Crime in South America

Crime and violence are affecting the lives of millions of people in Latin America. Some consider social inequality to be a major contributing factor to levels of violence in Latin America,[1] where the state fails to prevent crime and organized crime takes over State control in areas where the State is unable to assist the society such as in impoverished communities. In the years following the transitions from authoritarianism to democracy, crime and violence have become major problems in Latin America.

Several studies indicated the existence of an epidemic in the region; the Pan American Health Organization called violence in Latin America "the social pandemic of the 20th century."[2] Apart from the direct human cost, the rise in crime and violence has imposed significant social costs and has made much more difficult the processes of economic and social development, democratic consolidation and regional integration in the Americas.[3]

Consequences for the region

High rates of crime and violence in Latin America are undermining growth, threatening human welfare, and impeding social development, according to World Bank and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).[4] Latin America is caught in a vicious circle, where economic growth is thwarted by high crime rates, and insufficient economic opportunity contributes to high crime. Crime and violence thrives as the rule of law is weak, economic opportunity is scarce, and education is poor. Therefore, effectively addressing crime requires a holistic, multi-sectoral approach that addresses its root social, political, and economic causes.

Recent statistics indicate that crime is becoming the biggest problem in Latin America.[5] Amnesty International has declared Latin America as the most dangerous region in the world for journalists to work.[6]

In Colombia, one person was murdered every 10 minutes in 2005.[7] In Mexico, armed gangs of rival drug smugglers have been fighting it out with one another, thus creating new hazards in rural areas. Crime is extremely high in all of the major cities in Brazil. Wealthy citizens have had to provide for their own security. In large parts of Rio de Janeiro, armed criminal gangs are said to be in control. The city of São Paulo is also very dangerous. Crime statistics were high in El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela during 1996. The police have not been able to handle the work load and the military have been called in to assist in these countries.[8] There was a very distinct crime wave happening in Latin America.[9] The city that currently topped the list of the world's most violent cities is San Pedro Sula in Honduras, leading various media sources to label it the "murder capital of the world."[10][11][12][13]

Crime is slowing economic growth and undermining democratic consolidation in Latin America.[14][15] Today, Latin America has the dubious distinction of being most violent region in the world, with combined crime rates more than triple the world average and are comparable to rates in nations experiencing war. This is taking a tremendous toll on development in the region by both affecting economic growth and public faith in democracy.

The Inter-American Development Bank estimates that Latin America's per capita Gross Domestic Product would be twenty-five percent higher if the region's crime rates were equal to the world average. Similarly, the World Bank has identified a strong correlation between crime and income inequality.[16] Business associations in the region rank crime as the number one issue negatively affecting trade and investment. Crime-related violence also represents the most important threat to public health, striking more victims than HIV/AIDS or other infectious diseases.[17]

A Favela (shanty town) in Rio de Janeiro.

Public faith in democracy itself is under threat as governments are perceived as unable to deliver basic services such as public security. A United Nations report revealed that only 43 percent of Latin Americans are fully supportive of democracy.[18] Crime has rapidly risen to the top of the list of citizen concerns in Latin America. As the Economist magazine described it, "in several Latin American countries, 2004 will be remembered as the year in which the people rose up in revolt against crime."[19][20]

Massive street marches such as those that took place in Argentina, Mexico, and Brazil, and other expressions of protest against violence, have made it increasingly difficult for politicians to avoid dealing with the issue and, in many countries, have made tackling crime a central theme in political party platforms across the region. Several leaders in the region, including El Salvador's Tony Saca, Ricardo Maduro in Honduras, Guatemala's Óscar Berger, and Álvaro Uribe in Colombia, have all campaigned on a strong anti-crime message. The Presidents of Honduras and El Salvador have called gangs (maras) as big a threat to national security in their countries as terrorism is to the United States.[19][21]

"World Bank researchers have demonstrated the existence of a 'criminal inertia,' in which high rates of criminality endure long after the latent socioeconomic causes have disappeared or been addressed through policy interventions."[22][23]

Another reason critics believe fuels crime in Latin America is due to the poor public primary education system they say it "has given rise to youths without jobs or expectations of employment-thereby fueling the mounting problem of gang violence in Central America, Mexico, Jamaica, Trinidad, Colombia and Brazil." [24]

Contributing factors

Rocinha shanty town contrasting with luxurious condos of São Conrado.

