Op-ed

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Latin America's Murder Epidemic

by Robert Muggah and Ilona Szabo de Carvalho

Foreign Affairs
March 22, 2017

In Caracas, the killing is routine. Last year the city was described as one of the world's murder capitals, with a homicide rate closing in on 120 per 100,000 people. If the numbers are to be believed, that’s roughly 20 times the global average. The truth, however, is that there is no reliable count of how many Venezuelans are murdered each year; the public relies on estimates since Caracas stopped publishing figures a decade back. Whatever the real number, virtually everyone knows someone who’s been shot dead. In a survey conducted this year, two-thirds of Venezuelans reported a homicide in their neighborhood in the past 12 months. They can hardly be faulted for fearing that they could be next.

Venezuelans are not the only Latin Americans terrorized by lethal violence. Despite remarkable declines in homicidal violence over the past decade, Colombians still face one of the highest absolute numbers of murders on the planet. Meanwhile, Venezuela’s southern neighbor, Brazil, registers the world’s highest absolute number of homicides: more than 56,000 a year. Over 80 percent of Brazilians believe that they are at risk of being murdered. Meanwhile, in Central America, more than one third of all Salvadorans and Hondurans say that a murder recently occurred near where they live.

Across Latin America, death stalks the young. Every 15 minutes, a young Latin American—usually an adolescent male—is murdered. The corpses stack up quickly. There are roughly 400 killings a day, or 140,000 a year. In some countries, homicide is the number one cause of death for adolescent males, outpacing accidental injuries, cancer, suicide, and disease. More than 75 percent of the killings are committed with firearms, far above the global average. Paradoxically, lethal violence has persisted in spite of impressive reductions in poverty and widespread improvements in education, health, and living standards.

Further, Latin America’s homicide rate is exceedingly high at a time when murder is declining virtually everywhere else. The region is home to just eight percent of the global population, but 33 percent of its murders. If conditions remain unchanged, the regional homicide rate is expected to rise from 21.5 per 100,000 today to around 35 per 100,000 by 2030. Although most Latin Americans are concerned with rising crime, seven countries stand out: Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, and Venezuela. Together, they generate one in four murders around the world each year.

Even the world’s hardest-hit war zones can hardly compete. Between 2001 and 2014, roughly 26,000 civilians died as a result of the fighting in Afghanistan. Over that same period, 67,000 Hondurans were murdered. Honduras has one-third the population of Afghanistan. Or take the case of Brazil, which in 2015 reported roughly as many homicides as the combined deaths from conflict in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Syria that same year. No wonder that premier humanitarian aid agencies such as the International Committee of the Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders have launched operations from Rio de Janeiro to Tegucigalpa.

Part of the reason for the region’s soaring homicide rate is that murders are rarely solved or lead to convictions. In North America and Western Europe, roughly 80 percent of all intentional homicides are resolved. In Japan, the proportion is closer to 98 percent. Yet in many Latin American countries, the percentage is closer to 20 percent. In Brazil, Colombia, Honduras, and Venezuela, at least 90 percent of capital crimes go unpunished. Since most victims are poor black men from low-income neighborhoods, their deaths are considered a low priority. Investigations are sloppy, if they are conducted at all. As a result, people’s faith in the police and criminal justice systems has collapsed.

If there is any silver lining to this grim state of affairs it is that increasing levels of homicidal violence are not inevitable. There are examples across the region of countries and cities turning things around. A recent study found over 90 separate national and municipal homicide prevention programs scattered across Latin America and the Caribbean begun since the late 1990s. Sprawling metropolises such as Bogota, Ciudad Juarez, Medellin and Sao Paulo, have seen homicide rates decrease by 70 percent or more over the past decade. Although every intervention was distinct and not easily replicable, they share some common characteristics.

