- Outside of active war zones, Latin America is the world’s most violent region, despite some variations among countries there.
- No single thing explains why there’s so much bloodshed, but there are several factors common throughout the region.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Latin America is home to about 8% of the world’s population but has about one-third of its homicides – in 2016, that meant some 400 homicides a day, or roughly 146,000 a year. But the bloodshed is not evenly distributed.
In Mexico, the region’s second most populous country, 33,753 homicide victims in 2018 set a record for the second year in a row; 17,142 victims in the first half of this year likely means 2019 will set a new mark.
In Brazil, the most populated country in the region, homicides fell 13% between 2017 and 2018, but that still means 51,589 people were killed. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, regarded as some of the world’s most violent countries, have also seen declines, as has Colombia, long riven by political and drug-related violence.
The regional homicide rate has increased 3.7% annually over the past decade – three times the population growth rate of 1.1%.
“It’s a heterogeneous region,” Robert Muggah, research director at Brazil’s Igarapé Institute and an expert on crime and crime prevention, told Business Insider this spring. “There’s huge variations in terms of homicides, from Chile through to Mexico and Venezuela and Brazil.”
Chile’s 2.7 homicides per 100,000 people in 2018 were about half the US’s 5.3 – Mexico and Brazil’s 25 per 100,000 and Venezuela’s 80 were many times more.
“There isn’t one monolithic factor” that explains this killing, Muggah said. “I think that’s sort of obvious, but it’s important to say.”
“But there are what we call invariant factors – factors that seem to correlate with homicide across time and space – and there are a few of them.”
“Income inequality, measured by Gini, is strongly correlated with homicide over time and space, and Latin America has 15 of the 20 most unequal countries, measured by Gini inequality, on the planet,” Muggah said.
Governments in the region have sought to close that gap and address poverty with measures like conditional cash transfers, which require recipients to meet certain criteria to receive benefits. High prices for exports, like oil, also enabled governments to reduce inequality during the 2000s.
But disparities persist, and the region’s recent economic slowdown has endangered gains that have been made.
These divides create conditions that allow them to be perpetuated, Muggah said.
“When you have large disparities in wealth, you create greater competition among populations that experience varying levels of mobility, and this inequality also creates competition between the rich and the poor for public goods.”
“Elites tend not to be interested in servicing public goods, including policing, and what you tend to get is substandard provision of these public goods in … areas of concentrated disadvantage, which reinforces negative feedback.”
Unemployment, especially among young men.
“You have high, high rates of unemployment in Latin America, reaching 30% regionally, but you also have low-quality employment for large numbers of young people, wherein the trade-offs of a life of informality vs. a low-paying job in a formal sector becomes a little less obvious,” Muggah said.
“Where you see these high rates of youth employment, you can see how it [leads] to crime.”
The estimated unemployment rate for Latin America and the Caribbean fell slightly to 7.8% in 2018 after three years of increases, the International Labour Organisation said at the end of 2018. That figure, based on data collected in the first nine months of 2018, still meant some 25 million women and men in the region were unemployed.
A lack of work, particularly for youths, often translates directly to crime. “In Brazil, every … 2% increase in unemployment results in a 1% increase in homicide,” Muggah said. “There’s a pretty linear relationship.”
Rising violence can also have a negative effect on employment.
With a 10-percentage-point increase in homicide rates in an area of Mexico, “you see an increase in unemployment in that region of half a point,” Viridiana Rios, a visiting professor at Harvard and expert on crime and economics in Mexico, said in early 2016.
“Unemployment currently in Mexico is 5%, so for each 10 points of increase in the homicide rates, you see half a point extra on unemployment. That’s pretty significant,” Rios said.
Low-quality education and poor school retention.
“Where you have low levels of enrollment, low quality of education, and high levels of absenteeism, you tend to see higher rates of lethal violence,” Muggah said, noting that these factors were present in many places, including the US.
The issue isn’t necessarily education spending, according to Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Outlays for public education in the region are, on average, 5% of GDP, similar to the US and EU.
But much of that money goes to universities rather than primary and secondary schools, subsidizing the rich, and some is siphoned off by corruption, O’Neil wrote earlier this year.
Poor methods and poorly educated teachers also hinder students.
The Program for International Student Assessment for Development, which evaluates 15-year-old students in reading, maths, and science, released an assessment this spring that included Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay.
Forty-five per cent of students in those countries and 40% of students in other countries in the region reported skipping a day of school in the two weeks before the survey – 17% of students in Paraguay and Guatemala reported missing school for more than three months in a row.
Less than half of students in the four countries had fully functional indoor plumbing at school. With the exception of Ecuador, more than half of students in the countries went to schools without internet or computers for teachers.
The inability to hold perpetrators to account for their crimes is pervasive in Latin America. While there are huge variations in homicides in the region, generally “the cost of killing is very low,” Muggah said.
Just 20 of every 100 murders in Latin America lead to a conviction. The global average is about 43 per 100, Muggah said. The clearance rate is much lower in some places.
“In Brazil for example, just 8 of every 100 homicides results in a conviction. In certain cities, it can go down to 5 [or] 4. By contrast, in Japan, like 98%, 98 of every 100 homicides, result in a conviction.”