Crime levels are rising rather than falling despite enormous investments in public and private security and a marked increase in the prison population. This highly complex issue needs to be analyzed from various perspectives: the economy, social development, culture, education and values, among others. The phenomenon should also be broken down into its component elements.

Different criminal circuits operate in the region, one of the most important of which is drug-related criminal activity. Everything indicates that it has increased considerably. While this is a widely studied global problem with numerous implications, a large part of common crime has different characteristics, with a high proportion of the crimes committed by young people.

A series of factors have contributed to the increase in violent crime in Latin America since the transitions from authoritarianism to democracy. Some intrinsic factors and characteristics of each country aggravated the problem in some countries. However, some factors might have increased the risk of crime and violence in many or most countries in the region in the period between the 1980s and 1990s:[3]

  • High levels of social inequality
  • Civil wars and armed conflicts
  • Low rates of economic growth
  • High unemployment rates
  • Rapid growth of large cities and metropolitan areas
  • Absence/weakness of basic urban infrastructure, basic social services and community organizations in the poorest neighborhoods, in the periphery of large cities and metropolitan areas
  • Growing availability of arms and drugs
  • Growing presence and strengthening of organized crime
  • Culture of violence, reinforced by organized crime as well as the media, the police and the private security services
  • Low level of effectiveness of the police and other institutions in the criminal justice system
  • Poor public education system.

Violence in rural areas

Although urban violence is what has most shocked countries in the region, it is also rural violence that is troubling; whether this concern for the city is due to the city's hegemony over the country, its numerical dimension (population), the seriousness of its significance (economic impact), or it's opinion-forming role (represented here by the media), current violence in rural Brazil for example is nevertheless frightening. Rural violence articulates old and new structural conflicts marking social relations in the national land tenure scenario. In recent decades there have been new and increased forms of violence used in land conflicts: This is clear from their systematic (organized by landowners or other vested interests), generalized nature (tactics) and their continuous, excessive use of force; generating a steady and uncontrollable increase in rural crime ( result of disenfranchisement?).[25]

Nations with high crime rates


Colombia, in common with many Latin American nations, evolved as a highly segregated society, split between the traditionally rich families of Spanish descent and the vast majority of poor Colombians, many of whom are of mixed race. This group provided a natural constituency for left-wing insurgents - who nowadays fall into two groups, the bigger FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia), and the ELN (National Liberation Army). At the other end of the political spectrum are right-wing paramilitaries, with roots in vigilante groups set up decades ago by landowners for protection against rebels. The main group was the AUC - the United Self-Defence Forces of Colombia.

Elements of all the armed groups have been involved in drug-trafficking. In a country where the presence of the state has always been weak, the result has been a grinding war on multiple fronts, with the civilian population caught in the crossfire and often deliberately targeted for "collaborating". Human rights advocates blame paramilitaries for massacres, "disappearances", and cases of torture and forced displacement. Rebel groups are behind assassinations, kidnapping and extortion.[26]

In 2006 Colombia had the tenth highest rate of kidnappings per capita in Latin America.[27] Most kidnappings are for ransom and foreigners are potential targets, though the number of foreigners kidnapped in Colombia in recent years remains extremely low. Assaults and robberies have occurred after thieves have exposed travellers to incapacitating chemicals, either by aerosol spray or by paper handouts. Chemically treated paper can cause unconsciousness, especially if the chemicals contact your face (via your hand). There is a risk of violence, kidnapping and being caught in road blocks set up by illegal armed groups when travelling by road outside major capitals, including to rural tourist destinations such as Ciudad Perdida (The Lost City).


