Democracy has taken root in Latin America, but remains fragile three decades since coup-imposed military regimes were replaced by freely elected governments, a U.N. report warned Tuesday.
It says drug violence, weak states with corrupt police and inefficient courts, and wealth concentrated in few hands threaten representative government across the region.
"There is a problem in the quality of our democracies," said U.N. Assistant Secretary-General Heraldo Munoz, director of the United Nations Development Program's regional bureau for Latin America, who helped oversee the report.
"We need to strengthen institutions and the rule of law" so even those in power are held to account, he said. "We need to stimulate a culture of democracy that goes beyond free elections."
Violence by highly organized drug gangs in Mexico and Central America and a recent rebellion by police officers in Ecuador show that many of the region's states remain weak, Munoz told The Associated Press in a Monday telephone interview from U.N. headquarters.
"The state should be responsive to the citizenry, and not feel vulnerable to minority groups that wield too much power," he said.
Thirty years ago, military dictatorships ruled much of Latin America, including Uruguay, Brazil, Chile and Argentina, which collectively waged "dirty wars" that killed tens of thousands of political opponents. The leftist Sandinista rebels had just toppled dictator Anastasio Somoza, whose family controlled Nicaragua for decades. Mexico was still in the grip of the Institutional Revolutionary Party, which writer Mario Vargas Llosa once famously dubbed "the perfect dictatorship."
From 1930 to 1980, the region suffered irregular transfers of power about one-third of the time, mostly through military coups, the U.N. report notes. Electoral reforms and market-oriented economics gradually took hold, leading to increasingly free elections of democratic civilian governments.
But despite free elections and widespread limits on presidential re-election, most countries still have strong presidents and lack the independent courts and legislatures necessary to check executive power. In Venezuela, democratically elected President Hugo Chavez has effectively stacked the courts and congress in his favor, and changed the constitution to be re-elected in perpetuity.
The UNDP and the Organization of American States worked together on "Our Democracy: Second Report on Democracy in Latin America," to be discussed in Mexico City at an international forum attended by Mexican President Felipe Calderon and U.N. and OAS officials. The report builds on a similar one conducted in 2004, and consulted hundreds of leading figures during debates and meetings around the region.
The new assessment of Latin America's democratic gains and weaknesses comes amid dramatic political events in the region.
Just three weeks ago, Ecuadorean President Rafael Correa was roughed up and trapped inside a police hospital during a police rebellion that he characterized as a coup attempt. On Oct. 31, a runoff election in the region's largest country will decide who replaces Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, in power since 2003 and among the region's most influential leaders.
The discussion about regional democracy also comes during a period of widespread violence, which in many cases shows that Latin American states are "incapable of responding to the most fundamental right of their citizens, the right to life," the report says.
Drug-related violence, notably in Mexico, has contributed to much of the regional insecurity.
In Mexican communities near the U.S. border, violent drug gangs, often with the collusion of local police, have increasingly gunned down elected officials who don't cooperate with them. In the lead-up to local elections in July, one candidate was shot to death with his son at their business and political parties in some communities couldn't find anyone to run for mayor.
In Central America, a legacy of armed conflict and a still-big supply of firearms has led to some of the world's highest homicide rates. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of homicides per 100,000 people rose 86 percent in Guatemala, from 25 to 48, and 39 percent in El Salvador, from 37 to 52.
The report calls for reforms in Latin American justice systems, including strengthened police forces that in some countries, notably Guatemala, are outnumbered by private security forces.
Corrupt courts need to be cleaned up, the report insists, and the lack of punishment for state agents who commit human rights violations must end. "We are all equal before the law, but the law is not equal for everyone," it says.
The report also urges reforms in Latin American tax systems, replacing the primary dependence on value added taxes on products and services with more direct income and property taxes that would help redistribute wealth in a region plagued with huge economic inequalities.
Above all, the report says, the organization of power in Latin American countries must change.
It calls for an end to the region's tendency toward strong presidents, which lessen the power of their government's judiciaries and legislatures, and improved participation by, and increased power for, citizens.
"Governments shouldn't only be formed democratically, but govern democratically as well," the report says.