A 2016 report from the University of the Americas in Mexico found just 4.46% of reported crimes in that country result in convictions. Considering how few crimes get reported – just seven of every 100, according to the report – “less than 1% of crimes in Mexico are punished.”
“You have high rates of impunity, and that’s really because of weak institutions, both in the policing sector when it comes to investigations, through to courts, which are often overwhelmed, because when you have a large volume of crime it’s very difficult, frankly, to process crime,” Muggah said.
Impunity can undermine public perceptions of the police and the criminal-justice system – “a challenge I think [that is] especially acute in the Northern Triangle and Mexico and Brazil, and obviously in Venezuela, but it’s a problem that you’ll see across the region,” Muggah added.
Condoning violence to solve disputes.
“People call this a culture of violence. I think that might be too simplistic,” Muggah said. “This is this idea that because of impunity, because of the lack of service delivery due to inequalities, people tend to resort to solving problems their own way, the sort of vigilante approach.”
The region has seen residents organised self-defence or self-help groups to combat insecurity in the absence of the state. These groups have often devolved into criminal enterprises that prey on the people they formed to protect.
“What we’ve seen in Brazil and Mexico, in particular, is a proliferation of militia,” Muggah said. “We saw this in Colombia in the ’90s and 2000s … the rise of these sort of para-state and, in some cases, informal militia groups, many of which evolved from self-help or neighbourhood-watch kind of associations and now are heavily armed militia for hire and have diversified their income streams into all manner of organised crime, from oil tapping to extortion to delivery of services.”
A number of these groups have emerged in southwest Mexico, where criminal groups are abundant and state services, particularly policing, are weak or absent.
Cases of vigilante violence and mob justice have increased in Mexico, as have femicides, which are the killings of women or girls for reasons related to their gender.
“There is [an] increasing amount of research to suggest where you have norms that condone violence against women and girls, it also is reflective of deeper norms of using violence to resolve disputes,” Muggah said.
Murder, informality, and weak states.
High levels of crime in Latin America are related in part to “the easy coexistence Latin Americans seem to have both with murder but also with informality and the inability of the state to, in a way, maintain territorial control and ensure strong institutional responses,” Muggah said.
“What we have instead is this mentality where those who can afford it will buy their private security and encircle themselves with higher walls, fences, and barbed wire, and those who can’t will fend for themselves in the periphery.”
Just as Mexico has seen a rise in vigilantism, the country’s private-security industry has grown considerably.
Mexico’s National Security Council estimated that in 2016 the formal industry alone, not including unregulated security firms,was worth $US1.5 billion, a 180% increase from 2012. Some 8,000 private security firms, or up to 80% of the total, work outside government regulation, according to a 2018 report by the Inter-American Dialogue.
With the spread of private security firms, “a lack of oversight and enforcement has led to instances where corruption, human rights abuses and excessive use of force have gone unchecked,” the report said.
Many people in Latin America live in or around cities – many of them in poorly built or makeshift dwellings that are in marginalised areas overlooked by authorities.
“Latin America urbanized before it industrialized, and within the space of two generations it went from being a profoundly rural society, with roughly 40% of the population in the 1950s living in cities, to being a predominantly urban society, where now you’ve got over 82% of the population living in cities,” Muggah said.
“No other part of the world has urbanized so quickly. Sao Paulo added 8 million people to its population in about 25 years. New York took about 150 years to become a million-person city.”
Such rapid urbanisation strains social structures and a city’s ability to provide services. “What you tend to get is a rapid informalization and peripheralization of the population as they are pushed to the margins, and your surplus labour, as it were, ends up living in slums, or what we call here favelas or shanty towns,” Muggah said.
Fevalas can have varying levels of development; many are hard-scrabble communities dominated by criminal groups. “Roughly 20% of Brazil’s population lives in these so-called favelas,” Muggah said.
In the Mexican state of Quintana Roo, home to Playa del Carmen, Cancun, and Tulum, surging population growth – 5.9% in the 1990s and 4.1% in the 2000s, Mexico’s highest rates during those periods – caused disordered urban expansion and created a large concentration of young men with dim economic prospects.
The phenomenon of unregulated urbanisation and rapid population growth affects almost every country in the region, Muggah said, “and this disorganization, where you have all those conditions I mentioned when it comes to concentrated disadvantage, [is] strongly and tightly correlated with crime.”
The proliferation of organised criminal groups.
“We have a wide number of organised crime groups, ranging from cartels, prison gangs, street gangs, transnational gangs, and the like, in Mexico and Central America, all the way through to paramilitary narco-militia mafia [and] gambling rackets,” among others, Muggah said.
The two largest organised-crime groups in Brazil are known as Red Command and First Capital Command. They dominate the drug trade, and their struggles often play out in Brazil’s overcrowded prisons – in which both groups were formed – making them some of the most violent jails on earth.
There are also splinter groups that ally or clash with larger groups, as well as more localised networks in specific parts of the country. Militias, often made up of police and members of security forces, also play a role in Brazil’s underworld as both criminals and vigilantes.
