Latin America replaces Africa as world’s most murderous region although Ecuador bucks the trend, as crime drops

Apr 16, 2014

Latin America is the world’s most violent region, accounting for nearly one in three global homicides, according to data from a new study by the United Nations.

Latin America racked up some 134,519 homicides in 2012, about 31% of the total for that year, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal of the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime’s Global Study on Homicide, its first since 2011. Yet the region’s 574 million people comprise just 8% of the global population, according to U.N. figures.chl murder map

As a whole, Latin America’s per capita homicide rate is 23.4 per 100,000 people, nearly double the rate in Africa, which is sometimes mistakenly believed to be the most violent continent. Venezuela is the only country in the region with a consistently rising homicide rate since 1994, the report said.

There are some countries making dramatic improvements in murder rates as well as crime reduction in general, Ecuador being a notable example.

“Latin America as a region has the highest rate of criminal violence in the world,” said Angela Me, the chief of research at the UNODC. “Yet parts of the region, like Chile and Argentina, have far lower homicide rates. The problem really is northern South America and Central America,” including Mexico, she added.

The study tallied 440,000 homicides around the world during 2012, using mostly reports from law enforcement in member states. In some parts of Africa, the agency relied on estimates from the World Health Organization.

A combination of factors is to blame, said Alejandro Hope, a security expert at the Mexican Institute for Competitiveness, a think tank: weak law enforcement institutions, a vibrant illegal narcotics trade that led to a growth in organized crime, a culture of violence, economic inequality, and the region’s chaotic urbanization of the past three decades, which created rings of slums around mega cities.

Brazil, the host for this year’s World Cup soccer tournament, has more overall homicides than any country, at 50,108, accounting for one in 10 globally, followed by India, with 43,355 murders in 2012.

Brazil’s Justice Ministry, asked about the numbers, said it has four priority programs in boosting public safety, and pointed to success stories like police pacification units in the slums, or favelas, of Rio de Janeiro.

Parts of Brazil, including São Paulo, are indeed far safer than the country’s violent northeast, where crime is rising fast.

Just four Latin American nations—Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela and Colombia—accounted for nearly 107,000 homicides in 2012, nearly one in every four global killings.

Of the top 10 nations ranked by per capita homicide rate, and excluding tiny nations with fewer than 100 killings a year, Latin America has the top five nations and seven of the top 10, according to The Wall Street Journal’s ranking of the data. The only three non-Latin American countries in the top 10 were Lesotho, Swaziland and South Africa.

Honduras is the world’s most dangerous country outside a war zone, with 90.4 homicides per 100,000, compared with a global average rate of 6. Second is Venezuela, with 53.7 homicides per 100,000 people, up from 47.8 in 2011.

Afghanistan, by contrast, had a homicide rate of 6.5 per 100,000 in 2012, and probably a similar rate of deaths due to the country’s conflict, said Ms. Me.

Southern Africa, which makes up just Botswana, South Africa, Lesotho, Namibia and Swaziland, can still claim the title as the world’s most violent subregion. But even there, violent crime is on the decline. South Africa’s rate has fallen from 64.9 in 1995 to 31 in 2012, for instance. Latin America, meanwhile, shows a slight increase in crime per capita since 1995, with a big exceptions being Ecuador and Colombia.

Although Colombia’s murder rate remains high, it has been dropping consistently over the past five years. Ecuador appears poised to drop below 10 murders per 100,000 in 2014, which will give it a rate among the lowest in the region. According its Ministry of the Interior, Ecuador has greatly enlarged its police forces, which has helped reduce crime.

The Americas as a continent now tops Africa in terms of homicide rate. The Americas has 16.3 homicides per 100,000 people, followed by Africa with 12.5. The last UNODC survey showed a homicide rate of 15.5 for the Americas compared with Africa at 17.4 per 100,000.

Ms. Me said the most surprising thing to her in the data was the persistence of criminal violence in the Americas over time. The U.N. group looked at data since 1955 and found the Americas, including the U.S., had at least five times higher homicide rates than Europe and parts of Asia.

“Europe was only 10 years from a violent war, so how is it that even back in 1955 the Americas were so much more violent?” Ms. Me said.

The U.S. homicide rate is 4.7 per 100,000—well above every other industrialized country.

The Americas also had the highest rate of guns as the cause of homicide—with 66% of the homicides caused by guns versus 28% in Africa and Asia and 13% in Europe.

However, not all Latin America is a hotbed of violent crime. Southern South America—Chile, Argentina and Uruguay—have crime rates roughly similar to the U.S. There is far less organized crime and better policing in those nations compared to the rest of the region, Mr. Hope said.

Credit: The Wall Street Journal, http://online.wsj.com; Graphic credit: The Wall Street Journal

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