Nearshore Americas

Special Analysis: The Rise and Fall of Violent Crime in Latin America

Last year, almost one in three murders in the world took place in Latin America. Sixteen people were killed out of every 100,000 in the region.  According to the UN’s “Global Study on Homicide,” published earlier this year, that makes it the region with the highest per capita homicide rate in the world.

There is a corridor of violence that sweeps from Venezuela westward to Colombia and up through Central America before spreading across parts of Mexico. There, Latin America lives up to its reputation. Central America, with its weak national governments and entrenched gang presence, is Latin America’s most violent sub-region. Parts of Brazil and the Caribbean are also shockingly violent.

In this sense, along the same lines that one might say Africa is the center of global poverty, the perception of Latin America as the world’s most violent region is warranted.

Left out of such generalizations are Chile, Uruguay and Argentina, countries that have crime rates on par with parts of Europe. So residents and businesspeople in the Southern Cone might feel like they are unduly smeared by the region’s bloody image. Many Costa Ricans probably feel the same way. Across these and other areas of Latin America, pickpockets are the biggest threat to people’s sense of security.

Also within the violent parts of Latin America, there are trends that deserve parsing. Most obviously, the parts of Latin America under siege by murderers and bandits today are not the crime scenes of the past. Medellin, the most violent city on earth a generation ago, now basks in clean avenues that are lined by leafy trees and bustling cafes. Presently, the city is gearing up for a Christmas light display that has lured greater and greater numbers of U.S. tourists in recent years.

Brazil and Mexico Begin to Show Progress

Two years ago, 50,108 people were murdered in Brazil. This staggering number of murders hides a geographic component, with the wealthier south safer than the poorer north. But there is also a disturbing racial element to violent crime in Brazil. Over the past decade, homicide among whites has dropped about 25%, while it has increased over 40%, among Afro-Brazilians, according to a story by NPR.

Violent crime is declining in Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro. Brazilian police tactics are notoriously aggressive; nationwide Brazil’s police forces kill nearly 2,000 people a year. But targeted pacification programs in Rio de Janeiro and elsewhere, which put police officers in the favelas once the areas are retaken from drug gangs, are beginning to curb the rampant violence of the urban slums.

After Brazil, Mexico has the highest number of murders in Latin America, though in per capita terms its homicide rate is well below that of Honduras, Venezuela, and many other countries in the region. English-language news coverage of Mexico has tended to paint the violence as nationwide, creating a sense north of the border that the country is lawless; the government in Mexico City an observer to the mayhem all around. This was never the case.

As The Economist’s Mexico correspondent advised business travelers to the country back in 2010: “Once you avoid the hotspots, it’s downright safe.” For sure, the states of Sinaloa and Guerrero remain dangerous to travelers and Mexicans alike, but “hot spots” like those are shrinking, and throughout most of Mexico things are calm. Ciudad Juarez, the world’s murder capital three years ago, is undergoing something of an urban renaissance, its bars and nightclubs now crowded on the weekends.

Since 2013 many drug kingpins have been either gunned down or placed under arrest. Mexico’s murder rate has dropped 16% over the previous year. Still, President Peña Nieto has been forced to acknowledge that even the good news comes with heavy qualifiers. “There has been a decline in homicides and theft,” Peña Nieto said earlier this year, “but sadly, we have to acknowledge that extortion and kidnapping grew in some states.” Today the drug violence in Mexico appears less directed between gangs and less predictable. Dazed for a time by bloodshed, the Mexican consciousness has regained its sensitivity to the violence. The September 26 disappearance, and presumed massacre, of 43 student teachers in Iguala, Guerrero, has sparked a nationwide outcry and an endless stream of protests.

Crime in Venezuela May Worsen in 2015

Unfortunately, the pace of violence is likely to accelerate in Venezuela. The UN report gives Venezuela the dubious distinction of being the only country with a consistently rising homicide rate over the past twenty years. Violence ravages Venezuela’s cities and the countryside alike. Many fugitives believe they will never be held to account for their crimes, and with good reason – very few murders are even investigated by police; trials are even less common. Instead, Hugo Chavez’s government stopped publishing Venezuela’s murder statistics, as if keeping an incomplete ledger of the deaths, and politicizing the issue with charges against the “bourgeois” opposition press, made the issue less real. The fact is, the number of murders in Venezuela increased five-fold under Chavez’s reign.

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Oil is the lifeblood of the Venezuelan economy and the underwriter of the system of handouts that President Maduro relies on to maintain social order amid rising unemployment, the world’s highest rate of inflation, and shortages of food and other basic staples. The recent decline in global oil prices has already hit Venezuela hard, and worse impacts should be expected in 2015. Expert Venezuela watchers are forecasting that crime will spike as part of an overall violent reaction to the government’s gross mismanagement of the economy. Regrettably, more people are likely to turn to theft, kidnapping, or even murder, in order to get by. Meanwhile, the police are unlikely to suddenly become more determined to round up suspects, especially given that their real salaries will be dramatically reduced thanks to rising inflation in the year ahead.

There is good reason to think that violent crime will continue to decline in Brazil and Mexico. Governments in both countries have made strong commitments to quash gang violence, and positive results are materializing, if slowly. It is harder to be an optimist when it comes to Venezuela.

Sean Goforth

1 comment

  • “along the same lines that one might say Africa is the center of global poverty, the perception of Latin America as the world’s most violent region is warranted”

    I stopped reading after this.