Today in Panama City a "Peace March" was being held, and president Martinelli, just back from Spain, promised there that he would finish off violent crime in three years and turn Panama into the most secure country of Latin America.
Sounds great, but won't happen. It's actually dangerous to believe him. Here's why:
Crime syndicates are much better organized than the State and always stay ahead of the game. Just look at the situation in Mexico to get an idea of how that works. Violent crime in capitalist society is just another marketplace; expertise is traded, there are enough free-lancers available, they don't need to play by any rules and the biggest budget wins. Drug cartels always have the bigger budgets and the police has to work with shitty equipment. This type of violent crime will over time merge with political resistance, just like it has done in Mexico and Colombia and Afghanistan. The only answer to this is to fight back the same way - the paramilitary solution. However, apart from legitimacy and human rights concerns, this only works for a limited time, because inevitably the paramilitary forces discover that they can do the same work and make more money by joining the other side - see Mexico's Zetas, the Afghan Mujahideen, the Colombian AUC and "false positives" scandal and so on. In Panama, we still see relatively primitive gang violence that is increasing in volume (there's nothing in place to stop it no matter what Martinelli and Mulino say) but not so much in sophistication. That will rapidly change if these gangs and those who control them are seriously challenged, because there is enough experience in Central America for them to tap into, "open source" style.
The forces of law and order are part of the problem, not of the solution. Minister Mulino wanted to reduce visiting rights to prisoners because he said visitors were smuggling drugs and weapons inside. Anyone who knows just a little bit about how Panamanian prisons are managed knows this is utter nonsense. The smuggling is totally cartelized by the guards and the police. The El Renacer prison has (or had) even an open back door where smugglers could simply walk in to deliver their wares. Similarly, the police are the biggest arms trafficking network in the country. It's, again, simply market economics: They're underpaid and can make more money working for the other side. Same in the public ministry and the courts.
"If they can steal, I can". Endemic corruption, tax evading vice-presidents, a president accused of money laundering refusing to make his campaign finances public, juega vivo with the legal system, impunity from corruption, racism, thievery and even war crimes - if those higher up give such a dismal example, why expect that those lower in the food chain will respect the law? And why would citizens respect the police? In other words, the Panamanian State does not enjoy the legitimacy it needs to enforce "justice", or in sustainable entrepreneurship terms: They don't have a license to operate (Panamanians just say, "La ley es pa' pendejos").
Lack of, or infantile strategic thinking. Having learned about security policing the dairy cooler and the booze aisle, Martinelli's security policy for Panama is a sort of a scaled-up version of how he protects his supermarkets against housewife kleptomaniacs. Dress the ceiling with cameras all over the place and put armed guards at the exits. That's it. So now we have in Panama a camera surveillance system and road blocks everywhere. Murder rates continue to go up. A similar imbecile measure requires those who ride a motorcycle to have the license plate number on their helmet as well as on a special vest. The vests are obligatory in Colombia already - ask them how much that helped. Panama builds eleven aeronaval bases in various remote areas to intercept drug trafficking. Martinelli and Mulino never miss an opportunity to explain how important that is to improve our security, which is yet another fallacy. The people in San Miguelito aren't any safer or unsafer if a fast boat with a ton of coke speeds through Panamanian waters on its way to the market up north. They won't even notice. Intercepting it makes for nice photo ops for the police, but it doesn't change the daily reality of our cities: Despite claims of increased drug seizures, murder rates are still going up. And so on. The tough talk about coming down hard on crime and even a "war on crime" does in no way represent a coherent strategy; it's just another example of choosing for media manipulation and confidence boosting instead of coming up with real solutions.
If you want to marry neoliberalism you have to accept its bastard kids. The core of Martinelli's policies is to make Panama a bastion of neoliberalism, a business haven where laws are quickly changed to facilitate whichever globalized corporation or predator wants to take advantage. They are already starting with the labor code and there's an ongoing battle about plans to turn our education system into a hatchery for cheap labor, while the few rules that exist continue to be unenforced. Whatever your political views about that may be, fact is that the flip side of that coin is money laundering, drug trafficking and other high-end brands of organized crime. Only a fool believes that the Panamanian population generates enough deposits to keep almost a hundred different banks in business here (in fact the "banking center" was created by the Rockefellers here under the Torrijos dictatorship to stash American oil profits offshore and away from the tax man, not because Panama itself was such a promising market), and it is common knowledge that such business sectors as construction, project development and trade through the Colón Free Zone are vehicles for money laundering and drug trafficking. Each and every major druglord that sets foot in Panama and is then busted turns out to have been in cahoots with politicians and the upper echelons of our business sector - no exceptions. And these guys are attracted by the exact same lack of regulation or even lawlessness on the isthmus as multinational corporations that represent "foreign direct investment". Countries with neoliberal policies in place have generally higher discrepancies between rich and poor - another well known precursor for crime. In other words, Martinelli's policies promote what he claims he wants to fight.
Authoritarian rule and complicity by "civil society". Martinelli's efforts to quash opposition, his intolerance to criticism (goes for his immature government as a whole, btw) and anti-protest laws and threats to the press are cheered on by the right-wingers, but the result is that legitimate channels for people to show dissent are cut off and that dissent will then find illegitimate ways to manifest itself, i.e. blend in with crime. There's nothing more dangerous or more difficult to defeat than a tribe of politically and profit-motivated bank robbers, no matter how many Israeli Shin Bet advisors you hire. Yet the best remedy, an open society with participatory democracy, is not a concept Martinelli appears to have a basic understanding of. The same goes for our much-hyped "civil society". Let's be honest about it: Playing the "civil society" game is an elite business in Panama, practiced by people who have enough income and time on their hands to worry about a couple of old mango trees on upscale Calle 50 instead of garbage suffocating the poorer areas of the city (or air quality, for that matter). For months, these faux "civic leaders" have been whining about Martinelli making ugly faces at them instead of organizing to get things done and obtain real results for real people. In combination with Martinelli's authoritarian rule, civil society letting people who have no voice down time after time further pushes them towards less legitimate channels to demonstrate dissent.
None of the above is rocket science, yet one may wonder if there's any hope at all in this glorious situation we're in? Yes, stay tuned for a follow-up post.