Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Latin America's Relationship with Private Security

It has been over a month since my last post. During that time, I took a trip to South America for a political science conference and rediscovered a topic I am quite familiar with; the growing use of private security companies (PSCs).

In 2013, I was a university senior and one of my courses covered security issues in Mexico. Our class retraced Mexico's modern history and the beginnings of drug-related violence in the region. As part of the class, each student was assigned a term paper with a topic of our choosing. The military/police vs. the cartel topic was a popular choice, but I decided to take a different angle; where did private security fit into the conflict?

My first order of business was defining private security. In North America, private security is often associated with unarmed guards with flashlights that patrol shopping malls and other areas. This is far from the case in Central and South America, where guards are often outfitted with firearms and protective armor (as I saw last month in numerous locations). As a result of my research, I decided to define private security as any security-related service being performed outside of the traditional police and military institutions.

*PSCs have many important roles in today's security apparatus and my analysis only focused on the growing complications relating to the use of armed personnel in combating organized crime*

After about a month's worth of research, I discovered that there are thousands of PSCs operating in the hemisphere; some of them unregistered. In many cities, these companies have decreased crime rates. For example, Ciudad Juarez, once the most violent city in the world, experienced a 60 percent drop in homicides between 2011 and 2012. This drop is significant considering there were 3,100 drug-related homicides in Juarez in 2010. Over the course of several years, roughly 177 PSCs were hired in Ciudad Juarez for protection services. This added thousands of armed guards on the streets, so much so that they outnumbered the police almost 9 to 1.

However, there is a serious blind spot in these statistics. A majority of the PSCs are hired to patrol key business centers in the city. Criminal activity may have lessened in these areas, but drug-related executions, extortion, and kidnappings occur frequently in the impoverished parts of the city. Furthermore, the homicide drop does not consider the likely number of unreported killings.

While visiting some distant ruins in Peru, I noticed that the nearby town was patrolled not by police officers, but by PSC personnel. These guards were equipped with body armor, handguns, handcuffs, and steel batons. At first I thought they were police, but their clothing was marked SS (Security Services).  I observed similar circumstances in busier city centers. Though I saw police officers, they were often directing traffic instead of patrolling the streets.

 However, the most interesting case I found was on my return trip. Before I could wait at my gate in San Salvador (I had already cleared customs and security in Lima), all passengers had to pass an additional security checkpoint. Instead of airport security, or even the police for that matter, my carry-on luggage was searched for contraband by a PSC called Global Legions. Usually, transportation security is performed by government employees (police, military, TSA, etc.).

My paper acknowledged the popularity of PSCs providing armed personnel, but recognized cases of abuse and corruption. Some companies even cover for criminal activity. Of course, such activity is not representative of the majority of PSCs, but accountability is important for clients; regardless of what service is provided.

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