InSight Crime examines how countries in Latin America and the Caribbean fared during the past year combating violence in our annual homicide round-up.
The most notable development in this year's round-up (see InSight Crime's 2014 homicide rankings here) is the change that occurred at the top of the list. El Salvador has eclipsed neighboring Honduras as the most violent nation in the Western Hemisphere following its worst year of violence since the country's civil war ended.
There were several other important homicide-related developments in the region as well. Costa Rica witnessed a record number of homicides in 2015, while Colombia, once the world's murder capital, registered its lowest murder rate in two decades.
During the past year InSight Crime examined the challenges that come with registering homicide data, and how 100 percent accuracy is akin to finding the mythical "El Dorado." It is worth noting, therefore, that while the following homicide data is sourced from government agencies or violence observatories, these figures should be treated as reasonable approximations of the true number of homicides committed in each country, not as a definitive number.
El Salvador: 103 per 100,000
El Salvador is now the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere, registering approximately 6,650 homicides in 2015 for a staggering homicide rate of 103 per 100,000 residents. Competition among the country's two principal street gangs, the MS13 and Barrio 18, in addition to heavy-handed police tactics, contributed to the explosion of violence. In truth, however, homicide levels began skyrocketing during the latter half of 2014 following the breakdown of the country's 2012 gang truce.
Venezuela: 90 per 100,000
The Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia - OVV) tallied 27,875 "violent deaths" in 2015 for a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000 residents. In a year-end report (pdf), however, the OVV states this figure is not limited to just homicides -- it also includes violent deaths in which the cause of death is unknown, as well as deadly confrontations involving security forces.
This counting system has a major impact on Venezuela's reported homicide rate. Last year, the OVV reported a violent death rate of 82 per 100,000, but told InSight Crime via email the homicide rate was much smaller -- 54 per 100,000. Attempts to reach the OVV to obtain the number of reported homicides in 2015 were unsuccessful.
The Venezuelan government's reluctance to release crime statistics further muddles an already murky security picture. Nonetheless, crime and violence appear to be on the rise, as the country struggles to confront the growth of "mega-gangs" amid a severe economic crisis and political shifts that threaten the Chavista regime.
Honduras: 57 per 100,000
Police figures show homicides continued to decline last year in Honduras, which was previously considered the world murder capital. With 5,047 homicides, Honduras registered a homicide rate of 56.7 per 100,000 residents, more than 30 points below the country's murder rate in 2011. Although there have been some questions about the validity of the Honduran government's murder statistics, civil society organization Alliance for Peace and Justice (Alianza por la Paz y la Justicia – APJ) recognized the government's homicide data for 2015. Notably, cases of multiple homicides -- which are closely associated with organized crime-related violence -- increased in 2015 even as the overall murder rate fell.
Jamaica: 45 per 100,000
Police registered at least 1,192 murders in 2015 for a homicide rate of approximately 45 per 100,000 residents. This figure represents a nearly 20 percent increase on the number of homicides in 2014, and officials say the uptick in violence is related to criminal gangs fighting for control of "lead lists" that contain thousands of names and contacts of potential targets for lottery scams.
Guatemala: 30 per 100,000
Guatemala's National Civil Police (Policía Nacional Civil - PNC) registered 4,778 homicides in 2015 for a homicide rate of 29.5 per 100,000 inhabitants. This represents a minor decrease from the 4,998 homicides recorded in 2014 but a significant drop in the number of murders since 2009, when the country registered (pdf) a homicide rate of 46.5 per 100,000. Still, the election of political novice Jimmy Morales as president following the deluge of corruption scandals that rocked Guatemala in 2015 raises questions about how the new administration will respond to what appear to be increasingly sophisticated street gangs.
Brazil: 26 per 100,000
According to the Brazilian Forum on Public Security (pdf), there were 53,240 murder victims in 2014, the most recent year for homicide data. This reflects a homicide rate of 26.3 per 100,000 inhabitants, a slight increase from the previous year. Brazil reportedly has the highest number of total homicides of any country in the world, with widespread police violence a particularly troubling facet of the country's security dynamics.
Colombia: 25 per 100,000
Colombia's National Police reported 12,540 murders last year, meaning 2015 replaced 2014 as the least violent year since the mid-1980s. The southwest city of Cali made progress in reducing the number of murders last year but still finished with a homicide rate of 56 per 100,000 residents, more than double the national average of 25 per 100,000 residents.
Dominican Republic: 17 per 100,000*
The Observatory on Citizen Security tallied 1,270 homicides from the beginning of 2015 through September, slightly fewer than the 1,344 murders the observatory recorded during the first nine months of 2014. If the average number of monthly homicides stays the same for the rest of the year, the Dominican Republic would record a homicide rate of 17 per 100,000 residents. However, the Dominican Republic's falling murder rate may be the result of a "pax mafiosa" among foreign and local criminal groups, rather than an improved security strategy.
