How dangerous is Latin America? Very.

BOGOTÁ — Business Insider recently published a list of the 50 most dangerous cities in the world and not only did most major Colombian cities  — except Bogotá — make the list, but Cali, Colombia’s third city, clocked in at the 7th most dangerous city in the world with 79.27 homicides per 100,000 residents.

Barranquilla, Pereira, Santa Marta, Medellín and Cucuta all made this grim roster. But that’s not the real story of this survey. Out of 50 cities on the list, 41 are in Latin America, making the region by far the most homicidal in the world. With just 9 percent of the global population, it accounts for 28 percent of the globe’s killings, according to a recent United Nations report [17.8M PDF]. San Pedro Sula in Honduras tops the global list with more than 169 homicides per 100,000 residents.

As the UN report’s executive summary states:

Between 2000 and 2010, the murder rate in the region grew by 11 percent, whereas it fell or stabilized in most other regions in the world. In the last decade, more than one million people have died in Latin America and the Caribbean as a result of criminal violence. … Violence and crime directly harm the rights that are at the core of human development: life itself and the physical and material integrity of people.

In most other parts of the world, homicide rates have fallen by as much as 50 percent. But with the exception of the South African cities of Durban, Nelson Mandela Bay and Cape Town, every city on the list is located in the Western Hemisphere. Brazil is the most dangerous country by far with 15 cities on the list. Five U.S. cities also made the list: Oakland (33.10 homicides per 100,000 residents), Baltimore (35.03), St. Louis (35.39), Detroit (54.63) and New Orleans (56.13).

How did this come about? There are many reasons. The region still lags in building police and judicial capability. Corruption is rampant, giving rise to “alarming levels of impunity.” Citizen mistrust towards institutions is failing, leading some to take justice into their own hands. This, in turn, has led to an increase in private security, which “deepens inequality in access to security and leaves unsolved the challenges the State faces as the main guarantor of citizen security.” At the same time, family and social bonds are breaking down as Latin American economies develop and young people leave home for economic advancement in increasingly crowded cities. 

It’s gotten so bad, the report states, that half of Latin Americans say that security in their country has deteriorated. “Up to 65 percent stopped going out at night due to insecurity and 13 percent reported having felt the need to move to another place for fear of becoming victims of a crime.” That 13 percent represents about 74.8 million people — the equivalent of the entire population of Argentina, Peru and Uruguay combined.

Now, many readers might assume that Colombia, with its narco-gangs, rebel groups and paramilitaries would be the worst of the worst, but not so. Colombia has made great strides in suppressing political and drug-related violence over the last decade or so. Even so, it still has one of the highest national average homicide rate in the region and not a day goes by that some worried Bogotano warns me not to take a street taxi, not to walk somewhere at night, not to do this or do that. “Don’t give the papaya!” is a common phrase that roughly means don’t make yourself an easy target. (This also tends to lapse into a “blame the victim” mentality. “What did you do?” is a common question asked after someone was robbed, implying they did, in fact, give the papaya and thus were, on some level, asking for it.) That climate of fear is pervasive in Bogotá, and I know of many people who have been mugged at knife- or gun-point. At the hostel where I stayed back in April and May, one guy got stabbed in the leg — by a taxi driver who was robbing him. One woman I know was robbed and blogged about it.

I’ve been lucky. I’ve not had anything bad happen to me in Colombia. People here have been uniformly nice and concerned for my well-being. And given my history of running around war zones, a bit of crime doesn’t bother me much. But it’s sobering to see the statistics in black and white. I wish I had some ideas for what could be done, other than the usual “strengthen police, courts and societal bonds, blah blah blah.” Those are all worthwhile goals, but it’s really difficult to do that in a region that is growing so fast and, in the process, leaving millions of people behind economically. There’s also the danger of lapsing back into “iron fist” policies that do little more than alienate populations — something the region really doesn’t need.

Even the UN seems at a bit of a loss. There’s a fair bit in the report about comprehensive security policies, but not a lot of specifics. That’s not surprising given the size and population of the region and the different histories of each country and municipality. But there are 10 recommendations:

  1. Align national efforts to reduce crime and violence, based on existing experiences and lessons learned.
  2. Prevent crime and violence, promoting inclusive, fair and equitable policies.
  3. Reduce impunity by strengthening security and justice institutions while respecting human rights.
  4. Generate public policies oriented to protect the people most affected by violence and crime.
  5. Promote the active participation of society, especially in local communities, to build citizen security.
  6. Increase real opportunities of human development for young people.
  7. Comprehensively address and prevent gender violence within the home and in public environments.
  8. Actively safeguard the rights of victims.
  9. Regulate and reduce “triggers” of crime such as alcohol, drugs and firearms, from a comprehensive, public health perspective.
  10. Strengthen mechanisms of coordination and assessment of international cooperation.

In the meantime, stay safe.

2 Comments on “How dangerous is Latin America? Very.

    • Hard to say. It’s been a while since I’ve been there. But Medellin is lovely, and if you avoid the sketchy parts of town, you should be OK. Just use common sense and don’t flash a lot of wealth around.

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