The largest of Mexico’s criminal groups, like the Sinaloa cartel, are perhaps the world’s most well-known cartels. But in recent years those groups have proliferated as pressure from authorities increased and larger groups splintered. These smaller groups, largely incapable of sophisticated operations like international drug smuggling, often turn to localised crime, like extortion, helping drive up violence across Mexico.
Colombia has long dealt with left-wing guerrillas, right-wing paramilitaries, and criminal syndicates – all involved in the country’s drug trade. Gangs like MS-13 originated in the US but now dominate Central American countries, Honduras and El Salvador in particular.
The drug trade.
Illegal drugs are connected, at one level or another, to much of the crime and violence in Latin America.
The region is home to “the world’s only producers of cocaine in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia,” Muggah said. “The power of this kind of drug, from the point of conception, production, through to transshipment and then ultimately retail, is really unprecedented. There are very few commodities on the planet that are so inelastic and generate such high dividends.”
Turning raw coca leaf into a kilo of cocaine paste in Colombia costs several hundred dollars.
In Rio, now one of the world’s biggest cocaine markets, the price for that kilo pushes to $US5,000 or $US6,000. In New York, the price rises to the $US25,000 to $US30,000 range. Farther afield, in places like Hong Kong or Sydney, you can multiply that price four or fives again, Muggah said.
“This is an incredibly lucrative business in a part of the world where your average police officer is making between $US500 and $US1,000 a month.”
Drug use is also rising the region, “because traffickers pay the transshipers in product, not in cash, there’s an incentive for them to offload it” locally, Muggah said.
A 2001 UN report estimated about 900,000 Brazilians, 0.7% of the population, used cocaine. In 2010, according to the UN,2.8 million Brazilians, or 1.4% of the population, had used the drug at least once that year; they consumed 92,000 kilograms, or 18% of the world’s yearly supply, second only to the 38% consumed by 1.5% of Americans.
Mexican traffickers, responding to drug use in the US, have turned to synthetic drugs and opioids, like crystal meth and fentanyl. Increased use of crystal meth in Mexico’s border cities has been tied to rising violence, as criminal groups compete for control of local markets.
Guns and alcohol.
The connection of alcohol, guns, and violence is another “invariant factor” found across time and space, Muggah said.
“Where you have, let’s call it, easily accessible alcohol or areas of distribution where it’s less regulated or even where it is regulated, and where you have firearms, especially illicit firearms, they tend to be pretty combustive mix.”
Mexico has one legal gun shop, while the US has some 120,000 federally licensed dealers, not including gun shows. The result is roughly 120,000 guns entering Mexico from the US every year.
A Brazilian Federal Police report in December 2017 found that the US was the country’s largest supplier of illegal foreign firearms. But Brazil is a major weapons maker in its own right, and the “vast majority of guns killing people in Brazil are Brazilian guns,” which have often been diverted to the black market, Muggah said.
On average across the region, some 75% of homicides in Latin America are gun-related – that proportion may seem obvious, Muggah said, “but actually global average is closer to 40%. In Europe it’s down … in the low 20s and teens.”
According to the FBI, 73% of criminal homicides in the US are gun-related. (The FBI separates criminal and justifiable killings.)
A 2018 report found that 15% of alcohol is sold illegally in Latin America; Mexico topped the list with 42.5% of its alcohol sold illicitly. In addition to risks posed to locals, numerous tourists have been sickened or killed by, or attacked after drinking, tainted alcohol.
Total annual sales in the region are $US4.8 billion, meaning potential annual revenue from illegal alcohol is $US720 million and that governments are deprived $US1.7 billion in tax revenue.
The most violent region in the world.
Criminal violence, homicide in particular, clusters in specific places, at specific times, and among specific groups, Muggah said.
Weak social ties and cohesion in a neighbourhood, characterised by social and economic marginalization, high rates of youth unemployment, and high turnover among residents, are thought to be one reason for this.
Four of about 76 municipalities in metropolitan Mexico City account for more than 25% of all violent crime there. In Bogota, 1.2% of street addresses account for more than 98% of homicides, and in Rio, roughly 5% of street addresses account for 95% of all homicides, Muggah said.
There’s also a temporal concentration: Fifty per cent of homicides take place during nine to 12 of the 168 hours during the week – night and early morning hours on the weekend and certain times during the week, Muggah said.
A trend across the region is demographic concentration, with a large portion of homicide victims tending to be young, often low-income minority male youth.
Lethal violence is “the number-one cause of death for young males in Brazil and Mexico,” Muggah said. “Often, in the case of Brazil, if they’re black, your risk increases tenfold in [comparison to] your white … counterpart.”
But clustering presents avenues for intervention.
“I think the good news is that that concentration in space and time and among certain people opens up really interesting opportunities for disruption,” Muggah added.
“In Latin America there have been some pretty extraordinary efforts, in particular in the last couple of years, to disrupt lethal violence using a combination of more community-facing police measures, what we call focused deterrence, together with social-prevention measures, focusing on at-risk youth, especially young children and teens, coupled with urban design interventions.”