Another Explanation

“Transition presupposes –says Joaquín Villalobos- dismounting repressive apparatuses, reconstructing institutions, learning to employ the laws, and protecting the citizen instead of keeping a watchful eye on him”. The political transition opened a new space of freedom for the citizenry and of competition for political parties. In the process, it changed the structure of numberless institutions, modified power relations in Mexican society and among distinct levels of government, and created fissures in control mechanisms that had previously sufficed in thwarting citizens from acting on their own. The problem lies in that it also facilitated the growth of organized crime.

Marcelo Bergman, a CIDE researcher, has devoted himself to studying criminality in various Latin-American countries. He began by observing that Brazilians and Argentines, Guatemalans and Mexicans, all experienced sudden upsurges in crime indices. Each country offered logical explanations that took into account what had occurred, and the explanations made sense and reflected the local realities that their populations had lived in the flesh. What surprised Bergman was that although the dynamic in each country was intelligible, the problem of criminality had broken out in a great number of countries at the same time.

Bergman’s scholarship has led him to develop diverse hypotheses that attempt to explain the phenomenon in a more broad-ranging manner. Along the way, he has been able to impart a much wider and more comprehensive perspective of the phenomenon of criminality in the region, advancing a viewpoint that explains other components of what has taken place in these countries. According to his analysis, there was a cluster of factors that coincided in several countries in Latin America in the nineties: the decentralization of power; the demand for consumer goods by the lower middle classes; the appearance of organized crime eager to satisfy this demand, and the appearance of China as a source of low-priced products that appeased this market. In Bergman’s perspective, the world changed in the nineties because fragmentation of power and the appearance of emerging middle classes created conditions for the remaining two factors to concur and create a space of opportunity for criminality that had not existed for decades.

Every country is distinct, but various nations of the American subcontinent experienced profound changes in their political and governmental structures during the same period. In some cases, the change put an end to military dictatorships and the beginning of civil governments, while in others, the change was due to processes of democratization. In both cases, the core factor was that power was decentralized. This decentralization implied the transfer of former control mechanisms to other governmental levels, which, at least in legal terms, had always been responsible for public safety, that is, what was de facto in the hands of the central authority now passed to state and local authorities. The problem is that these authorities were not organized or trained for what suddenly fell to them, and, in many cases, did not possess the instruments or the understanding of the challenge that was now theirs. Countries such as Chile and Uruguay, which have centralized (unitary, as Bergman calls them) systems of government, did not experience power decentralization and also did not find themselves in the midst of sudden rises in criminality.

The second component of the picture that this scholar has fashioned is perhaps the most significant and fresh. The existence of a repressed, pent up, demand for consumer goods by the incipient middle classes is not only a factor of economic, but also one of social and political, transcendence because it demonstrates the improvement of these societies as well as the failure of statist economic policies of the previous decades that had handicapped development. The emerging middle classes observed the manner in which the upper middle classes consumed, but did have the economic capacity to acquire the same goods. This source of demand was satisfied by organized crime.

The first wave of criminality materialized with car thefts, and these very automobiles found their way to chop shops for sale as parts or for export to other markets in the same region. Over time, yet other markets prospered: bootleg CDs and DVDs; stolen consumer goods, and so forth. The major corollary of the process was the appearance of China as the supplier of inexpensive and attractive goods for an available market. Contraband followed on the heels of all this. With boundless celerity, Chinese goods inundated the clothes, shoes, electronics, computer, and toy markets in these nations. The consumer of these goods did not perhaps have access to the most sophisticated sound or video devices or to the best-quality films, but did have the same fun and opportunity as the most pretentious consumer.

In their seminal article “Broken Windows”, James Q. Wilson and George Kelling argued that when a building’s broken windows are not repaired or replaced, the street vandal will soon break all the rest. The authors developed a theory of criminality with this metaphor, which postulated that when the most fundamental crime is not seen to or attacked, it mushrooms until it becomes a phenomenon ubiquitous in its irrepressibility. What Bergman has observed in these countries complies with this rationale: instead of assaulting the problem when it began, countries that became democratized and their populations were too concerned with the great political themes of the transition and neglected the most elemental: the safety of their inhabitants. Heisting cars was followed by piracy, which was in turn followed by drug consumption, and now, we are deep in the throes of a sea of violence for which State instruments continue to be insufficient or inadequate. There is no happy ending in this story, but Bergman’s interpretation provides much food for thought.

The breaking up of a semi-authoritarian political system does not necessarily entail the growth of criminality. This situation came about in Mexico and in other nations of the South-American continent because transition was not accompanied by the development of solid institutions able to contribute to the establishment and maturation of a police system, a justice system, and, in general, a system of government. We Mexicans are now obliged to find the way to achieve what the transition’s actors and authors never understood to be central to the edification of a nation that is not only democratic, but also modern and civilized.