Experts Talk Impact of Crime on Latin American Elections and Democracy at Harvard Rockefeller Center Panel


Three experts discussed how crime affects elections in Latin American countries during a virtual panel hosted by the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies Tuesday afternoon.

The panel featured three visiting speakers, Sandra Ley, José Miguel Cruz, and Hernán Flom. The discussion was moderated by Manuel A. Meléndez-Sánchez ’16, a Ph.D. candidate in the Government.

Sandra Ley, coordinator of the security research program at the public policy think tank México Evalúa, spoke about the significance of alternations in party power within state and local governments in Mexico.

“Elections are crucial moments in which violence rises,” Ley said.


She pointed to the high organized crime rates under the administration of Andrés Manuel López Obrador, the current president of Mexico, as an example of election-related violence.

“What we’re seeing in the López Obrador administration has nothing to do with what we had been seeing before,” she said. “We have many more attacks.”

According to Ley, higher organized crime rates tend to correlate with decreased electoral participation and a lower willingness to accept invitations to serve as poll workers.

“Something that is pretty particular to the Mexican system is that it’s your own neighbors that are organizing elections,” she said. “We’re seeing that those places with the highest levels of violence are rejecting those invitations.”

Organized crime also results in “voters being disenchanted by democracy,” Ley added, leading to not only lower voter turnout but also a decline in those deciding to run for office.

“Who is willing to be a candidate in those places where organized crime is attacking politicians?” she asked.

José Miguel Cruz, director of research at the Kimberly Green Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University, spoke about the history of the relationship between crime, violence, and democracy in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. In particular, he discussed the erosion of public trust in institutions of democracy in these regions.

“This idea — this narrative — that democracy in some way was bad for combating crime, that respecting human rights was bad for combating crime, that following the due process and the rule of law was detrimental to combating crime, basically persisted,” Cruz said.

Hernán Flom, a visiting professor at Trinity College, used a supply and demand framework to describe the impacts of crime on democracy. He outlined distinctions between “dramatic, sudden increases in violence” and “high or low violence equilibriums,” and also noted the exceptions to the trends the other panelists identified.

“I think people just work with the environment or the context that they are handed and don’t necessarily care about what is going on,” Flom said.

According to Flom, however, that is not to say that higher crime rates do not impact voters’ choices at the polls.

“All of these things will tend to favor those candidates that have a much tougher or punitive discourse on crime, who have more antagonizing and polarizing discourse,” he said.