Rudy Giuliani Surfs Uruguay’s Crime Wave

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Rudolph Giuliani is a busy man. When he’s not counseling President Donald Trump on how to stay out of legal trouble, he’s likely jetting off to some distant land with a plan to save it from murder and criminal mayhem. His latest client: Uruguay.

Last week, the former New York mayor landed in Montevideo at the invitation of opposition leader Edgardo Novick for meetings with public figures including President Tabare Vazquez, who seems like he could use the help.

Long recognized as Latin America’s safest country, Uruguay is fighting a spike in lawlessness and a slump in public confidence. The homicide rate jumped 66 percent in the first half of 2018 compared with the same period the year before. Two in three Uruguayans recently said the country is unsafe or extremely unsafe, while just 27 percent approved of Vazquez’s administration.

Just how much relief Giuliani Security & Safety can deliver is debatable, but no matter. Giuliani’s “broken window” criminology — zero tolerance, hardline cops, and sure punishment for even petty crimes like vandalism that provoke a sense of insecurity — is the public safety import of choice in Latin America, arguably the world’s most violent patch.

Fueling the Giuliani bandwagon is a long tradition of imported justice, the so-called law and development movement launched in the 1960s by well-meaning developed-world wonks and reformists who believed in the positive benefits of evangelizing Western rule of law.

Politicians are also under increasing economic pressure to curb criminal violence. Even in safe havens like Uruguay, it saps 3 percent of gross domestic product a year in lost productivity due to homicides, increased public health expenditures for victims, and stolen property, according to Diego Aboal, a Uruguayan economist specializing in the economics of crime.

Giuliani’s overseas calls began early last decade when business executives paid him $4.3 million to revamp neighborhood safety and train police in Mexico City. He went on to advise officials in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, and Brazil and beyond. To drive home the law and order message, conservative Peruvian presidential hopeful Keiko Fujimori campaigned with Giuliani in tow in 2011, narrowly losing the election.

Giuliani takes credit for helping to reduce violence in former crime-infested Colombian hotspots like Cali and Medellin. “The first thing is to get organized,” Giuliani told reporters in Montevideo last week. “In Medellin we lowered crime rates by 40 percent by reorganizing.” Former Colombian defense minister and later ambassador to the U.S., Juan Carlos Pinzon, praised Giuliani for “helping our nation to turn the page on the past.

Security experts argue that such claims are overblown or often muddied by controversy, not least the breezy assurance that his crime fix is a form-fitting method. “Sure, there are differences between New York City and Mexico City, but I’m not sure those differences are relevant to crime reduction,” said Giuliani in a news conference in New York in 2002.

Yet conflating crime venues can be misleading and naive. “While facing a serious crime challenge in the 1980s and 1990s, New York faces nowhere near the kind of concentrated poverty, drug trafficking networks, or gang activities as cities like Guatemala City, San Pedro Sula, San Salvador, Medellin, Mexico City, Rio de Janeiro or other cities where he speaks,” Robert Muggah, an international public safety scholar from Brazil’s Igarape Institute, told me. “The latter cities struggle to collect basic tax revenue, much less pay their police. In many cases in Latin America, highly corrupt and underfunded police have neither the ability nor willingness to follow through.” So much for the simplistic belief that U.S.-style “liberal legalism” could be easily transplanted.

Predictably, Giuliani’s one-size blotter approach has had mixed results. The Mexico City version of broken windows underperformed on crime busting while limiting freedom of movement and constraining licit behavior.

The dramatic fall in violent crime in Medellin owed far more to innovative urban planning on top of complicated interactions between criminal gangs, paramilitary groups and security forces, according to Eduardo Moncada, a Colombian public security scholar at Barnard College. “Giuliani landed there well after the violence had already declined,” Moncada told me.

Giuliani’s $1.65 million contract for a safety plan with Amazonas, in Brazil’s rainforest region, sowed dissension among police brass, and its legality is now under investigation.

And his numerous drive-by speaking gigs haven’t always helped. Consider Giuliani’s keynote speech at a conference late last year in Medellin, where he came off as ill-informed and somewhat befogged, referring several times to the city’s former head of international relations Sergio Escobar standing next to him as Medellin’s former mayor, “much to the embarrassment of everyone,” one conference participant told me.

So why is Giuliani still in demand? In Uruguay, after all, many of Giuliani’s package solutions — using GPS technology to map crime hotspots, making sure criminals get not just caught but punished — are already in play. “The international experts I’ve talked to tell me Uruguay is on the right track,” said economist Guillermo Tolosa, of the Uruguayan think tank CERES.

The short answer: political branding. Public safety is a soaring demand across Latin America and potential kryptonite for struggling governments. Flying in the hero of 9/11 who went on to preside over the taming of New York — never mind how much credit he really deserves — is a boon to incumbents and a possible game-changer for challengers. In this way, Giuliani’s cachet as a super cop has outshone actual services rendered. “You can’t be a serious politician in Latin America anymore without a plan for crime and fighting violence,” Moncada said.

Uruguayan officials have taken note, but will the country’s voters? “Sometimes you need the approval of someone from the outside to be taken seriously,” said Aboal. That’s the sort of campaign pitch that promises to keep Giuliani’s phone ringing.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mac Margolis is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Latin and South America. He was a reporter for Newsweek and is the author of “The Last New World: The Conquest of the Amazon Frontier.”

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