Nuestra America

Democracy in Danger / Season 2 Episode 12

In one offensive on June 6, 2017, Mexican national defense forces storm poppy and marijuana fields confiscated in the state of Chihuahua. Our guest this week cites such military-style law enforcement — tied to discredited zero-tolerance policies on drugs — as a key factor in the lack of trust in public institutions in Mexico and across Latin America. And the United States is deeply implicated in such offensives, spurring on a cycle of crises that paradoxically exacerbates political tensions at home.

Photo by Octavio Hoyos via

Mexico’s murder rate has almost tripled in 15 years, even as the country has enjoyed a robust multiparty electoral system, a growing economy and a vibrant civil society. This mixed fate is common across Latin American democracies, as they struggle to overcome a past marred by U.S. imperialism, and face the problems of the present: violence, inequality and agonizing migrations. But, says sociologist Gema Kloppe-Santamaría, there is common ground on which the Americas, together, can build a better future.

In 2015, two brothers were beaten and burned alive by an angry mob in the south-central Mexican state of Puebla; they had been accused of kidnapping a local girl, but they were actually pollsters from out of town, not criminals. Latin American history professor and sociologist Gema Kloppe-Santamaría says extralegal violence such as this episode, which made international headlines for its particular cruelty, is not just common in Latin America but endemic. And, she says, it’s not a sign of state absence but state complicity in social disorder. With 93 percent of crimes in Mexico going unpunished, public trust in law enforcement has eroded. This predicament is shaded by the U.S.-supported war on drugs and the widespread militarization of policing — but it’s also one whose historical roots can be traced back at least a century.

Kloppe-Santamaría sits down this time with Will and our producer, Robert Armengol, to sort out how much of Latin America’s dysfunction is connected to the history of heavy-handed American intervention in the region, and what responsibility its own governments have in breaking the cycle of poverty, violence and insecurity that drives immigration in the first place. Addressing these threats to self-government, Kloppe-Santamaría suggests, will call for partnering on big investments in welfare programs and reconciling past wrongs inflicted upon what one of the hemisphere’s most famous freedom fighters famously called “our America.”

About our guest

Gema Kloppe-Santamaría is a sociologist and assistant professor of Latin American history at Loyola University–Chicago. Her research looks at state-building across the 20th century and into the present, focusing on violence, crime and the rule of law. Kloppe-Santamaría has collaborated with the United Nations Development Program and the Woodrow Wilson Center for International Scholars. She is the editor of several scholarly volumes and the author of In the Vortex of Violence: Lynching, Extralegal Justice, and the State in Post-Revolutionary Mexico (University of California Press, 2020). Follow Kloppe-Santamaría on Twitter @GemaKloppe.

The interview was recorded in March and posted on April 27, 2021.

What we’re reading

By our guest

In her new book, In the Vortex of Violence, Kloppe-Santamaría takes a close look at extrajudicial killings in the formative decades of Mexico’s post-revolutionary period, helping explain the prevalence of this practice in contemporary Mexico.

In a 2019 article for the Journal of Latin American Studies, she lays out the argument for state complicity in disorganized violence, showing why many citizens feel state authorities to be illegitimate and intrusive.

Together with her colleague Miguel Cruz, Kloppe-Santamaría argues in a 2019 research paper that the biggest predictor of support for vigilante justice in Latin America is distrust in the political process.

For more on this issue, from Kloppe-Santamaría and other researchers, check out a volume she co-edited: Violence and Crime in Latin America: Representations and Politics (University of Oklahoma Press, 2017).

In a policy brief from the Wilson Center, Kloppe-Santamaría critiques the all-out-war approach to policing drug trafficking. She argues instead that sustainable deterrence policies — prioritizing the protection of human life on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border — offers a more hollistic approach, and one that’s more likely to succceed.

Indeed, she says, the violence is part of the vicious cycle that miliatarized responses to insecurity have engendered. In a chapter of the 2016 volume Contemporary U.S.-Latin American Relations, Kloppe-Santamaría shows how U.S. security assistance and resources have translated into more violence and harm, not less.

The Trump administration’s anti-immigration policies and rhetoric were met with a nationalist backlash in Mexico. But in a 2017 op-ed for Open Democracy, Kloppe-Santamaría called this kind of response dangerous, saying it can lead to misplaced loyalties and “lack of criticism” of the Mexican government.

From around the web

For a sign of democratic vigor in Mexico, we might look to the sustained protests calling for an end to violence against women. Activists in that movement have, of late, struck at the heart of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador’s administration.

The extrajudicial violence that Kloppe-Santamaría studies is a problem not only in Mexico and Latin American at large, but has plagued the Philippines and other countries where a toxic soup of state failures is infused with community disengagement.

Violent Democracies in Latin America (Duke University Press, 2010) offers a collection of essays that underscore how violence in the region is “intimately linked to the institutions and policies of economic liberalization and democratization.”

When Venezuela’s Nicolas Maduro claimed that the United States had launched a coup against him, he was tapping into a well-worn narrative. The Associated Press has this timeline of American intervention in Latin America stretching back to the 1840s.

Go deep on the sordid history of drug-related violence and the dogma that drives it, with Angélica Durán-Martínez’s The Politics of Drug Violence; or Votes Drugs and Violence, by Guillermo Trejo and Sandra Ley; or incisive, on-the-ground analyses from the Mexico Violence Resource Project and the qualitative research group Noria.

The Wilson Center recently took a close look at one U.S. program implemented under presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama: the Central America Regional Security Initiative, or CARSI. Researchers identified “moderate success” in Honduras and Guatemala. What program features worked best? Their study found that CARSI was most effective where it supported welfare measures, like protecting the victims and witnesses of domestic violence or community-based programs for young people at risk of drug abuse and gang recruitment.

Here’s a translation of the essay “Our America,” by Cuban patriot José Martí, written originally in 1891. He called for Latin America to chart its own democratic path, on a footing both equal to and different from the United States, free of U.S. meddling — and devoid of racial animosity.


A transcript of this episode is available here.

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