The arms trafficking industry is generally thought to be a significant contributor to drug violence in Central America. But do the region’s “rivers of steel” have a demonstrable effect on local homicide rates?

Crime analysts have long known that the porous borders of Central America are a major asset to the illegal arms trade. According to a recent article in Guatemala’s Plaza Publica, although there are only 17 official entry points into Guatemala from Mexico, there are at least 97 known illegal crossings that are used by criminal organizations to move illicit arms over the border between the two countries.

homzarmsPlaza Publica traced allegedly important gun-running routes on a map (right) showing homicide rates of sub-state regions in Central America. While it is not clear what the author based these "major routes" on, the comparison is made quite frequently. It is rooted in the generally-accepted notion that much of the violence in Central America is caused by the legacy of Cold War-era internal conflicts in the region. Indeed, as InSight has reported, many of the arms in the region are left over from the end of these conflicts, when both rebel and government weapons stockpiles slipped into the black market.

However, this causal relationship between war, guns, and high murder rates may not be the whole story. As Rodrigo Serrano-Berthet and Humberto Lopez argue in a recent World Bank study on arms trafficking in Central America, no significant relationship exists between which Central American countries have experienced an armed conflict in the recent past, and which have high homicide rates.

The study notes that El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras have some of the highest murder rates in Latin America, and of those, two have experienced conflicts in the last 30 years. However, the homicide rates of Nicaragua, Panama and Costa Rica are much lower, even though the first two have had also seen armed conflicts.

As the charts below illustrate, the study’s authors also present some interesting data regarding the relationship between the availability of weapons in the region, and murder rates:

homirates_centam· · · · · · ·Firearms_Owned_by_Civilians

There seems to be little correlation between how many guns there are, relative to population, and the murder rate. While Costa Rica's low gun availability fits its low murder rate, and Guatemala has high levels of both, most of the other countries go against the trend. El Salvador has a homicide rate 25 percent higher than Guatemala's, despite having less than half the number of guns per capita. Meanwhile Honduras has a murder rate three times that of Nicaragua's, while having slightly fewer guns relative to population. A similar effect is visible in Panama, which has one of the region's lowest murder rates, despite gun availability approaching that of Honduras.

These comparisons suggest that gun availability is not the determining factor in levels of violence. Clearly, the availability of weapons alone cannot account for why murder rates are so high in Central America. A more accurate explanation would need to take into account the region's weak judicial systems, entrenched corruption, and high level of income inequality.