COVID-19 is producing a feel-good story across Latin America.
According to this silver linings playbook, the pandemic is neutralizing the powerful street gangs that have made the region the world’s most criminally violent. It’s lowering murder rates and raising gangbangers’ civic consciousness. Post-coronavirus Latin America will be a continent of lions lying with lambs – and no longer such a rampant source of illegal immigration to the U.S.
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It’s a narrative of hope.
And it’s got no real hope of happening.
In fact, many experts fear Latin America’s ubiquitous, bloodthirsty gangs will be further entrenched thanks to the pandemic. But for the moment that’s not the spin you’ll hear from leaders like President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador.
Gangs known as maras are infamous for controlling vast swaths of El Salvador – and for saddling the small Central American nation with one of the world’s highest homicide rates, making it a major launching pad for terrorized migrants heading for the U.S. border.
But the pandemic lockdown Bukele ordered last month is credited with slashing El Salvador’s murder tally in half this month. And the gangs – as if the maras suddenly got morals – are helping the government enforce the national quarantine. A couple weeks ago El Salvador even had an unheard-of day without a murder.
“Many lives were saved” thanks to the pandemic measures and the maras’ patriotic volunteerism, Bukele triumphantly tweeted.
In Brazil, the drug-trafficking Red Command gangsters of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, or slums, are demonstrating more responsibility than President Jair Bolsonaro, who dismisses the pandemic. They're using megaphones to impose COVID restrictions like curfews; they’re pushing hand sanitizer on residents instead of crack cocaine. In Venezuela, whose murder rate rivals El Salvador’s, street thugs called colectivos are also on pandemic patrol.
Violent crime is down in Brazil and Venezuela, too. Some public security experts reason the stay-at-home state of affairs has deprived criminal groups of street traffic prey – and, say the more optimistic, that it’s made them more aware of that prey’s sufferings.
But that’s not really the case, say veteran Latin American mafia watchers like Jose Miguel Cruz of Florida International University’s Latin America and Caribbean Center. Cruz, himself a Salvadoran, told me the region’s gangs are helping in the pandemic less out of civic duty than out of criminal logic.
“They’re doing it because they can,” Cruz said – reminding me that the gangbangers’ lockdown enforcement demonstrates that they and not the region's absent state institutions "are the actual rulers of these territories. It underlines how weak the institutions in these countries are.”
That gang rule is leveraged largely via criminal practices like extortion and trafficking. So when plagues like COVID-19 come along, it’s in the criminal interest of groups like Central America’s maras to look out to a certain degree for the welfare of the victims they extort from and traffic to. You can’t bleed money from a barrio that can't earn it.
As for the drops in violent crime, Cruz acknowledges the role social quarantine is playing – to some degree. He and others point out the drop in El Salvador was already happening pre-coronavirus: the maras last year struck a ceasefire of sorts to avoid an irksome government crackdown. The reality is that even though the killing might be on hold for the moment, the maras are still definitely there, shaking down and beating up whomever they choose – at will.
What Cruz fears most is that when the killing inevitably starts up again, the maras in El Salvador and gangs in the rest of Latin America will feel even more emboldened than before. Not just since the pandemic policing gave them a chance to remind everybody who really commands these countries, but because disasters like earthquakes and pestilence almost always “disrupt the social order in Latin America and weaken state institutions even further,” he says. “They create an environment for criminal groups to deepen their power. I worry they’ll be strengthened.”
Andrew Rosati, a veteran Venezuela correspondent who co-wrote “Tupamaro,” a new documentary on one of the most notorious colectivos in Caracas, agrees.
“It could be harder than ever to dislodge these gangs once the pandemic breaks,” said Rosati, whose film debuts this Friday on Amazon Prime Video.
If so, the corona-silver lining we thought we saw on the hemispheric horizon is just a mirage. The U.S. will still see terrorized migrants on its border – and will still need to help leaders like Bukele build state institutions that can neutralize gangs.
Instead of hoping a virus will do it.