Puerto Rico: 16 per 100,000*
On December 23, Governor Alejandro García Padilla announced that Puerto Rico witnessed 570 murders in 2015, which translates to a homicide rate of 16.3 per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the governor, murders are down by over 50 percent since a high of 1,164 in 2011, and are at their lowest point since 1989.
Mexico: 13 per 100,000
Following four years of declining homicides, Mexico is expected to end 2015 with a slight uptick in murders. The Executive Secretary of the National System for Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública - SESNSP) recorded 17,055 homicides through the first 11 months of 2015 for a homicide rate of 12.9 per 100,000 residents, according to Animal Politico. The embattled state of Guerrero finished with a homicide rate more than four times the national average, while Mexico City experienced one of its worst years for violence since the mid-1990s.
Costa Rica: 11 per 100,000
Costa Rica suffered its worst year of violence on record, registering 558 murders for a homicide rate of 11.4 per 100,000, according to the country's Judicial Investigation Department. Officials say many of the homicides are related to organized crime and drug trafficking, and local gangs appear to be increasing their connections to transnational criminal organizations.
Panama: 11 per 100,000*
According to statistics from the National Police, Panama registered 445 murders in 2015, a 21 percent decrease from the number registered in the previous year. Although insecurity continues to rank among the most pressing issues concerning Panamanians, the country has seen a steady improvement in homicides, with 2015 reaching a 10-year low of 11.1 per 100,000 people.
Argentina: 9 per 100,000
In mid-2015 Argentina's Health Ministry released homicide data for 2013, which revealed the country witnessed 3,352 murders that year for a homicide rate of 8.8 per 100,000 residents. This represents a 16 percent increase from the number of reported homicides in 2012, and Argentina's homicide rate has likely continued to grow in the last two years due to the country's expanding role in the regional drug trade.
Nicaragua: 8 per 100,000
Nicaragua registered its lowest homicide rate during the last 15 years in 2014 with 8 murders per 100,000 residents, according to statistics from a police report released in April 2015. Unlike other Central American nations where violence is fueled by warring gangs, officials say nearly 80 percent of all homicides in Nicaragua are the result of personal disputes.
Paraguay: 8 per 100,000
Authorities have yet to announce homicide statistics for 2015, but the Interior Ministry released statistics last year showing that Paraguay's murder rate in 2014 stood at 7.9 per 100,000 inhabitants. Paraguay's homicide rate has dropped by one point in each of the last two years.
Uruguay: 8 per 100,000*
Fundapro Observatory, a security think tank allied with the opposition Colorado Party, registered 274 homicides nationwide through December 17, making 2015 the most violent year on record. (Uruguay's Interior Ministry, which has not released end-of-year murder statistics yet, reported just four fewer homicides than Fundapro for the first semester of 2015.) Based on these numbers, Uruguay's homicide rate stands at 7.9 per 100,000 residents. While Uruguay is not typically associated with criminal violence, officials from the Interior Ministry say 43 percent of this year's homicides were the result of "ajustes de cuentas," or score-settling between criminal groups.
Peru: 7 per 100,000
Peru's homicide rate in 2014 remained stable at 6.7 per 100,000 residents, according to data from the National Statistics Institute. While last year's murder statistics have not yet been released, authorities announced a state of emergency at the end of 2015 in three provinces due to rampant drug trafficking and insecurity.
Ecuador: 6 per 100,000
Ecuador's Ministry of the Interior recorded a homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 residents in 2015, a record low for the country. Officials say the demilitarization of the police and greater resources for law enforcement has helped lower Ecuador's murder rate, which stood at over 20 per 100,000 just four years ago.
Bolivia: 5 per 100,000*
Police registered 326 murders during the first eight months of 2015. If Bolivia keeps on this pace for the rest of the year, the Andean nation will finish with a homicide rate of 4.7 per 100,000 residents. This is a 29 percent decrease from the number of murders registered during the same time period in 2014, but this does not necessarily reflect improved citizen security. Police officials say the drop in Bolivia's murder tally for 2015 is principally due to a new law that classifies gender-related murders as femicides, which are not reported to the police's crime-fighting unit.
Chile: 3 per 100,000
Early last year, Chile's National Police reported 528 murders in 2014 for a homicide rate of 3 per 100,000 residents. While this represents a minor increase from the country's homicide rate in 2012 and 2013, Chile remains one of the safest countries in Latin America.
*Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime, based on number of reported homicides and the country's 2015 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau (pdf).