publisher colophon


In 1990 I spent the summer in the barrios of Caracas working with La Red de Apoyo por La Justicia y La Paz (Peace and Justice Support Network), a nongovernmental organization that investigates rights abuse. Although it was one year after thousands of people in those hillside shantytowns died in anti-neoliberal riots and two years before an attempted coup by a lieutenant colonel named Hugo Chávez ignited their political fervor, Venezuela’s two-party democracy and extensive welfare system still seemed to be a promising model for the rest of the region as it emerged from decades of dictatorship. And yet over the next decade the country was unable to stop itself from unraveling amid escalating disorder. In one case I worked on for the Red, a teenager was killed by a police officer, who himself was later killed in a gun battle. They were part of a cycle of violence that seemed immune to political and economic development.

That cycle was also emerging as the nexus of politics, constitutionalism, and civil rights in Latin America. As the region shed military rule, it had to rely on its wholly unprepared police to deal with the many causes of crime and violence that only intensified along with economic and political uncertainty. A growing number of clashes between citizens and the state, questions before the courts, and the more vexing policy challenges revolved around citizen security. Together they seemed to be throwing democracy itself off balance. As crime levels began to skyrocket in the 1990s, democratic consolidation throughout Latin America began to stall.

In this book I attempt to fit all these pieces together. The ways in which judges balance rights and order, officials try to enlist clunky bureaucracies into nimble violence-reduction efforts, and candidates whip up waves of fear just big enough to ride into office are some of the many political, legal, and societal dynamics of citizen security examined in the following pages. Few other issues, and too few studies, capture the multifaceted and often intangible responses of a society to a problem that is engulfing it. I also try to convey how this big picture moves through time: the reactions of citizens whose neighborhoods descend into violence; the temptations of politicians to stave off long-term change with short-sighted action; the strategies police officers adopt to stop new projects from becoming just one more pressure; and, ultimately, the ways in which the standards and institutions of democracy withstand the impacts of criminal violence.

In order to build an analytical framework that incorporated these continually changing patterns, I used a methodology centered on interviews, observations, policy analysis, and statistics. Interviews with people throughout the region, from ministers to gang members, offered an unparalleled way to observe the human dimension of institutional and political practices. So too were firsthand observations of the criminal justice system, from crime scene investigations to neighborhood meetings, which are described for each of the book’s case study countries. A critical analysis of promising approaches, from penal process codes to community policing, helped move the book toward its aim of presenting the full process of reform. Because I have been able to return to Honduras nearly every year since 2003, for example, I have been able to see how different policies, and the areas in which they have been tried, have fared. Finally, statistical analysis connecting crime to political and socioeconomic changes helped bring objectivity to the many claims and expectations that surround every citizen security reform.


So many people gave their time and expertise to this book that it often felt like a collective project. In each country, officials at the national, regional, and local levels—from executive agencies to legislative commissions—were accessible and informative. Judges, prosecutors, public defenders, prison wardens, morgue directors, and others in the criminal justice systems allowed me to witness their work firsthand. I am particularly indebted to the many police officers who let me accompany them on patrols and in their investigations. The tough work and multiple dangers they face, especially when trying to bring about change, are vastly underappreciated. I am also grateful to the many citizens who generously gave their time. The experiences and opinions of local activists, longtime neighborhood residents, homeless teens, prison inmates, crime victims, and other people I met embody the spirit and goals of this book. Listed below for each country, with their title at the time of our initial meeting, are just some of the many individuals and organizations who contributed in different ways.

