Rising crime rates are pushing Latin America’s political pendulum to the right | Opinion

An ultra-conservative party’s landslide victory in Chile’s May 7 elections for a commission that will draft a new constitution received little international attention. But it could signal a shift of Latin America’s political pendulum to the right.

The far-right Republican Party’s win in Chile’s election came shortly after the comfortable victory of conservative ruling-party candidate Santiago Peña in Paraguay’s April 30 election. And polls suggest that right-of-center parties are likely to win presidential elections in Guatemala and Argentina in June and November, respectively.

The conventional wisdom is that after the election of leftist presidents in recent years in Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Peru and Mexico — a trend that has become known as “Latin America’s pink tide” — there is a public-opinion backlash against ruling governments that have been unable to tame inflation or revamp the economy.

But now, there is an additional factor that is tilting the region’s public opinion to the right: public anger over rising crime rates.

According to Gallup surveys provided to me by the polling firm, 61% of Chileans, 56% of Colombians, 52% of Mexicans, 51% of Brazilians and 49% of Argentines say they don’t feel safe walking alone at night in their neighborhoods.

That’s a significant increase over the percentage of people who felt unsafe in these countries in the past, the Gallup polls show. In 2008, only 52% of Chileans, 50% of Colombians and 48% of Mexicans said they didn’t feel safe walking alone at night.

In Chile, violence has become voters’ top priority, surpassing inflation and immigration. In Chile, 50% of the population rank crime as the country’s most important issue, up from 13% four years ago, according to a Pulso Ciudadano poll.

Many Chileans voted for the Republican Party because they perceived it as the most critical of leftist President Gabriel Boric’s government, New York University professor and Chilean political analyst Patricio Navia told me.

“It was a vote against Boric,” Navia said. “And crime was an important reason why people voted against Boric.”

With rising crime rates across Latin America, we may see similar voting trends across the region. Latin America has the highest murder rates in the world, and growing numbers of right-of-center candidates are calling for “mano dura” - a strong hand - against criminals.

“If corruption was the big issue that turned Latin American politics upside down in the 2010s, violent crime may play the same role in the 2020s in many countries,” writes Brian Winter in the Americas Quarterly magazine this week.

He adds that, “Other previously placid countries in the region, including Ecuador, Uruguay, Argentina, Peru and Costa Rica, have also seen crime rise to the top of the political agenda.”

Not surprisingly, many in the region are citing El Salvador’s President Najib Bukele as an example to follow. Rafael Lopez Aliaga, the mayor of Lima, Peru’s capital, has vowed to implement a “Bukele plan” to fight street crime in the city.

Bukele prides himself on having locked up more than 62,000 suspected criminals, or nearly 2% of his country’s adult population. He recently dedicated a “mega-prison” for 40,000 people, which he called the biggest one in the Americas.

Violent crime rates have dropped significantly in El Salvador, which has made Bukele a popular leader in his country. But as I wrote recently, there are reports that Bukele made a deal with gang leaders to reduce homicides, which will not weaken the gangs in the long run.

In addition, human-rights groups say Bukele is an elected autocrat who is locking up many people without due process, including some for political motives.

At any rate, crime is rapidly becoming a major political issue in Latin America. Unless leftist governments in Argentina, Colombia, Brazil, Mexico and other countries start to effectively address the violent crime epidemic, they will face an uphill battle to win upcoming elections.

Already, with the possible exception of Mexico, most of their leaders already have lost significant public support because of rising inflation and stagnant economies. Chile’s Constitutional Assembly election may be the first sign that they will also be punished by voters for their countries’ obscene crime rates.

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