Crime and violence in Latin America

Crime and violence in Latin America

Crime and violence are affecting the lives of millions of people in Latin America. Social inequality is considered one of the major causes 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.[citation needed] In Colombia, one person was murdered every 10 minutes of 2005.[5] 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.[citation needed] There was a very distinct crime wave happening in Latin America.[6]

Crime is slowing economic growth and undermining democratic consolidation in Latin America.[citation needed] Today, Latin America has the dubious distinction of being one of the most violent regions in the world, with crime rates more than double the world average and are comparable to rates in war-torn regions of Africa and Middle East.[citation needed] This is taking a tremendous toll on development in the region by both affecting economic growth and public faith in democracy. Despite significant strides toward democracy over the last two decades, economic growth is largely stagnant and democratic consolidation scarce. Since the mid-1990s, growth rates in the region have averaged around two to three percent, which is inadequate for reducing current levels of poverty.[citation needed]

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.[dated info] Similarly, the World Bank has identified a strong correlation between crime and income inequality.[7] 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.[8]

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.[original research?] A United Nations report last year revealed that only 43 percent of Latin Americans are fully supportive of democracy.[citation needed] 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."[citation needed] 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

"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."[9][10]

Possible causes

Social Inequality: 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.[citation needed] 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.[citation needed]

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 1980s and 1990s:[3]

  • Civil wars and armed conflicts
  • High levels of social inequality
  • 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. The best way of improving social life is to improve public education in Latin America.[11] Poor public primary education "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." [12]

Violence in rural areas

Although urban violence is what has most shocked countries in the region, whether this is due to the city's hegemony over the country, its numerical dimension, the seriousness of its significance, or its opinion-forming role (represented here by the media), current violence in rural Brazil for example is nevertheless frightening.[original research?] Rural violence articulates old and new structural conflicts marking social relations in the national land tenure scenario. In recent decades there have new forms of violence in land conflicts. This is clear from their systematic, generalized nature and their continuous, excessive use, generating a steady and uncontrollable increase in rural crime. Can someone rewrite this paragraph and put it in easier to understand wording? [13]

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.[14] In 2006 Colombia had the tenth highest rate of kidnappings per capita in Latin America.[15] 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 with the has inequality in terms of the gap that exists 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.[16] 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.{{Citation needed|date=July 2010} 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.[citation needed] '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.[citation needed] People have been robbed and assaulted when using unregistered taxis. Petty crime such as pickpocketing and bag snatching is common. Thieves operate in outdoor markets, in hotels and on public transport. Piracy occurs in the coastal areas of Brazil.[citation needed] D


Venezuela is among the most violent places in 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 trebled in the previous decade.[17] The capital Caracas has the second greatest homicide rate of any large city in the world, with 92 homicides per 100,000 residents.[18] 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 recently[when?] 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.[19]

El Salvador

San Salvador City as darkness descends on the greater metropolitan area.

The phenomenon of violence in El Salvador is a serious one. Witness to this are the more than 100 deaths per year from homicide for every 100,000 inhabitants experienced by this country 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.[20] 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).

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. ^
  6. ^ Security Problems in Latin America
  7. ^ FAJNZYLBER et al, "Inequality and law",Journal of Law and Economics, vol. XLV (April 2002)
  8. ^ Crime Hinders Development, Democracy in Latin America, U.S. Says - US Department of State
  9. ^ WC Prillaman (2003), "Crime, democracy, and development in Latin America," Policy Papers on the Americas
  10. ^ 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).
  11. ^ Henales, Lidia and Beatrice Edwards. "Neo-liberalism and educational reform in Latin America". April 2002. <> (accessed May 19, 2008).
  12. ^ __."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).
  13. ^
  14. ^ "Q&A: Colombia's civil conflict". BBC News. December 23, 2009. Retrieved April 30, 2010. 
  15. ^ Kidnapping Statistics in Latin America
  16. ^ Brazil - Country Brief
  17. ^ "Crime in Venezuela: Shooting the messenger". The Economist. 2010-08-18. Retrieved 2010-08-18. 
  18. ^ El Pais retrieved 03.Nov.2009: "96 homicidios por cada 100.000 habitantes"
  19. ^ Simon Romero. "Venezuela more deadly than Iraq". New York Times. August 24, 2010
  20. ^ Crime and Violence: Regional Case Studies: El Salvador

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