Searching for Accurate Homicide Data: Latin America’s ‘El Dorado’

As violence dips to historic lows in some parts of Latin America and record highs in others, the question must be asked: do these large fluctuations in homicide data actually reflect reality?

In 2014, Colombia registered its lowest number of homicides in thirty years. Meanwhile authorities in Honduras, perennially ranked as the world’s most violent nation, say they have nearly halved the country’s homicide rate in just the last four years.

However, good news on homicides is not ubiquitous throughout Latin America. Authorities in El Salvador are reporting an unprecedented spike in murders, and this year is expected to be the most violent since the end of the nation’s bloody civil war in the early 1990s. Registered homicides are also on the rise in Mexico after years of decline.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Homicides

But does this data actually reflect real changes in security dynamics? Given the significant differences in how homicides are registered between countries and even at the sub-national level, it is worth questioning what conclusions can be drawn from this data. And if experts say authorities cannot possibly register all the homicides that are taking place in their jurisdiction, how can lawmakers expect to develop evidence-based policies aimed at reducing violence?

InSight Crime sat down with Michael Reed-Hurtado, a researcher and lecturer at Yale Law School, to discuss these questions and more. The conversation is a follow-up to a recent conference in Bogota sponsored by the Open Society Foundations on improving homicide data in Latin America.

 What You’ll Find Out:

1:00: Why registering homicides with 100 percent accuracy is comparable to the search for “El Dorado.”

5:00: Why official homicide data in Latin America — already the world’s most violent region — underestimates the actual level of violence in the region. 

11:15: That reported homicides can go down because the authorities are on vacation, not because of reduced violence.

15:35: “If policy is to be based on evidence, then policy needs to take the undocumented homicides into account.”

18:00: Why corrective statistics refute claims that violence in Colombia went down after paramilitary demobilization.

20:50: “If there is something that we know worldwide, it’s that criminal policy is being conducted basically through leaps of faith.”

27:45: That issues with achieving accurate homicide data is not limited to Latin America. One official study has found that authorities didn’t register at least half of all deaths by active duty police officers in the United States. 

— This podcast was produced by Santiago Delgadillo