Max Fisher, an international reporter and columnist for The New York Times, kicked off a debate last month about the “Latin Americanization” of the U.S. being the “defining trend of our time, arguably even more than right-wing populism.”
Fisher later deleted his post and apologized, saying he hadn’t intended to imply that U.S. problems come from Latin America. He said he was referring to “convergence with things separately occurring in eg Brazil.” In yet another clarification, he said he meant “police acting as paramilitary crime groups,” and recognized the U.S. “roots” of some of these problems in Latin America.
But if we set aside his choice of words, what about his underlying claim? Are police paramilitary crime groups in the United States the defining trend of our time, worse even than right-wing populism?
It’s a strange theory to push on social media.
First, unless he’s conflating police brutality and the militarization of local police forces with the rise of paramilitary crime groups, which he doesn’t seem to be doing, it’s hard to see what “defining trend” he’s talking about. His original post was in response to a report about a Baltimore police group taking part in looting during the 2015 protests of the murder of Freddie Gray in police custody. But of all the trends we’ve seen since then, including persistent poverty, rising income inequality, worsening racism, climate change, species extinction, and even government incompetence, picking organized gangs of police criminals as the defining trend of our time seems an odd choice. The fact that his example is five years old also says something.
Even from the perspective of Latin America, this claim wouldn’t be true, and it misses the historical relationship between right-wing politics and paramilitary police violence in the region. The two are frequently tools of each other. While this isn’t a necessary relationship, right-wing politicians have so often relied on paramilitary violence to terrorize their opponents that Fisher’s decision to rhetorically separate them when referring to Latin America is perplexing.
Perhaps Fisher was thinking more of police crime related to narcotrafficking in nations like Mexico and Colombia, full of stories of criminals like El Chapo and Pablo Escobar that have captivated U.S. audiences for decades. But even in those countries, where paramilitary groups have taken a taken a deep toll on society, it’s impossible to separate police corruption from politics. Governments there have been using paramilitary groups to evict peasants and indigenous communities from their land for centuries, but there is nothing unique to Latin America about that.
Given the absurdity of Fisher’s underlying argument, we return to the original issue of his use of “Latin Americanization” to describe the spread of police corruption. Despite his claim that he was misunderstood, the word choice is too revealing. His post only makes sense if you assume a reader would reflexively identify “Latin Americanization” with something negative. By combining the term with the threat of paramilitary violence and corruption, he tapped into stereotypes of people from Latin America as “bad hombres,” which itself is just a modern version of the “savage Indian” canard.
In this respect, perhaps Fisher’s comments are most useful for exposing the extent to which people in the U.S. still wrongly see Latin America as a violent place that should be feared. Unfortunately, uncritical representations like this don’t help. Let’s hope it’s not a trend.
N. H. Gill
Quito, June 23, 2020
Image: Oswaldo Guayasamín, Las Manos de la Protesta.