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Violent crime is the biggest threat to democracy in Latin America, Colombia’s vice-president warned on Tuesday.

Francisco Santos told the Financial Times that the blight of kidnapping, murder and corruption that his war-torn country has lived through now faces the bulk of Latin American countries.

“Crime is the biggest problem of the next decade,” he said. “It will hinder tourism, investment and threaten democracy.

“In most countries, you have very weak judicial and police systems. If governments do not act they will lose control of the streets.”

Mr Santos said Colombia had come through the worst, while neighbours Venezuela and Brazil were on a downward path. While Medellín, once a byword for drug gang violence in the 1990s, is now safer than Washington DC, according to research, Caracas is now the world’s most dangerous city.

“Look at what happened in São Paulo,” said Mr Santos, referring to attacks on police and commuters by gangs protesting when one of their leaders was moved to a different prison.

Street gangs have proliferated throughout Central America in the 15 years since the end of civil wars. Guatemala has called in United Nations crimefighters in an admission that its own police forces cannot cope.

Mr Santos said progress was being made on a free trade agreement between the EU and Andean countries but he criticised EU peacebuilding efforts. Brussels has spent almost €100m ($127m, £67m) on three “peace laboratories” in Colombia since 2002. The aim was to work with communities to bolster decision-making and to provide alternatives to growing coca as a source of income. But Mr Santos said local government had been cut out of decision-making and the economic aspect ignored.

“There are a lot of projects about human rights and living together and not much that is productive. People cannot eat words. We need projects to help coffee farmers, for example. People need an alternative to illegal crops.”

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European external relations commissioner, praised the work of the laboratories in a 2004 speech, terming them “comprehensive programmes of integrated local development aiming to shoulder peace initiatives at local level”.

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