According to a recent report by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), Latin America is the most violent region in the world, with an average 25 murders per 100,000 population, as compared to a global average of 6.2 per 100,000 population in 2012.
Mounting crime related to drug-trafficking and maras (youth gangs), together with widespread availability of weapons and high levels of impunity, are some of the root causes of violence.
In the absence of coherent strategies to address these issues (including a more effective global approach to the war on drugs, some form of weapons control in the US, and reforms to the police and judicial systems in the region), insecurity will continue to hinder businesses and economic growth and to trouble citizens in the region in the forecast period and beyond.
The Global Study on Homicide 2013, the fourth in an annual series, provides an overview of the number of intentional homicides in the world, their distribution by country and region, a profile of the victims, together with an analysis of the police and criminal systems across the world, with their conviction rates.
A diverse homicide geography
According to the study, 437,000 homicides were registered globally in 2012 (down from 468,000 in 2010). This amounted to a global average of 6.2 victims per 100,000 population.
However, wide disparities could be observed across the world, with Southern Africa and Central America recording more than four times that number (30 and 26 victims per 100,000 population, respectively), the highest in the world. On the opposite side of the spectrum, East Asia, Southern Europe and Western Europe registered rates around five times lower than the global average.
The above means that one-half of the homicides in 2012 occurred in regions accounting for just 11% of the world population (or 750m), with the remainder spread across 3bn people in Europe (accounting for 5% of total homicides), Asia (28%) and Oceania (0.3%).
Honduras remained the most violent country in the world, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000 population, followed by Venezuela (53.7), Belize (44.7) and El Salvador (41.2). Mexico, Brazil and Colombia registered murder rates of 21.5, 25.2 and 30.8 per 100,000 population, respectively.
Most countries in the region recorded a murder rate of over 20 per 100,000 population, a threshold above which the UNODC considers the situation problematic, with Chile (3.1), Cuba (4.2), Argentina (5.5), Barbados (7.4), Uruguay (7.9) and Costa Rica (8.5) being among the most notable exceptions to this trend. Venezuela’s numbers appear particularly problematic, as they have degenerated markedly from 47.8 in 2011 amid growing political violence and spiralling crime.
Although murder rates in Brazil and Mexico appear contained (and, in the case of Mexico, have actually declined slightly from 2011), the two countries registered the highest number of homicides (at over 50,000 and 26,000, respectively) in the world, together with India (43,400 or 3.5 per 100,000 population).
Central America and the Caribbean remain violence hotspots
Central America and the Caribbean countries featured once again among the most violent in the world, with the partial exception of Nicaragua (11.3) and a few Caribbean countries.
The Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) estimates that the equivalent of 2% of the sub-region’s GDP is spent each year on fighting and preventing crime. Drug-trafficking appears in most cases to have driven the upsurge in violence, with the flow of drugs through Central America having risen dramatically since 2006, when a stepped-up military offensive against drug cartels in Mexico displaced trafficking to neighbouring countries, notably Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Two Mexican drug-trafficking organisations-the Sinaloa Cartel and Los Zetas-have moved many of their operations to smuggle illegal narcotics into the US to Central America, using local maras, which were already responsible for much of the violent crime in these countries: gang-related violence represented 30% of total homicides in North America and Latin America in 2012, compared with 1% in Asia, Europe and Oceania.
After trying (unsuccessfully) to address violence by adopting hard-line security policies based on military or joint military and police deployments, Central American governments have increasingly also sought to boost crime-prevention measures, as well as considering other approaches, including drug decriminalisation, as proposed by Guatemala. Belize, El Salvador and Honduras have brokered truces between criminal gangs. This seems to have resulted in a decline in homicide rates.
In El Salvador, for example, the murder rate fell from 69.9 to 41.2. However, pervasive corruption within the public sector, including in law enforcement and the judicial system, and weak institutions, remain obstacles to more notable improvements in the short term.
Ineffective criminal-justice systems and poor enforcement practices result in lax upholding of the rule of law and in high levels of impunity in the region as a whole, perpetuating violent behaviour.
While police forces tend to respond quickly to homicides in regions like Asia or Europe, with the identification and arrest of one or more suspects in 80% and 85% of cases, respectively, this happens in only 50% of cases in Latin America and North America-lower than the global average of over 60%.
In terms of actual punishment for murders, whereas 81% and 48% of perpetrators, respectively, are convicted in Europe and Asia, only 24% are in Latin America, well below the global average of 48%. High impunity in Latin America may be partly explained by the record number of homicides taking place there, which has put great strains on criminal-justice resources.
Homicides connected to organised crime or gangs, which represent the majority in Latin America (with two-thirds committed with guns) often have lower conviction rates as compared to other typologies, such as family or partner-related homicides.
Although the arrest of suspects has been on a rising or consistent trend since 2007, the rate of conviction has been declining since then in the region, pointing to the inability of the authorities to ensure law enforcement amid weak institutions and widespread corruption.
These institutional flaws, coupled with the lack of an effective global strategy to fight drug-trafficking and widespread availability of weapons on both sides of the border with the US, will continue to prevent substantial progress in curbing violence any time soon.
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