How Unchecked Violence Kills the Innocent: Stray Bullets in Latin America

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Endemic gun violence in Latin America and the Caribbean at times produces unintended — and fatal — consequences for victims of stray bullets, which pose a limited, but very real, threat to citizen security in the region.

A working report (pdf) published in June 2014 by the United Nations Regional Centre for Peace, Disarmament and Development in Latin America and the Caribbean (UNLIREC) examined 550 cases resulting in 617 victims of stray bullets — defined as intentionally fired bullets that cause death and/or injury to a person (or persons) other than the original intended target — that were reported by the media in Latin America and the Caribbean between 2009 and 2013.

The study found females to be disproportionately victimized by stray bullets (“balas perdidas”) in comparison to general violence; women accounted for 43 percent of the stray bullet cases, yet make up just 17 percent of homicide victims worldwide.

Meanwhile, a startling 45 percent of all victims of stray bullets were minors (under the age 18). This is likely attributable to the fact that young men are the primary perpetrators — and victims — of gun violence in the region. However, this figure is also indicative of how the use of public spaces by children, like parks, puts them at a higher risk of unintended violence than the general population.

In addition to charting victim demographics, the report also documented under what circumstances incidents of stray bullets occurred. Over a quarter of the reported cases of stray bullets during the four year period were related to gang violence, while 14 percent of the cases were attributable to common crime or armed robberies. Notably, 14 percent of all cases involved law enforcement; however, this figure includes not only shots fired by, but also against, police or other law enforcement officials.

On a country basis, Venezuela registered the highest number of reported stray bullet incidents between 2009 and 2013 with 74, followed by Brazil (71) and Colombia (57).

In total, 325 of the 617 victims (53 percent) of stray bullets documented in the report suffered some sort of injury as a result, while the remaining 47 percent of the cases resulted in death.

As noted in the report, the study was not a comprehensive account of the problem of stray bullets in the region. In 2013, the Conflict Analysis Resource Center in Colombia published a report (pdf) that registered nearly 3,000 victims of stray bullets in the country between 1990 and 2013.

InSight Crime Analysis

Stray bullets kill indiscriminately and often without warning, making it difficult to prevent specific sub populations from falling victim. According to the author of the study, William Godnick, the fact women comprise a greater percentage of victims of stray bullets than of overall violence could be due to a leveling of the odds. “The nature of stray bullets is somewhat random and this makes it a more equal opportunity type of violence affecting women almost as much as men,” Godnick told InSight Crime.

While stray bullets usually strike at random, they are the product of a wider framework of systemic violence that exists in many parts of the region. Of the 27 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean studied by UNLIREC, 23 have homicide rates that reach epidemic proportions — defined by the World Health Organization (WHO) as over 10 murders per 100,000 habitants. In order to lower the number of stray bullet victims, governments must first limit the role of the principal actors and mitigating factors that result in high levels of general violence in the region.

Street gangs play a central role not only in stray bullet cases, but also in making Latin America the world’s most violent region. As a result, the focal point of security strategies aimed at reducing stray bullet victimization should include ways to minimize gang violence, however daunting that task may be.

Street gangs in Central America, or maras, like the Barrio 18 and MS13 have evolved into transnational criminal organizations with cells operating in major cities throughout the region, including the United States and Canada. In South America, the rise of micro-trafficking operations run by local gangs is a principal source of violence in Colombia, while in Venezuela armed and sophisticated youth gangs have helped convert Caracas into one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Homicides

Limiting access to small firearms is another complex, yet important, strategy in reducing the number of victims of stray bullets — and overall violence — in the region. In Venezuela, the country that registered the largest number of stray bullet cases, high rates of violence have been linked to the ease of access to firearms.

However, evidence suggests stricter gun laws do not necessarily have a meaningful effect on armed violence in Latin America. Despite the adoption of arms reduction measures in several Latin American countries in recent years, “the region is so awash in weapons that are both trafficked across borders and diverted from internal military, police and private holdings, that availability is widespread,” Godnick told InSight Crime. As a result, governments must develop strategies to limit access not only to legal, but also illegally trafficked firearms to lower stray bullet violence in the region.

Finally, re-examining the appropriate use of lethal force by law enforcement officers would likely cut down on stray bullet victimization. Police in Brazil — which registered the second highest number of stray bullet victims — killed on average six people per day over the last five years, pointing to excessive use of firearms by law enforcement in the country. The militarization of police forces in countries like Honduras will likely only increase police involvement in stray bullet cases, as soldiers trained for war-like scenarios are deployed to combat local street gangs and organized crime groups.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform

Simply put, stray bullet victimization is highly random in its nature, but there are institutional factors driving this phenomenon. As countries in the region reduce levels of gang violence, accessibility to legal and illegal firearms, and excessive use of force by law enforcement, they will likely experience a corresponding drop in unintentional deaths from “balas perdidas”.

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