The intuitive approach to deterring criminal behavior is to punish it. But what if legal behavior were instead incentivized such that criminal activity lost some of its relative appeal? Years of escalating internal violence in Latin America despite, or because of, militarization of police forces and the use of armed forces for counter-criminal activity begs consideration of substituting the carrot for the stick. With added potential to promote economic growth, public investment in infrastructure can deter criminal activity by raising its opportunity cost through the creation of legal employment opportunities. And seeing as its infrastructure lags other developing regions, Latin American governments could use this strategy to simultaneously target two challenges to economic development: crime and ailing infrastructure.
The Failures of Militarization
In a region whose citizens cite insecurity as their primary concern, a number of Latin American governments have responded to demands for improved public order and security by supporting police suppression and granting extralegal powers to military officials (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/595931). However, militarization is both ineffective at fighting crime and problematic. To begin with, in not one case “has a Latin American military’s involvement in civil policing improved public security,” often only escalating the level of violence. Since Mexico launched its “War on Drugs” in 2006, annual murders have more than tripled from 9,000 in 2006 to 33,000 in 2018, with no sign in de-escalation in sight. (https://www.businessinsider.com/mexicos-cartel-dynamics-and-drug-related-violence-in-2019-2019-2)
Furthermore, military policing raises its own concerns, mainly of human-rights abuses and democratic erosion. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in 2009 warned “the intervention of the armed forces in internal security matters is accompanied by violations of human rights in violent circumstances.” And Rut Diamint cautions that when extralegal powers are granted to armed forces, they transform into independent actors pursuing their own interests, allying themselves with government or political forces and escaping civilian control (https://muse.jhu.edu/article/595931). As an ineffective strategy that erodes democracy and promotes human-rights abuses, militarization must be substituted by alternative solutions in Latin America’s fight against crime.
An Alternative Approach to Crime
In 1968, Gary Becker modeled criminal behavior such that rational individuals maximize the utility generated from legal and illegal behavior according to the probability of conviction, p, level of punishment, f, risk aversion of the individual, and wages derived from each (https://link.springer.com/referenceworkentry/10.1007%2F978-1-4614-7883-6_17-1). Under this framework, militarization aims to increase the costs (p and c) of criminal activity, therefore lowering its expected utility. But instead of directly targeting illegal behavior, governments could increase employment opportunities such that the returns to legal behavior are raised, consequently raising the opportunity cost of criminal behavior. This would not only lower the incidence of crime but also raise the level of utility of individuals (higher real wages).
One way for government to directly increase legal employment opportunities is via public works projects. In a Spanish case study, Daniel Montolio measured the impact this has on crime rates. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the Spanish Central Government set up a fund to finance local public works infrastructure and revive its crippled construction industry (https://ideas.repec.org/p/idb/brikps/7431.html). Exploiting the randomness of approval dates for these projects, Montolio compared employment data and criminal incidents before and after implementation of projects. He found that the program reduced unemployment rates by about one-fourth, accompanied by a widespread reduction of most types of crime, for example estimating that “a one-percent increase in the unemployment rate also increased total property crime by approximately 18 percentage points.”
The Case for Infrastructure Investment in Latin America
Montolio’s study demonstrates the potential for infrastructure investment to deter crime by creating legal employment opportunities. But the potential is even greater in Latin America, where public underinvestment, specifically in transportation and energy, has bred social instability capable of fueling eruptions of violence. In 2019, a $0.04 hike on Santiago Metro prices sparked the Chile’s “most severe period of civil unrest in years,” killing 17 and injuring hundreds. (https://www.wri.org/blog/2019/11/what-chile-s-protests-reveal-about-country-s-transport-inequalities). Public infrastructure investment, as demonstrated by this case, can not only legally employ potential criminals, but also help quell social instability and narrow socioeconomic inequalities. More generally, it could go a long way in addressing citizens’ sense of abandonment, potentially making them more willing to participate in a legal economy they feel a greater sense of belonging to.
Just as the crime-deterrence potential of such investment is elevated in Latin America, so are the economic ramifications of modernizing the region’s ailing infrastructure. Two-thirds of private companies in Argentina, Venezuela, and Ecuador struggle with chronic power failures, and after an attempt at remote learning, Bolivia canceled the rest of its school year citing the lack of internet connections (https://www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2020-08-08/latin-america-infrastructure-woes-add-to-inequality). Infrastructure investment presents potential to attract private investment, promote economic growth, and improve opportunities for urban mobility, in sharp contrast to militarization’s added costs of sacrificing institutional integrity and human rights. If it could additionally curb crime rates in a region whose citizens cite security as their primary concern, there is no justification for infrastructure spending rates to remain at just 2.8% of GDP for the region, the lowest among all developing regions (4-8% in other regions) (https://openknowledge.worldbank.org/bitstream/handle/10986/26390/114110-REVISED-PUBLIC-RethinkingInfrastructureFull.pdf)
Infrastructure investment won’t generate press of soldiers marching down streets, it won’t put criminals behind bars, but it may well cut some of Latin America’s elevated criminal statistics, a feat the region has failed to accomplish thus far via militarization. And Chile’s protests suggest it would be politically viable, if not popular. Thus, Latin American governments claiming to be serious about fighting crime should consider infrastructure investment as an alternative to dangerous and detrimental war-like escalation.