In Honduras I was continually amazed by how well people held up under withering levels of violence and poverty. For my time there, I would especially like to thank Gen. Mario Perdomo and Subcommissioner Carlos Chinchilla, director of the country’s community policing program. Carlos sent me to police stations throughout the country forming the basis of the book’s Honduras chapter. Other police officials who provided support were Education Subdirector Rodolfo Calix Hollmann, Commissioners Rolando Carcomo Piura and Marcos Arnaldo Herrera, Subcommisioners Renan Galo Meza and Leonel Sauceda, Inspector Daniel Molina, former Internal Affairs Unit chief María Luisa Borjas, and the many agents who took me out on patrol in and around Tegucigalpa, San Pedro Sula, and La Ceiba. Security Ministers Álvaro Romero and Óscar Álvarez as well as former security minister Guatama Fonseca gave me provocative interviews, as did many judicial officials, including childhood prosecutor Eduardo Villanueva, Northern Area prosecutor director Walter Menjívar, Public Defense director Jorge Gutierrez Flefil, and Sindy Fortín of the Supreme Court Documentation Center. Also helpful were Congressman José Rodolfo Zelaya Portillo; Danelia Ferrera, director general of the Attorney General’s Office; Mirna Andino, executive secretary of the national Anti-Narcotrafficking Council; Julieta Castellanos, rector of the National Autonomous University; and military officers stationed at bases and checkpoints in the capital city area. I also learned a great deal from the fortitude and perseverance of Honduras’s human rights officials and activists: Juan Almendares, director of the Center for the Prevention of Torture; Human Rights Commissioner Ramón Custodio; Northern Area Human Rights Commissioner Victor Parelló; Andrés Pavón, president of the Committee for the Defense of Human Rights; Ernesto Bardales, who works with gang members in San Pedro Sula; and José Gustavo Zelaya, legal director of Casa Alianza. Inmates at El Porvenir Penal Colony, the San Pedro Sula Penal Center, and the Central Penitentiary of the Barrio Inglés in La Ceiba talked to me about the inhumanity of their life behind bars. Finally, for their expertise and guidance, I would like to thank Victor Meza and Leticia Salomón of the Honduras Documentation Center.

Bolivia was also an incredible country in which to work and see how people grapple with violence and political instability amid expansive cultural, economic, and geographic differences. For my time there, I would like to thank Juan Ramón Quintana, a terrific person who is one of the most knowledgeable specialists in the areas of democracy and security and who later served as minister of the presidency. In the government and police, I am grateful to former vice president Luis Ossico Sanjinés; Government Minister Saúl Lara Torrico, former government minister Alfonso Ferrufino, Luis Pedraza of the Government Ministry, and Ximena Prudencio Bilbao and Franz Zilvetti Cisneros of the Office of Citizen Security. From the police force I received help from Judicial Police chief Rolando Fernández; Óscar Molina and Gloria Eyzaguirre of the Police Reform Commission; Maj. Hugo Morales of El Alto; and police academy director Juan Carlos Saa. Even in the midst of their busy schedules, many other police officers and community activists went out of their way to take me on eye-opening walks through La Paz, El Alto, Santa Cruz, and Sucre. Sitting in on their community meetings was a real honor. The defensoría del pueblo (ombudsman) is an indispensable engine of reform and rights in Bolivia, and for sharing their time I would like to thank Chief Ana María Romero de Campero and future chief Waldo Albarracín of the Permanent Assembly of Human Rights. In the legal area, the Center for Studies on Justice and Participation was very helpful, as were Prosecutor William Alave, Judge Róger Valverde, inmates and staff at San Pedro Prison, and inmates and staff at the narco-trafficking detention facilities.

Argentina, the book’s third main case study, was always a rewarding place to work. Knowledgeable and welcoming people throughout the country taught me a great deal about citizen security, democracy, and how beef and coffee allow early-morning patrols to be scheduled after late-night dinners. For my time there, I would like thank Senator and First Lady Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Senator Marita Perceval for opening up so many doors, and Justice and Security Minister Gustavo Beliz for giving me an opportunity to work on reform both in Argentina as well as with the Inter-American Development Bank. It was humbling to meet with the country’s many experts on citizen security, including Martha Arriola of the Security Ministry in Buenos Aires Province; Mariano Ciafardini, national director of criminal policy; Fernando Simón of the Justice Ministry; and Claudio Suárez, chief of the Federal Capital’s security program. Buenos Aires provincial security minister León Arslanián, a pioneer in human rights and police reform who gave me the honor of speaking on his panel at the tenth anniversary commemoration of the path-breaking reform he initiated, is a true inspiration. In Buenos Aires Province, Father Luis Farinello of Quilmes and activists in Morón, Ituzaingo, and Almirante Brown and other cities allowed me to observe their meetings and projects.

