From Buenos Aires to Mexico City to Rio de Janeiro, distrust in the institutions of governance is the predominant feeling.
In Argentina, nobody believes prosecutor Alberto Nisman committed suicide the day before he was to testify that President Cristina Fernandez made a deal with the Iranian government to cover up the bombing of a Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in 1994. The president has lied so many times before that most Argentinians no longer believe what she says.
In Mexico, people wonder if the 43 Mexican students who disappeared in September are truly dead. Even after a four-month investigation that netted ninety-nine arrests, 39 confessions, 95 cellphone conversations monitored, 386 sworn testimonies and 487 expert reports -- doubt remains. Understandably, President Enrique Peña Nieto wants to bring closure to the biggest political crisis of his administration but the incompetent, suspiciously incomplete and unconvincing explanations of the people in charge of the investigation stand in his way.
The credibility deficit does not stop in Mexico or Argentina. Latin Americans are increasingly losing faith in the ability and willingness of the authorities to protect them from organized crime and police forces -- two powers that are often in cahoots.
This lack of trust in the institutions of governance comes from the unreliable and arbitrary application of justice throughout the hemisphere. It stems from weak institutions of governance that are either co-opted or incompetent, leaving a power vacuum that is quickly being filled by drug cartels, vigilantes or simple criminals.
It is also a legacy inherited from the repressive regimes of the '70s and '80s that controlled their territories with an iron hand. When the juntas and dictatorships were thrown out by democracy, weak institutions of governance were left in their wake.
The consequence is not just overwhelming cynicism and lack of trust in government, but also spiraling violence. Latin America is now the most violent region in the world -- way above Africa and Asia and with a homicide rate that is seven times higher than in Europe. The conviction rate for murder is just half. A third of all homicides in the world take place in a Latin America, which accounts for only nine percent of its population.
Honduras, Venezuela, Belize, El Salvador and Guatemala are the five countries in the world where more homicides take place, with México, Colombia and Brazil following close. Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina lead in other types of violent crimes such as robbery or extortion. Even in the two more stable democracies in the continent, Costa Rica and Uruguay, criminal activity is on the increase.
Drug cartels have evolved into organized crime syndicates with a diverse portfolio of activities that included kidnapping, extortion and contraband of weapons, people, medicines, music, vehicles and even human organs for transplant. In many places, the power of the criminal organizations is stronger than that of the local government, and given to choose between bribes or death (plata o plomo), local authorities have joined them.
Whereas only six years ago the economy was the main concern in the area, today insecurity has led some to adopt a type of vigilante justice.
Recovering lost territories to organized crime won't be easy but there is no alternative. For the time being, and given the lethal power of the drug cartels, the drug war will have to continue albeit fought in a different way. The road to recovery begins with gaining the trust of the people by showing respect for them and for human and civil rights. No army or police force can win this war without the support of the people. At the same time, the state -- that is all the institutions of governance -- has to start an honest effort to reinforce the application of the rule of law.
Can it be done? I don't know. But the cost of keeping the status quo is more than they can afford.
Sergio Muñoz Bata is Contributing Editor-At-Large for The WorldPost and is currently writing his doctoral dissertation on Thomas Mann's exile in Los Angeles.