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

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

Homicides in Guatemala: Collecting the Data

When someone is murdered in Guatemala, police, forensic doctors and government prosecutors start making their way to the crime scene and a creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucratic machine kicks into gear. Calls are made. Forms are filled out by hand, or typed into computers, or both. Some...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Money

  Drugs Extortion Criminal Cash Flows Millions of dollars in dirty money circulate constantly around Bajo Cauca, flowing upwards and outwards from a broad range of criminal activities. The BACRIM are the chief regulators and beneficiaries of this shadow economy. Unlike their paramilitary and drug cartel predecessors, the BACRIM maintain a diversified...

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Murder

  Life of a Sicario Anatomy of a Hit   The BACRIM's control over territories such as the north Colombian region of Bajo Cauca comes at the point of a gun, and death is a constant price of their power. In rural sectors, uniformed BACRIM armed with assault rifles still patrol in...

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

Homicides in Guatemala: Introduction, Methodology, and Major Findings

When violence surged in early 2015 in Guatemala, then-President Otto Pérez Molina knew how to handle the situation: Blame the street gangs. 

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

Nariño, Colombia: Ground Zero of the Cocaine Trade

The department of Nariño in southwest Colombia is the main coca-producing area in the country and in the world. It is a place scarred by poverty and years of armed conflict between guerrillas, the state and paramilitary groups. Perhaps nowhere else in the country are the challenges...

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador Prisons and the Battle for the MS13’s Soul

El Salvador's prison system is the headquarters of the country's largest gangs. It is also where one of these gangs, the MS13, is fighting amongst itself for control of the organization.

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

InSide Colombia's BACRIM: Power

  The Bajo Cauca Franchise BACRIM-Land Armed Power Dynamics The BACRIM in places like the region of Bajo Cauca are a typical manifestation of Colombia's underworld today: a semi-autonomous local cell that is part of a powerful national network. The BACRIM's roots lie in the demobilized paramilitary umbrella group the United Self-Defense...

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

Where Chaos Reigns: Inside the San Pedro Sula Prison

In San Pedro Sula's jailhouse, chaos reigns. The inmates, trapped in their collective misery, battle for control over every inch of their tight quarters. Farm animals and guard dogs roam free and feed off scraps, which can include a human heart. Every day is visitors' day, and...

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's Mirror: War and Drug Trafficking in the Prison System

Colombia's prisons are a reflection of the multiple conflicts that have plagued the country for the last half-century. Paramilitaries, guerrillas and drug trafficking groups have vied for control of the jails where they can continue to manage their operations on the outside. Instead of corralling these forces...

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Reign of the Kaibil: Guatemala’s Prisons Under Byron Lima

Following Guatemala's long and brutal civil war, members of the military were charged, faced trial and sentenced to jail time. Even some members of a powerful elite unit known as the Kaibil were put behind bars. Among these prisoners, none were more emblematic than Captain Byron Lima...