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Study Presented at OAS Concludes that Perception of Insecurity Erodes Support for Democracy

  February 15, 2012

The Organization of American States (OAS) today presented a study prepared by Kevin Casas Zamora, of the Brookings Institution, examining the relationship between citizen security and democracy, and showing with figures that the less secure citizens in Latin America and the Caribbean feel, the lower is their support for democracy.

The study, titled, in Spanish “La Polis Amenazada: (In)seguridad ciudadana y democracia en América Latina y el Caribe” (The Threatened Polis: Citizen (In)security and Democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean), was presented at OAS headquarters by its Secretary General, José Miguel Insulza, and the Permanent Observer of Spain to the OAS, Javier Sancho, whose government helped finance the study, and was coordinated by the OAS Department of Public Security.

Secretary General Insulza said citizen security, which will be one of the central issues of the VI Summit of the Americas in April, is “the principal problem from the point of view of public opinion.” He recalled that the latest “Latinobarómetro”—a prestigious survey on the behavior of democracy in the continent—concludes that “the issues that is of greatest priority to a great number of countries is that of security. People’s fear has risen substantially, and this is an issue therefore that is of serious concern to the leaders of the region.”

The head of the OAS highlighted that the study presented connects insecurity to democracy, a central issue that is at the heart of the activities of the Organization, and he emphasized that assuming the existence of this connection is crucial to be able to continue making progress in the wellbeing of the region. “There are issues or matters that are incompatible with democracy; one of them is the existence of castes or social groups that have different rights from the rest of society, and that in some way happens with the growing inequality that exists in our region,” he said. He added that, “another is precisely the fact that in a society there may be organized groups with their own norms, their own laws, that do not obey the laws of society, and that is what happens today with organized crime.”

Ambassador Sancho, for his part, said that “decided investment in public security, in the framework of the Rule of Law, is an indispensable condition to create quality democracy, that which furthers human development and supports itself upon solid institutions, generating citizenship.” “That is why we consider of the greatest interest to participate in this project,” he added.

Among the results of the study, Casas Zamora highlighted the direct relationship between the rise in the perception of insecurity and a reduction of trust in the democratic system: “For every changing step in the perception of insecurity by a someone—for example, if a person goes from feeling “more or less insecure” to feeling “very insecure”—it is more or less two percent more probable that such a person’s support for democracy is eroding,” he explained.

“That effect in the levels of support for democracy is more important than the effect of socioeconomic conditions, or the effect of years of schooling or the effect of religiosity,” said Casas Zamora. “What is remarkable to me, upon conducting this research, is the consistency of this finding, that the perception of insecurity in particular, much more than victimization, ends up eroding all the elements of support for democracy,” he concluded, among which he mentioned the erosion of the Rule of Law, the deterioration of “social ties,” the weakening of the State and its legality, and the reduced exercise of individual freedoms.

The study’s author explained that the influence of the perception of insecurity is such that it contributes more than other factors to a population’s expression of support, for example, for a coup d’état under conditions of “high criminal activity,” in the same way that to have been a victim of a crime contributes to the approval of authorities acting at the margins of the law to arrest criminals. In the same way, for every change on the scale of insecurity, a person is 2.6 percent more likely to support “the possibility of taking justice into your own hands.”

In conclusion, Casas Zamora prescribed among other things “to restart the discussion” on public security and in particular “the proliferation of the discussion of hard-line solutions, which are rarely successful in solving security problems but never fail to weaken the cardinal principles of the Rule of Law.” Furthermore, he emphasized the need to further invest in human development, in particular in opportunities for youth, since the high percentage (between a fifth and a fourth) of youth in Latin America who neither work nor study “is a time bomb from the point of view of security.”

The full text of the study, in Spanish, may be found here.

A gallery of photos of the event is available here.

For more information, please visit the OAS Website at

Reference: E-047/12