Year after year, Latin America and the Caribbean dominate global city and country homicide rankings. But what sets this corner of the world apart from the rest? And what makes it so violent that experts describe the situation as a “murder epidemic”?
With the exception of a few urban centers in the United States and South Africa, the latest annual ranking of the world’s 50 most homicidal cities by the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal – CCSPJP) is comprised entirely of Latin American and Caribbean locations. The list contains 43 cities in the region with murder rates ranging from just under 35 per 100,000 inhabitants to more than 111 per 100,000.
For the ninth year in a row, the Mexican non-governmental organization compiled data of voluntary homicides (excluding those committed in open warfare) in cities of more than 300,000 inhabitants, using official or alternate sources “whose estimates and calculation methods can be verified.”
Just three countries — Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela — are home to more than two-thirds of the cities on the list. (Two Venezuelan urban centers present in last year’s list were taken out of the ranking this year due to lack of reliable data.)
InSight Crime took a close look at the facts behind the figures and the reasons for this phenomenon.
Organized Crime a Key Factor
Organized crime and related illegal economies are a prime driver of violence in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Los Cabos, the city with the highest homicide rate in the world, and one of five Mexican localities in CCSPJP’s top 10, suffered a nearly 300 percent increase in murders due to clashes between factions of the Sinaloa Cartel and the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación – CJNG). The battle has helped make the state of Baja California Sur the second-most violent in Mexico. The state capital La Paz ranked sixth in CCSPJP’s study. Nationwide, criminal groups in Mexico may have been responsible for up to 75 percent of 2017’s record-breaking number of homicides.
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Governments often attempt to blame a disproportionate amount of violence on crime groups. But while criminal conflicts undeniably drive up homicide levels, organized crime remains only part of the problem.
In 2016, for instance, less than 60 percent of Mexico’s homicides were attributed to criminal groups, meaning other culprits were responsible for some 10,000 more homicides. And the presence of a strong underworld does not automatically translate into higher murder rates: Medellín, Colombia achieved one of the region’s most remarkable decreases in homicide rates over two decades, thanks in part to a longstanding truce among the most powerful criminal players in the city that may have actually strengthened crime groups.
Flawed State Responses
In attempting to deal with high levels of violence, governments in Latin America and the Caribbean have often adopted policies that add fuel to the fire.
The excessive use of militarized forces for domestic security tasks has contributed to generally increasing levels of violence. Indeed, the countries with the most extensive presence in the ranking — Brazil, Mexico and Venezuela — have all opted for militarization and liberal use-of-force policies as part of their security strategies.
In Venezuela, for instance, security forces were responsible for a stunning 20 percent of all murders last year — more than 5,500 out of the country’s rough total of 26,000. In Caracas, the world’s second-most homicidal city according to the CCSPJP ranking, Runrun reported that this figure could surpass 40 percent.
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The excessive use of violence runs deep within Latin America’s law enforcement institutions, as many are still coping with the legacy of dictatorial governments. As a result, countries across the region are struggling to better the quality of their policing and criminal investigations, as well as to mend the relations between law enforcement institutions and the communities they are meant to protect. Studies have established a correlation between communities’ shattered trust in law enforcement — a pattern throughout the region — and crime levels, as well as communities’ “proclivity” to organized crime.
Militarization policies also contribute to the development of highly armed societies, and the widespread availability of firearms is often cited as a major contributor to high murder rates in Latin America and the Caribbean.
Uncertainty remains about the exact relationship between easy availability of weapons and high homicide rates. But a flood of both legal and illegal weapons is certainly not positive in a region where an estimated three out of every four homicides are carried out with a firearm.
Society as Victim and Victimizer
Elevated levels of violence have clear detrimental impacts on urban societies. A multidisciplinary study last year by the Woodrow Wilson Center found that intense, chronic exposure to violence affects the development of children at crucial stages, eventually deteriorating their capacity to feel empathy and thereby undermining one of the main individual barriers to committing murder.
At the same time as violence frays the social fabric, societies also share a large portion of the responsibility when it comes to fueling violent crime. For example, societies with high levels of socioeconomic inequality tend to suffer from higher rates of homicides and violence in general, while factors such as high youth unemployment also tend to push up homicide rates.
Last year, a report examined this phenomenon in El Salvador, finding that membership in violent gangs like the MS13 was increasingly perceived as a career choice by impoverished youths looking for income to sustain themselves and their families.
Beyond inequality, there are several other societal factors that can contribute to violence. An August 2016 study by the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) identified four factors driving violence in Latin American cities: “economic deprivation, family disruption, residential instability, and alcohol consumption.”
Murder as Dispute Resolution
David Weisburd, a distinguished professor at George Mason University, told InSight Crime that there are common-sense reasons why violence tends to be concentrated in certain pockets of society, particularly those most marginalized.
“Poorer people live in pressured situations. Resources are limited; there’s competition,” Weisburd said. “The government has failed in those places and therefore those peoples are more likely to take the law into their own hands.”
Weisburd explained that government failures to secure justice for victims of violence can contribute to cycles of retribution.
“Violence and homicides are often means of social control; they are means for people to exercise their sense of justice,” he said. “When normal neighborly relations are not working, people will turn to formal government control, and then turn to non-governmental agents. And I suspect the most violence when all of those groups fail at the same time.”
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Impunity and corruption add to states’ deficient response to crime and homicides, which in turn can send the message that killings are actually allowed.
CCSPJP Director José Antonio Ortega told InSight Crime that the main factors driving violence in the region are “a long tradition of violence and weak rule of law.”
“Drug trafficking isn’t the central problem, but more of a trigger,” Ortega said, pointing to one of the region’s few stories of success in reducing homicides: São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city, which made progress in bringing down violence by taking steps to ensure perpetrators are brought to justice.
Informal community means of dispute solving mechanisms can make up for a deficient state, Weisburd noted. But in the case of Latin America and the Caribbean, the development of these peaceful community mechanisms may have been impeded due to the rise of militia and paramilitary groups that imposed their own ways of social control.
Rising homicide rates are at the top of the agenda for many leaders in the region. Policymakers will need to consider how all these factors interact, and how to address them both individually and as a whole in order to combat this perennial problem.