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

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

Ricardo Mauricio Menesses Orellana liked horses, and the Pasaquina rodeo was a great opportunity to enjoy a party. He was joined at the event -- which was taking place in the heart of territory controlled by El Salvador's most powerful drug transport group, the Perrones -- by the...

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," is one of the most prominent spokesmen for El Salvador's gang truce. InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley spoke with Mojica in Cojutepeque prison in October 2012 about how the maras view the controversial peace process, which has...

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

On May 27, 1964 up to one thousand Colombian soldiers, backed by fighter planes and helicopters, launched an assault against less than fifty guerrillas in the tiny community of Marquetalia. The aim of the operation was to stamp out once and for all the communist threat in...

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

The United States -- which through its antinarcotics, judicial and police attaches was very familiar with the routes used for smuggling, and especially those used for people trafficking and understood that those traffickers are often one and the same -- greeted the new government of Elias Antonio...

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply...