Let’s get one point clear right away: a homicide rate isn’t necessarily the best number to measure insecurity, let alone fear. There are plenty of people who fear violent robbery much more than the prospect of getting killed.
But a homicide rate remains something like the queen of all statistics, partly because of its economical and emotional impact, but also because counting the number of violent deaths is often more reliable than other violent acts. It is also the easier variable to compare between countries. As such, it’s a good indicator of the general amount of violence in a country, or, at the very least, the best approximation of such.
With all due respect to Gabo, every homicide is a chronicle of a death foretold. We frequently know who died, how, and where. This is the kind of information that’s needed to build an effective citizen security policy.
That’s why Homicide Monitor — the new database unveiled May 7 by the Igarape Institute — struck me as such a fascinating, relevant, and timely initiative. It collects homicide rates — that is, the rate of intentional homicides for every 100,000 people that occurred over a year within a given territory — from 219 countries. Hundreds of thousands of annual tragedies are grouped together in a way that’s easy to see and compare.
For 40 countries and territories in Latin America and the Caribbean, Homicide Monitor includes more detailed information: the percentage of deaths that occurred with firearms or another weapon, as well as the gender and approximate age range of the victim. In many cases, the data goes down to a subnational level.
Homicide Monitor is based on official sources (mainly the UNODC), or else alternative sources like local crime observatories. To be sure, some of these numbers may not be absolutely precise, and in other cases, the data may be old. Some countries count murders based on body counts in the morgues; others only when someone is detained and there is a judicial process. Nevertheless, as it says on the Monitor’s “About” page, this is a tool meant to “show policy makers, journalists, scholars, and activists how lethal violence is distributed,” and to “help in the design of effective violence prevention and reduction measures.”
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So what do the numbers from Latin America and the Caribbean tell us? Starting with the big picture, the Homicide Monitor confirms that we’re doing badly. This is the most violent region in the planet: eight percent of the world’s population is based here, but contributes to a third of the world’s homicides. In Latin America, 66 percent of homicides are committed with firearms, compared with a global average of 41 percent. Almost half of the region’s homicide victims are between 15 and 29 years old.
Brazil, Colombia, and Venezuela contribute to one out of every five homicides in the planet. The United States has a homicide rate of 4.7 — pretty low by Latin American standards, but higher than Chile (2.8) and Cuba (4.5). Not to mention the homicide rate for countries like Canada (1.6) and Spain (0.8).
The Key is in the Cities
The most dangerous areas are the cities. Of the 20 cities with the highest homicide rates in the world, 14 are in Latin America and the Caribbean.
A total of 130 cities in this region with populations higher than 250,000 have high homicide rates — that is, higher than 25 murders for every 100,000 people. The four most dangerous cities are San Pedro Sula (Honduras), Juarez (Mexico), Ananindeua (Brazil), and Caracas (Venezuela). The overall high rate of violence in Brazil is counterbalanced by some good news — for example, the decrease in violence by 66 percent in Rio de Janeiro between 2002 to 2012, and the decrease of 80 percent in Sao Paolo, between 2000 to 2010.
Perhaps the most interesting trend made evident by the Homicide Monitor is the immense variation within countries. For example, Peru’s homicide rate is 6.5 Nevertheless, this average hides a range of varying realities. In metropolitan Lima, the homicide rate is 5.6. In Trujillo, it’s 17.6. Meanwhile, the Peruvian cities of Iquitos and Juliaca are among the safest in Latin America.
The contrasts in Mexico are even more dramatic. The city of Merida registers 2.2 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants. Veracruz, Mexico’s most violent city, has a homicide rate that is 80 times Merida’s.
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This is a useful tool to generate awareness and debate, and the Igarape Institute says it will continue adding more information and articles about what works [when it comes to citizen security policy]. One task facing the region is collecting homicide data not only at a city level, but at a neighborhood and even at a street level, so as to better orient how police should approach these crime hotspots. This is a message highlighted by the Igarape Institute, and is also a priority for us at the Inter-American Development Bank. We’ve supported countries like Colombia and Ecuador in achieving dramatic results in improved security, as a result of using data more effectively. Soon the IDB will have our own database, with homicide numbers and other variables to help visualize these issues, and contribute to the development of better policies in the region.
By combining homicide date with statistics on other crimes like robbery and assaults, we are one step closer towards creating a region where people are less afraid.