Monday, April 01, 2013

Do-it-yourself gated communities and police in Honduras

Gated communities are different in Honduras.
New subdivisions in San Pedro Sula and Tegucigalpa, the two big cities, tend to be built behind walls and gates. But that happens in North America too.
But people in existing neighbourhoods also throw up their own barricades and gates, blocking city streets into the neighbourhood with concrete blocks or corrugated steel and allowing limited, controlled entrance.
There are no permits, or traffic studies. One day you can drive through, and the next you can’t - at least without showing ID and explaining where you’re going.
La Prensa reported 18 San Pedro Sula neighbourhoods have blocked traffic so far, with more making plans.
The people who live in the barrios say crime has fallen, and they’re happy.  
Urban residents have no confidence in police or the justice system, so they come up with their own solutions.
Of course, the people in other neighbourhoods, who now have travel another 20 blocks to get to work aen’t so keen. Neither are bus and taxi drivers who don’t know from week to week which roads will be closed next.
And of course, the barriers don’t actually reduce the number of criminals or crime. They just shift it from one neighbourhood, where people have enough money or organization to put up barriers, to another where they don’t.
When the justice system doesn’t work, people eventually take measures into their own hands.
By building barricades. Or by paying for their own surrogate police forces.
And Honduras has a ton of them. Last month, a UN Human Rights working group on mercenaries urged the Honduran government to get a grip on the explosion of private security forces.
There are more than 700 registered private security companies, many more unregistered, and some 70,000 armed private guards. That’s five times the number of police officers in the country, and twice the police and military forces combined.
You get used to armed guards outside the banks, or riding shotgun - literally - on the delivery trucks.
But 70,000 is an astonishing number. And the UN group noted they are at risk of becoming “a substitute for competent and accountable police.” It’s deeply flawed, but there is at least theoretical accountability for real police that doesn’t exist for the private police forces.
And, again, private police forces only protect those who can pay. 
Or, the UN group warned, they may go farther. “Human rights violations allegedly committed by private security companies are not investigated, perpetrators remain unprosecuted and victims do not have access to remedies.” 
None of this is easy to sort out. If your store has been robbed a few times and you can afford a guard with a shotgun, then it becomes a wise investment. If people are riding through your neighbourhood and committing robberies, maybe killings, then barricading streets seems a good idea.
Or if you live in a remote community and a couple of guys keep stealing things from the rickety houses of everyone else in the community, it makes sense to deal justice directly.
What all these responses to crime have in common is that they don’t change the reality of life in the country. They create a bit more security for some, and less for others, and increase injustice, rather than restoring it.
Barricades and private security guards are no substitute for a police and legal system that actually works.

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