000 according to World Bank data) is to situate our country within the rest of the nations of the Americas, rather than comparing it to Europe's lower rate which is closer to 1. He goes on to finger the Americas' "original sin": the coerced labor and slavery systems that colonizing Europeans imposed to extract quick fortunes.

... these were all in critical ways engineered societies based on various kinds of forced labor and violence.

... These are quite simply societies permeated by histories of violence. But more than just that, they are societies where very often the police are not people you go to when you need protection, justice or other things which we think (or hope) you go to the police for. The police are people you want to keep your distance from. They are sometimes little more than the armed force of the landlords or the powerful. And when you can't go to the police, you tend to seek private vengeance, which is to say that in [a] highly exploitative and violent society, the 'oppressed' are most often themselves trained to violence. When you can't go to the police, when the police are not there to serve and protect but to control, disputes tend to get settled through private violence - which again, generates high rates of assault and murder.

... This brings us back to the US crime rate and particularly the Southern murder rate. Why has the South always had a much higher murder rate than the rest of the country? The answer seems obvious: slavery. The role of violence and labor is much, much more similar to the Greater Caribbean than any other part of the United States. ... The United States is part of the Americas and not just in the obvious geographical sense. While it is distinct in many ways, the US (and not just the South) had its fundamental origins as a settler society, which created basic patterns which are still with us today.

As Marshall says, all of this is a thought experiment carried on at an extremely general level, not a proof. His suggestion is intuitively plausible, although I think also of the force and violence which drove dispossessed poor people in the United Kingdom to labor in 19th century mines and mills. Also interestingly, the murder rate in long-colonized and exploited Ireland is no higher than that in the rest of Europe.

The northern Caribbean "murder zone" does stand out. Honduras (92),Guatemala (35), Jamaica (39), Puerto Rico (26), Mexico (22) ...

I responded to reading Marshall by wondering about that other semi-Caribbean country: Nicaragua. It's murder rate is 11, twice that of the U.S., but less than half of many of its neighbors. And this is despite being the poorest country on the South American mainland. Why is Nicaragua different?

People in the United States who have any awareness of Nicaragua at all (and are not themselves Central American immigrants) probably think of it as that place which suffered a bloody civil war during the Reagan administration. From 1979 through 1990, U.S.-backed proxy forces fought the Sandinistas, a popular nationalist government with socialist aspirations. Before 1979, the country was ruled by a kleptocratic dictator who treated rural people as disposable labor on his private preserve, a regime very much in Marshall's category of "forced labor and violence". Nicaraguans rose up, threw the guy out, and, despite the war, have lived under elected governments of varying honesty and political cast ever since.

Apparently today Nicaragua is one of the more peaceful nations in the region. Different sources suggest different reasons for the country's current relative good peacefulness.

A Hemisphere Focus paper from the Center for International and Strategic Studies emphasizes that Nicaragua is neither a source or a consumer of the region's valuable and vicious drug trade.

In the Christian Science Monitor, Hannah Stone focuses on Nicaragua's good fortune in having a different migration history in the 80s than its neighbors. Since the U.S. treated Nicaragua as an enemy state, the northern colossus was not where people fleeing violence sought refuge.

Nicaragua does not have a significant presence of the biggest, and most notorious, Central American gangs – the Mara Salvatrucha 13, or MS-13, and Barrio 18, or M-18. These both have many members in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, as well as in the US. Part of the reason for their presence in these countries, and not in Nicaragua (or its neighbors in the southern part of the isthmus), is migration patterns. Large numbers of people emigrated from the Northern Triangle countries to the US in the 1980s and 1990s, often settling in Los Angeles. Here, some young people formed self-protection gangs, which morphed over time into large-scale criminal organizations like MS-13 and M-18. These structures were exported to the northern half of Central America in the 1990s, via the US policy of deporting convicted gang members after they had served terms in prison.

Many observers express concern that drug dealing might yet infect this Central American oasis.

The Economist offers the most radical explanation for Nicaragua's low murder rate. This organ of free market orthodoxy credits Nicaragua's popular revolution for implanting a viable system of law and some justice.

Nicaragua's distaste for its neighbours' mano dura (“iron fist”) policies grew out of the 1979 revolt against the Somoza dictatorship. “We didn't know how to be police. We only knew we didn't want to be like the Somozan Guard,” says Aminta Granera, a former nun and guerrilla who leads the [nation's police] force [to this day].

Officers are aided by 100,000 volunteers. They include law and psychology students; 10,000 former gang members, who mentor youths via baseball in the barrios; and nearly 4,000 domestic-violence victims, who persuade women to speak out. Amnesty International, an NGO, highlights the frequency of rape, which is made worse by a blanket ban on abortion: last year a 12-year-old was forced to give birth to her stepfather's baby.

Still, confidence in the police is the highest in Latin America after Chile. ... "They had just gotten rid of a repressive dictatorship," [historian Jeffery] Gould said, "so when the Sandinistas took over, they set out to create a different kind of police force, in tune with the local population and their needs, rather than being oppressive.”

Judy Butler, an American journalist who’s lived in Nicaragua for 31 years, said “there was a cleaning out of the military and other structures of government that never happened in ... Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras." ...

Maybe the experience of struggling for liberation -- for autonomy and justice -- implants a positive corrective within societies born in violence, even if the forces of popular liberation encounter setbacks. That seems worth musing on even within our own American nation.

In looking up murder rates, I also noticed that Cuba, another Caribbean former slave state, has a rate of 5 per 100,000, the same as that of the United States.

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