From Welfare State to Safe State in Latin America


Designing a progressive anti-violence strategy that delivers the safety for which a huge share of Latin Americans crave is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing many of the region’s governments. But it is also the most important.

MEXICO CITY – Violence lurks in nearly all of Latin America’s major cities. Even capitals that have traditionally been considered peaceful are coming to resemble hotspots such as Reynosa, Tijuana, Port-au-Prince, Rio de Janeiro, and Cali.

In fact, though Latin America has more than 180 million people living in poverty, and a reputation as the world’s most unequal regionviolence has become the number-one concern for most countries in the region. Governments’ success or failure at reining it in has thus become a key determinant of their popular support.

El Salvador’s president, Nayib Bukele, has capitalized on popular frustration with the violence to strengthen his own position. Though Bukele’s approach to crushing gang violence has raised serious human-rights concerns – as of February 2024, his anti-violence campaign has included about 78,000 detentions and 235 deaths in state custody – his efforts have proved popular with voters. He was recently re-elected in a landslide, with 82.66% of the vote, while the left, represented by Bukele’s former party, the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front, suffered its worst-ever result, winning a mere 6.4%.

By contrast, Chile’s young leftist president, Gabriel Boric, has struggled to rein in organized and petty crime, and his political position has suffered. Boric was elected with 56% of the vote in 2022, but more than 60% of Chileans now disapprove of his leadership.

Whereas the right and center-right are comfortable capitalizing on voters’ anxiety about personal safety, the left and center-left often focus the debate on good intentions, rather than viable solutions. For example, the idea that the poor “steal because they are hungry” is still deeply rooted among progressives. So, rather than pursue any kind of repression – which could be associated with human-rights violations – they often emphasize prevention and rehabilitation.

The problem with this approach is that, under current conditions, crime is sometimes motivated more by status than by hunger, by the desire to gain quick access to wealth and luxury without having to work for it. Criminals represent a perversion of the system, much in the way that illicit markets – think of drugs, human trafficking, prostitution, piracy, and illegal logging and mining – are a perversion of free capital and labor markets.

Unless they wish to remain cornered by the right, progressive forces must fundamentally change their approach to violence. This means reformulating basic concepts, and recognizing that, while their flagship policy – strengthening the classic welfare state – is necessary, it amounts to an insufficient response to the threats posed by violence and organized crime.

The modern welfare state is a complex construction, forged through social struggles, intellectual innovations (such as Keynesianism), and public policies (including many that were introduced after World War II). It has many dimensions – health care, pensions, unemployment, housing, education, and, in its most recent iterations, the “care economy.” But security is not one of them, and the left’s failure on this front is a key reason for many of its recent defeats. While the issue may not be as salient for the wealthy, who can purchase the missing security from private providers, a substantial majority of people in most Latin American countries require a public solution.

Security must be regarded as an essential component of social protection. As former Brazilian Justice Minister Tarso Genro has pointed out, it is essential to ensure the regular functioning of institutions and protect the rights of citizens. Tackling violence is essential here, because obstructs the exercise and enjoyment of all other rights.

To this end, the vision of a “Safe State,” in which security is regarded as a fundamental public good, should become the new paradigm. This is the goal of the project  “Towards the Reconstruction of Welfare States in the Americas,” which my colleagues and I developed over the last two years through in-person meetings in Santo Domingo, Guadalajara, Santiago, São Paulo, and Bogotá  The project enjoys the support of the United Nations Development Programme, the Open Society Foundations, and, more recently, the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung.

Recognizing the importance of violence and crime as a central policy issue is just the first step. Progressives in Latin America (and in rich countries) must also design and implement a viable and effective programmatic stance that neither stops at tackling deprivation as a cause of crime and violence, as progressives tend to do now, nor emulates the iron-fisted approach of the right.

Finally, security costs money. It is no coincidence that Latin America has fewer police, judges, prisons, and prosecutors than most of the world’s “safe” countries (which tend to be wealthy). Increased spending alone will not solve Latin America’s violence problem, but it must be a pillar of any progressive security agenda.

Designing such a strategy and delivering the security many Latin Americans crave is perhaps the most difficult challenge facing many of the region’s governments. But it is also the most important.

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