Civic leaders—especially strong mayors—led the charge. Charismatic figures such as Antanas Mockus in Bogota, Rodrigo Guerrero in Cali, and Sergio Fajardo in Medellin, for example, combined visionary planning and careful data collection with hot-spot policing and welfare programs focused on neighborhoods with high levels of social disorganization and at-risk young people. They made homicide reduction a priority. More fundamentally, they understood that the pathway to reducing homicide required controlling risk factors, amplifying protective factors, promoting behavioral change, strengthening the criminal justice system, and mediating through outside agencies where necessary.  

Steady declines in murder rates are not just feasible, as such programs show—they are essential. The costs of criminal violence to Latin American economies are substantial, amounting to an average of 3.5 percent of the region’s GDP, or $261 billion a year. The consequences of runaway spending on public and privatized security, and the lost productivity associated with preventable deaths, are dramatic. They have dragged down the economies of countries that had made real gains since the dark autocratic years of the 1960s to 1980s.

The costs of criminal violence to Latin American economies are substantial, amounting to an average of 3.5 percent of the region’s GDP, or $261 billion a year.

If all Latin American governments and societies committed to a 50 percent reduction in homicide over the next decade, they could prevent roughly 413,000 murders. If just Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela achieved this target, that would mean 365,000 fewer killings. Although that might sound overly ambitious, it actually amounts to year-by-year declines of just 7.5 percent. Homicide reduction efforts from around the world show that this target is well within the realm of possibility. Since three-quarters of Latin Americans are urbanites, a smart place to start murder reduction efforts is in the region’s largest cities.

So how can Latin America halve its homicide rate? At a minimum, governments, business, and civil society groups must adopt data-driven and evidence-based strategies, focusing on areas where violent crime is prevalent. After all, violent crime is sticky and tends to cluster quite reliably in specific neighborhoods, among poorer, less educated, and younger people; and at certain times of the day. An assessment of five Latin American countries found that 50 percent of all crime occurred on just three to eight percent of street segments. When properly designed, implemented, and resourced, hot-spot policing programs can be particularly effective. Although far more controversial, ceasefires and truces with specific gangs might also be considered as part of a wider violence-prevention strategy.

Prevention and reduction efforts must also be guided by ambitious targets that establish murder reduction as an explicit goal, not as a hopeful byproduct. Many national and local governments still insist on measuring the success of crime prevention according to the number of firearms seized, kilos of interdicted narcotics, and arrests of suspected criminals. Since law enforcement officers are often rewarded according to these metrics, they are more inclined to undervalue other performance indicators associated with reductions in lethal violence and victimization.

If reductions in murder rates are to be sustained, governments will also need to repair tattered police-community relations in the most violent settings. Neighborhoods that register the highest homicide rates are also typically the least trusting of police. Problem-oriented policing is a strategy that requires officers to constantly identify and analyze patterns of crime and disorder in order to develop more effective responses. Especially when applied in hot spots, this kind of policing has an especially positive track record in reducing violent crime, including gang-related murder and intimate partner killings. Improvements in investigation and prosecution of homicides is also central to restoring law and order.

Latin American governments must also plan for the long term, since today’s young boys are potentially tomorrow’s victims and perpetrators. Educational attainment and employment are key factors shaping whether males commit a crime, are a victim, or take a different path altogether. Surveys from across Latin America show that a one percent increase in youth unemployment results in a 0.34 percent increase in the homicide rate. In Medellin, a one percent increase in income yielded a 0.4 percent reduction in the homicide rate. Similar findings are reported across the region.

Ultimately what is needed is a culture of prevention. This means valuing early childhood development, investing in parenting skills, and supporting life skills training. The most successful homicide reduction programs focused not only on recovering territorial spaces, but also on expanding child care options for single moms and educational and recreational programs for children and teens. Kids that are systematically neglected and exposed to negative peer influences are more likely to end up in prison. All of these measures are cost-effective and yield results far beyond violence prevention. We know the cure—it’s time for Latin America to take the medicine.

Image: Reuters

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