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date: 17 November 2019

Summary and Keywords

Latin America exhibits some of the world’s most worrisome patterns of insecurity. Homicide rates have reached alarming levels in dozens of cities in Mexico, Central America, Brazil, Venezuela, and Colombia. Drug and other illicit trafficking generate massive income for criminal organizations. Fighting among these organizations, and between criminal groups and the state, threatens human security in zones of production and along transit routes. Refugee crises—especially an exodus of 4 million Venezuelans by 2019—could increase substantially. Receiving countries struggle to respond.

Insecurity in Latin America cannot be fully understood through comparison of the domestic challenges of each country in the region. The sources of contemporary insecurity are not contained within countries, but extend to transnational criminal networks, flows of illicit goods, and human trafficking and displacement. Likewise, isolated state responses are insufficient to respond to transnational dynamics; although some coordination has been achieved, intergovernmental responses have produced limited gains and substantial unintended consequences. Thus, we consider security challenges in the region as a “security complex” that includes Latin American and Caribbean countries, but in which the United States remains significant.

On the other hand, international conflict and civil war, as traditionally defined, have almost vanished from Latin America. Threats of military coups and politically motivated violence have declined after being a key security issue for decades. However, some troubling cases and trends complicate this positive trend. Venezuela’s governing civilian–military alliance eroded basic democratic institutions and produced an economic, political, and humanitarian crisis. In response, the United States has raised the specter of military intervention or coup sponsorship. Honduras and especially Nicaragua have turned to authoritarianism, accompanied by alarming levels of repression of protesters and civil society activists. U.S. policies under the Trump administration toward migrants from Central America and Mexico are creating great tension in the region and fear of reprisals. Although most border disputes have been settled a few still are unresolved or contested and could generate tensions between countries in the region.

The academic literature about international security in Latin America reflects the complex dynamics described above, covers historical and contemporary security challenges in the region, and presents debates and developments on Latin American security at the international and national levels. Despite its wide scope, the existing literature presents areas where more work is needed to account for emerging trends of (in)security.

Keywords: security, Latin America, security complex, violence, homicides, transnational organized crime, U.S.-Latin American relations, drugs, transnational security, human security, Latin American politics

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