Last week, CNN came out with a news report about the crime rate in the city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. The title of the article is "Inside San Pedro Sula, the 'Murder Capital' of the World", and it cites recent figures from the Mexican think tank Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, listing the cities with the highest homicide rates in the world. Based on the group's methodology, it positioned Honduras' two largest cities -- Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula -- on its top 10 list.
The think tank placed San Pedro Sula at the top, with 169.30 murders per 100,000 people in 2012, followed by Acapulco, Mexico, with 142.88; Caracas, Venezuela, with 118.89; Central District (Tegucigalpa/Comayagüela), Honduras, with 101.99; Torreón, Mexico, with 94.72; Maceió, Brazil, with 85.88; Cali, Colombia, with 79.27; Nuevo Laredo, Mexico, with 72.85; Barquisimeto, Venezuela, with 71.74; and João Pessoa, Brazil, with 71.59.
If you look at the remaining 40 cities on the think tank's top 50 list, 13 of them are in Brazil, 6 in Mexico, 5 in Colombia, 5 in the United States, 3 in South Africa, 3 in Venezuela, 1 in El Salvador, 1 in Guatemala, 1 in Haiti, 1 in Jamaica, and 1 in Puerto Rico. The five U.S. cities are New Orleans, Detroit, St. Louis, Baltimore, and Oakland.
Following the release of the think tank's study, newspapers and magazines around the world picked up on the list and began publishing articles about it, with headlines such as the "The Top 50 Most Dangerous Cities in the World" or "The 10 Most Dangerous Cities in 2012." The problem with such headlines is that they are extremely misleading. The CNN piece will inevitably spark a new wave of similar headlines. But are the cities on the list, in fact, the most dangerous cities in the world?
Well, not necessarily. It depends on how you choose to define "dangerous." One factor to consider should certainly be the murder rate. But making the number of homicides the only determinant of how dangerous a city is is rather absurd. A little more than a year ago, NBC News published an article by Michael B. Sauter titled "The Most Dangerous Cities in the World," and guess what... not one of those cities was on the Top 50 list issued by the Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice.
The article by Mr. Sauter cited a study produced by consulting firm Mercer LLC which listed the top 10 most dangerous cities as: 1. Baghdad, Iraq; 2. N'Djamena, Chad; 3. Abidjan, Côte d'Ivoire; 4. Bangui, Central African Republic; 5. Kinshasa, Democratic Rep. of the Congo; 6. Karachi, Pakistan; 7. Tbilisi, Georgia; 8. Sana'a, Yemen; 9. Nairobi, Kenya; and 10. Conakry, Guinea Republic. The U.S. State Department has urged Americans to avoid these countries altogether, and particularly these cities.
What about Aleppo or Damascus in Syria where there are full-scale battles raging? Are Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula really more "dangerous" than Aleppo and Damascus? Doubtful. The State Department travel warning to Honduras offers no suggestion to avoid travel to the country or to any of its cities, but rather simply for travelers to "exercise caution" -- probably in much the same way you'd want to be cautious when visiting New Orleans or Detroit.
So why the disparity? Because many of the factors that a person might take into consideration in determining the level of danger are subjective, not absolute. What might seem like no big deal to one person might be a nightmare to another. "Danger" is not only about murder rates, but more broadly about personal safety. Consequently, in any analysis about the levels of danger in cities or countries, the data studied must include other factors such as muggings, kidnappings, rapes, violence in the home, disease outbreaks, natural disasters, persecution, repression, social unrest, genocide, war.
To use only homicides as a factor, or even the primary factor, in gauging the level of danger is too narrow and superficial, and thus incomplete. It does make for good newspaper copy, but it only begins to tell the full story.