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.

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

Justice and the Creation of a Mafia State in Guatemala

As Guatemala's Congress gears up to select new Supreme Court Justices and appellate court judges, InSight Crime is investigating how organized crime influences the selection process. This story details the interests of one particular political bloc vying for control over the courts and what's at stake: millions of ...

The Victory of the Urabeños - The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime

The Victory of the Urabeños - The New Face of Colombian Organized Crime

The mad scramble for criminal power in the aftermath of the demobilization of the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is over. The Urabeños, or as they prefer to call themselves, the "Autodefensas Gaitanistas de Colombia," have won.

50 years of the FARC: War, Drugs and Revolution

50 years of the FARC: War, Drugs and Revolution

The possibility of ending nearly 50 years of civil conflict is in sight. While the vast majority of the Colombian public want to see peace, for themselves and especially for their children, the enemies of the peace negotiations appear to be strong, and the risks inherent in the ...

Mexico’s Security Dilemma: Michoacan’s Militias

 Mexico’s Security Dilemma: Michoacan’s Militias

Well-armed vigilantes in Mexico's Michoacan state have helped authorities dismantle a powerful criminal organization, but now the government may have a more difficult task: keeping Michoacan safe from the vigilantes and rival criminal groups.

Uruguay, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs

Uruguay, Organized Crime and the Politics of Drugs

After the lower house passed the controversial marijuana bill July 31, Uruguay is poised to become the first country on the planet to regulate the production, sale, and distribution of the drug, and provide a model for countries looking for alternatives to the world’s dominant drug policy paradigm. ...

The Zetas in Nuevo Laredo

The Zetas in Nuevo Laredo

After the capture of Zetas boss "Z40," Nuevo Laredo is bracing itself for the worst. This investigation breaks down what makes the city such an important trafficking corridor, and what it will take for the Zetas to maintain their grip on the city.

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives And Negatives

El Salvador's Gang Truce: Positives And Negatives

Whether it is sustainable or not, the truce -- which the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and the Barrio 18 put into place March 2012 -- has changed the conventional thinking about who the gangs are and what is the best way to handle the most difficult law and order ...

FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

FARC, Peace and Possible Criminalization

The possibility of ending nearly 50 years of civil conflict is in sight. While the vast majority of the Colombian public want to see peace, for themselves and especially for their children, the enemies of the peace negotiations appear to be strong, and the risks inherent in the ...

Corruption in El Salvador: Politicians, Police and Transportistas

Corruption in El Salvador: Politicians, Police and Transportistas

Since the end of El Salvador's civil war, the country's police has become a key player in the underworld. This series of five articles explore the dark ties between criminal organizations and the government's foremost crime fighting institution.

Juarez after the War

Juarez after the War

As a bitter war between rival cartels grinds to an end, Ciudad Juarez has lost the title of world murder capital, and is moving towards something more like normality. InSight Crime looks at the role politicians, police, and for-hire street gangs played in the fighting -- asking who ...