In Mendoza, the lack of policy change contrasts with the expertise and dedication of those working on security in that province. I am so appreciative to Professor Patricia Gorri, Senator Alberto Montbrun, activists Marisa Repetto and Mauricio Guzmán, and rights lawyer Pablo Salinas for their wonderful friendships and their tireless push for change. Also contributing were former governor Arturo Lafalla, Senators Carlos Abihaggle and Alfredo Guevara, Gustavo Lucero and Andrés Miranda of the Security Oversight Commission, Judge Daniel Correllio, and Supreme Court justices Aida Kemelmajer de Carlucci and Jorge Nanclares. In La Rioja, police commissioners Luis Gallego and Eduardo Poledri, along with the many young people working in the province’s community policing programs, were very open and candid. Above all, with great warmth and enthusiasm, police subcommissioner Óscar Ibáñez gave me so much of his very limited time. In San Luis, I would like to thank Martín Salinas for arranging meetings throughout the province. Sitting down with the student body of that province’s police academy was a real highlight.

Officials and activists in other countries also offered valuable support. In Uruguay I was helped by Gabriel Courtoisie, a director of the National Rehabilitation Center; Congressmen Felipe Michelini and Daniel Diaz Maynard; national prison director Enrique Navas; and Gloria Robaina, Juan Faroppa, and Carlos Bastón of the country’s innovative Citizen Security Program. In Costa Rica, Commissioner Alberto Li Chan, Community Security Director Manuel Espinosa, and Ombudsman Mario Zamora Cordero all allowed me observe community policing up close. In Colombia, I would like to thank the National Police and the Interior and Justice Ministry for inviting me to address the Third International Symposium on Community Policing in 2009 and for allowing me to observe their operations. Speaking at the Second Inter-American Forum in Lima was another invaluable opportunity to learn from those at the forefront of citizen security reform in Latin America.

Another gratifying part of this project was working with other academics and activists focusing on security reform. For sharing their knowledge and experience—as well as their friendship and humor in our collaborative police reform efforts over the last five years—I would like to thank Desmond Arias, Lucía Dammert, Eric Scheye, Renata Segura, and Niels Uildriks. During two faculty fellowships at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, discussions with colleagues helped me bring in analysis from other academic fields. I also owe gratitude to the many distinguished scholars who provided insight and advice: John Bailey, Margaret Crahan, Diane Davis, Hugo Frühling, and Anthony Pereira. Francisco Bautista Lara, founder of Nicaragua’s National Police, was also a great source of wisdom.

Many organizations provided critical support. I would like to especially thank the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars, which jumpstarted this book in a setting ideal for connecting scholarship with public policy. During my fellowship there, Joseph Tulchin and Cynthia Arnson of the Latin American Program were very supportive, and Jacqueline Saenz and Miguel Guzmán provided excellent research assistance.

The Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations have also given me an opportunity to contribute to international policy on security reform, community policing, and violence prevention. Writing reports and participating in meetings on their behalf have been immeasurably useful. The Ford Foundation and Latin American Studies Association funded a project I directed on prison conditions, and the Tinker Foundation and Research Foundation of the City University of New York funded a community policing project I co-directed. The graduate students I have had the privilege of teaching, at both Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center, also taught me a great deal with their own experiences and views.

For the book’s publication, I would like to thank Director Joseph Brinley and Managing Editor Yamile Kahn of the Woodrow Wilson Center Press and the editors and staff at the Johns Hopkins University Press for their flawless guidance of the book’s review and production; the anonymous reviewers of the manuscript; freelance editor Sabra Bissette Ledent for her meticulous professional editing; and Kathy Alexander, publicist at the Johns Hopkins University Press.

My wonderful friends and family sustained me with encouragement and laughter through the years of work on this book, and my father, Donald Ungar, was a reminder of the values he gave me. Most of all, I would like to thank Bob Bomersbach for his extraordinary humanity as a person and his unwavering support as my husband. And I have thousands of hugs for our son, Dylan, who has filled my life with immense joy and pride, not to mention ideas for police reform, such as having guns shoot cake instead of bullets. Watching him grow up reminds me of all the young people trying to do the same in Latin America’s crime-ridden barrios.

Previous Chapter

Acronyms and Abbreviations

Next Chapter

1. Introduction

Additional Information

Related ISBN
MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Creative Commons
Back To Top

This website uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. Without cookies your experience may not be seamless.