The Trouble With Measuring Peace in Latin America

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A new report ranks Colombia and Mexico as the least peaceful nations in Latin America — however, this definition of “peace” may not accurately reflect the state of security in the region. 

The 2015 Global Peace Index, a report (pdf) published annually by think tank the Institute for Economics and Peace, classifies Colombia as the least peaceful nation in Latin America and the Caribbean. Colombia has held this distinction every year since the GPI was first published in 2008. 

Mexico, however, has experienced a noticeable decline in peace over the past eight years, according to the GPI. From 2008 until 2010, Mexico registered “medium” levels of peace. From 2011 to 2015, Mexico has qualified as “low” on the peace index.

Listed from most to least peaceful, Colombia is ranked 146 out of 162 countries worldwide, and is closely followed by Mexico (144) and Venezuela (142). Central America’s Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala) all rank between 123 and 116 on the GPI. (See graph below for peace rankings of all Latin American and Caribbean countries listed by the GPI.)

The GPI measures peace around the world based on 23 indicators, which are grouped into one of three categories: militarization; domestic and international conflict; safety and security in society. The report defines peace as the absence of violence or fear of violence.

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The GPI’s ranking system is somewhat perplexing, given that Central American countries with higher homicide rates — namely, Honduras and El Salvador — are considered more “peaceful” than Colombia and Mexico. Last year, both El Salvador and Honduras registered homicide rates higher than 60 per 100,000 people, more than double that of Colombia.

The GPI’s methodology apparently gives more weight to countries that remain in a state of open, armed conflict and have a bigger military budget. This would explain why Colombia is consistently ranked as Latin America’s least peaceful country. 

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Mexico’s declining peace score over the past eight years is also particularly confounding, given homicides in the country have been falling since 2011. This was also around the time murder rates began to decrease dramatically in cities such as in Tamaulipas and Ciudad Juarez, once hotspots for drug-related violence. However, Mexico’s spending on defense has indeed skyrocketed, which may explain why its “peace” ranking, by the GPI’s assessment, is getting worse. 

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