Brazil is one of the countries that has the largest inequality in terms of the gap between the very wealthy and the extremely destitute. A huge portion of the population lives in poverty. According to the World Bank, "one-fifth of Brazil's 173 million people account for only a 2.2 percent share of the national income. Brazil is second only to South Africa in a world ranking of income inequality.[28]

The incidence of violent crime, including muggings, armed robbery and sexual assault is high, particularly in Rio de Janeiro, Recife and other large cities. Carjacking is also common, particularly in major cities. Criminals often use guns. Gang-related violence is common throughout the State of São Paulo. Crime levels in slum areas are very high. Victims have been seriously injured or killed when resisting perpetrators. During peak tourist seasons, large, organised criminal gangs have reportedly robbed and assaulted beach goers.

'Express kidnappings', where individuals are abducted and forced to withdraw funds from automated teller machines to secure their release, are common in major cities including Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Brasília, Salvador and Recife. People have been robbed and assaulted when using unregistered taxis. Petty crime such as pickpocketing and bag snatching are common. Thieves operate in outdoor markets, in hotels and on public transport. Piracy occurs in the coastal areas of Brazil.

Puerto Rico

Puerto Rico has become a major transshipment point for illegal drugs that are smuggled from source countries like Colombia and Peru into the U.S. mainland. Most of it is transported to and through the island from drug trafficking organizations in the Dominican Republic, Colombia, Florida, and criminal organizations in Puerto Rico.[29] One of the most common ways drugs are smuggled into the island is through commercial and private maritime vessels, and container terminals such as the Port of San Juan. It is the busiest port in the Caribbean and the second busiest in Latin America.

Because drugs are trafficked directly into the island from other source countries, they are less expensive than in any other place in the United States. Thus, it is cheap and easy for street gangs to buy and deal to the public mostly in, and from, housing projects, leading to turf wars and the second highest homicide rate in the United States. Police undermining in the drug trade and corruption are also common. Between 1993 and 2000, 1,000 police officers in Puerto Rico lost their jobs from the department due to criminal charges and between 2003 and 2007, 75 officers were convicted under federal court for police corruption.[30][30] 2011 was marked as the most violent year for Puerto Rico with approximately 1,120 murders recorded, 30.5 homicides per 100,000 residents.


Venezuela is among the most violent places of Latin America. Class tension has long been a part of life in the South American country, where armed robberies, carjackings and kidnappings are frequent. In 2009, the homicide rate was approximately 57 per 100,000, one of the world’s highest, having tripled in the previous decade.[31] The capital Caracas has the second greatest homicide rate of any large city in the world, with 92 homicides per 100,000 residents.[32]

Crime rates are higher in 'barrios' or 'ranchos' (slum areas) after dark. Petty crime such as pick-pocketing is prevalent, particularly on public transport in Caracas. The government in 2009 created a security force, the Bolivarian National Police, which has lowered crime rates in the areas in which it is so far deployed, and a new Experimental Security University.[33]

El Salvador

San Salvador City at night

The phenomenon of violence in El Salvador is a serious one with more than 58 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants experienced in recent years. In spite of this, however, sufficient efforts have not been made to understand or deal with this phenomenon in this small Central American country.[34] As of March 2012, El Salvador has seen a 40% drop in crime due to what the Salvadoran government called a gang truce. In early 2012, there were on average of 16 killings per day but in late March that number dropped to fewer than 5 per day and on April 14, 2012 for the first time in over 3 years there were no killings in the country.[35] Overall, there were 411 killings in the month of January 2012 but in March the number was 188, more than a 40% reduction in crime.[36] All of this happening while crime in neighboring Honduras has risen to an all time high.[37]

Violent crime including armed robbery, banditry, assault, kidnapping, sexual assault, and carjacking is common, including in the capital, San Salvador. Downtown San Salvador is dangerous, particularly at night. Public safety is no laughing matter, San Salvador hosts one of the most notorious unified crime family transnational gangs that spread across the Central American heart region, like the Mara Salvatrucha and the 18th Street gang that arrived during and since the Salvadoran Civil War.

The security situation has taken a downturn in San Salvador; in 2002, there were over 9000 intentional homicides in the city of San Salvador by international global Central American Ganges or Maras. 2005 and 2006 saw a worsening security situation in San Salvador; and corruption, with the trend continuing in 2008. Crimes have increased to 13 daily, with this sharp increase having occurred in the last six years, making the words San Salvador City synonymous with crime. The portrayal of San Salvador was a dark and foreboding metropolis rife and reign with crime, grime, corruption, and a deep-seated sense of urban decay, ultimately a vice city.

After the civil war and left in complete ruins and destruction, people described and called the city "San Salvador La Ciudad Que Se Desmorona", "San Salvador The City That Crumbles". San Salvador is a rampant and recurring corruption within the city's civil authorities and infrastructure. Certain locations disputed by rival gangs especially in poor slums on the outskirts areas of San Salvador City are labeled as (No man's land).

High level corruption in El Salvador is a serious problem. President Mauricio Funes pledged to investigate and prosecute corrupt senior officials when he took office in June, 2009, but after a political truce with his predecessor, Antonio Saca, who was expelled from the ARENA party amid large-scale corruption allegations, Funes showed an unwillingness to tackle the problem. ARENA alleged that $219 million in government funds under Saca's personal control had disappeared.[38] Saca's own former political allies in the ARENA party and private sector told the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador of widespread abuse of power for personal financial gain. Such corruption, the U.S. Embassy reported in a cable leaked by WikiLeaks, "went beyond the pale" even by Salvadoran standards.[39]


Crime is particularly high in Honduras' second city and industrial heartland, San Pedro Sula

Crime is a major problem in Honduras, which has the highest murder rate of any nation. There are reports that after the 2009 Honduran coup d'état, there was a large increase in crime and violence.[40] According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras has the highest rate of intentional homicide in the world, with 6,239 intentional homicides, or 82.1 per 100,000 of population in 2010. This is significantly higher than the rate in El Salvador, which at 66.0 per 100,000 in 2010, has the second highest rate of intentional homicide in the world.[41]

According to the International Crisis Group, the most violent regions outside of the major urban areas in Honduras exist on the border with Guatemala, and are highly correlated with the many active drug trafficking routes plying the region.[42]


Crime is among the most urgent concerns facing Mexico, as Mexican drug trafficking rings play a major role in the flow of cocaine, heroin, and marijuana transiting between Latin America and the United States. Drug trafficking has contributed to corruption, which has had a deleterious effect on Mexico's Federal Representative Republic. Drug trafficking and organized crime have also been a major source of violent crime in Mexico.

Mexico has experienced increasingly high crime rates, especially in major urban centers. The country's great economic polarization has stimulated criminal activity in the lower socioeconomic strata, which include the majority of the country's population. Crime continues at high levels, and is repeatedly marked by violence, especially in the cities of Tijuana and Ciudad Juárez, and the states of Baja California, Durango, Sinaloa, Guerrero, Chihuahua, Michoacán, Tamaulipas, and Nuevo León.[43] Other metropolitan areas have lower, yet still serious, levels of crime. Low apprehension and conviction rates contribute to the high crime rate.

Before the drug war in Mexico, there were roughly 300 murders in the border city of Ciudad Juarez in 2007. In 2010, state officials reported 3,622 homicides in the city. With a rate of 272 murders per 100,000 residents, Ciudad Juarez alone had the highest murder rate in the world.

See also

Notes and references

  1. ^ "World Bank research convincingly demonstrates a strong link between crime and income inequality, which has worsened in Latin America in the past decade and is unlikely to improve dramatically in the years ahead." - Prillaman (2003:1)
  2. ^ Cesar Chelala, Violence in the Americas: The Social Pandemic of the 20th Century (Washington, D.C.: Pan American Health Organization, 1997).
  3. ^ a b LAII: Crime, Violence and Democracy in Latin America
  4. ^ Latin America and Caribbean - Crime, Violence, and Development: Trends, Costs, and Policy Options in the Caribbean
  5. ^ Violence and Crime in Latin America, retrieved 28 August 2013 
  6. ^ "Amnesty International: Latin America 'dangerous' for journalists", CNN, 13 May 2011, retrieved 30 August 2013 
  7. ^
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ Security Problems in Latin America
  10. ^ Rafael Romo and Nick Thompson, Inside San Pedro Sula, the 'murder capital' of the world, CNN, March 28, 2013, accessed April 30, 2013.
  11. ^ Carol Kuruvilla, San Pedro Sula in northwest Honduras is the murder capital of the world: report, New York Daily News, March 30, 2013, accessed April 30, 2013.
  12. ^ Jorge Cabrera, Life and death in the murder capital, Reuters, April 5, 2013, accessed April 30, 2013.
  13. ^ Honduran City is World Murder Capital; Juarez Drops for Second Year in a Row, Fox News Latino, February 8, 2013, accessed April 30, 2013.
  14. ^ Crime Hinders Development, Democracy in Latin America, U.S. Says, retrieved 29 August 2013 
  15. ^ Gangs an Crime in Latin America, retrieved 29 August 2013 
  16. ^ http:/ FAJNZYLBER et al, "Inequality and law",Journal of Law and Economics, vol. XLV (April 2002)
  17. ^ Crime Hinders Development, Democracy in Latin America, U.S. Says - US Department of State
  18. ^ The Bolivarian Government of Hugo Chávez: Democratic Alternative for Latin America?, retrieved 29 August 2013 
  19. ^ a b Gangs and Crime in Latin America, retrieved 29 August 2013 
  20. ^ Transforming Armed Forces to National Guard Units in Latin America, retrieved 29 August 2013 
  21. ^ Thompson, Ginger (26 September 2004), "Shuttling Between Nations, Latino Gangs Confound the Law", The New York Times, retrieved 29 August 2013 
  22. ^ WC Prillaman (2003), "Crime, democracy, and development in Latin America," Policy Papers on the Americas
  23. ^ see Daniel Lederman, Norman Loayza, and Ana María Menendez, “Violent Crime: Does Social Capital Matter?” Economic Development and Cultural Change 3 (April 2002): 509–539; Richard Rosenfeld, Steven F. Messner, and Eric P. Baumer, Social Capital and Homicide (Saint Louis:University of Missouri Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, 1999).
  24. ^ __."Crime Hinders Development, Democracy in Latin America, U.S. Says". U.S. Department of State's Bureau of International Information Programs. April 2005. <> (accessed May 19, 2008).
  25. ^
  26. ^ "Q&A: Colombia's civil conflict". BBC News. December 23, 2009. Retrieved April 30, 2010. 
  27. ^ Kidnapping Statistics in Latin America
  28. ^ Brazil - Country Brief
  29. ^ National Drug Intelligence Center. "Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands Drug Threat Assessment." U.S. Department of Justice. (2003). print.
  30. ^ a b "Police corruption undermines Puerto Rican drug war." Miami Herald [Miami, FL] 18 July 2007. General OneFile. Web. 7 June 2010.
  31. ^ "Crime in Venezuela: Shooting the messenger". The Economist. 2010-08-18. Retrieved 2010-08-18. 
  32. ^ El Pais retrieved 03.Nov.2009: "96 homicidios por cada 100.000 habitantes"
  33. ^ Simon Romero. "Venezuela more deadly than Iraq". New York Times. August 24, 2010
  34. ^ Crime and Violence: Regional Case Studies: El Salvador
  35. ^
  36. ^ Archibold, Randal C. (24 March 2012). "Homicides in El Salvador Drop, and Questions Arise". The New York Times. 
  37. ^
  38. ^ United States Embassy San Salvador, "ARENA Expels Former President Saca," classified diplomatic cable CONFIDENTIAL, 15 December 2009, WikiLeaks ID #240031.
  39. ^ United States Embassy San Salvador, "Reorganizing ARENA: The Party's Future After Avila's Defeat," classified diplomatic cable SECRET/NOFORN, 6 October 2010, WikiLeaks ID #228629.
  40. ^ CounterPunch, 16 August 2010, US Embraces Honduran Thugocracy
  41. ^ This increased further to 7,104 homicides in 2011. United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (2011), 2011 Global Study on Homicide - Trends, Context, Data, Vienna, Austria: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, p. 93, Table 8.1, retrieved 30 March 2012 
  42. ^ International Crisis Group. "Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border". 4 June 2014. Retrieved 28 July 2014.
  43. ^ "El narco se expande en México". New America Media. Retrieved 7 October 2011. 

External links

  • Black Markets in the Americas
  • InsightCrime - Research, analysis and investigation on organized crime in Latin America
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