Robert Muggah Headshot
Samuel Doe Headshot

Dealing with Latin America and the Caribbean´s violence problem

Posted: Updated:

The daily bloodshed on America´s door step is the clearest sign that something rotten is going on in the neighborhood. Headless torsos swinging from lamp-posts in Nuevo Laredo in Mexico contrast all too sharply with the clean streets of El Paso just across the border, the safest city in the United States. But Mexico is not alone in experiencing alarming rates of violence. In fact, Latin America and the Caribbean are home to less than 10 per cent of the world´s population, but more than 25 per cent of all its homicides.

A ruthless epidemic of violence is afflicting many states and cities of Central and South America and the Caribbean. The region´s homicide rate is almost four times the global average, some 23 murders per 100,000 people. And unlike most other parts of the world, whether North America, Western Europe, Sub-Saharan Africa or East Asia, the patient is getting sicker. Eight of the top ten most violent countries in the world are in Latin America and the Caribbean, with most of the victims consisting of young males under 30. In fact, for those living in low-income settings, there is a 1 in 50 change that they will be killed before they reach their 31st birthday.

The sad fact is that homicidal violence is just the tip of the iceberg. Mexicans, Guatemalans, Colombians and Jamaicans are fleeing violence plagued communities in greater numbers than ever before. Literally hundreds of thousands of people have fled violence the explosion of cartel violence in northern Mexico and the middle class are quietly packing their bags from Caracas to San Salvador. Just as worrying, rates of kidnapping and other forms of extortion also appear to be increasing in a selection of countries, in contrast to the region´s impressive economic growth over the past decade. And in spite of heated rhetoric to "fight" crime with more police and prisons, the violence keeps growing.

Latin Americans and Caribbeans are starting to resort to private measures to protect themselves. In fact, the private security business is booming, worth between US 100 and 165 billion a year. And in the region, private security personnel outnumber police officers by almost 2 to 1. There are roughly 470,000 registered private guards in Brazil and another 450,000 in Mexico. And it goes without saying that it is primarily the upper class who are able to afford more guards and gates, while the poor instead resort to associations, self-defense groups, and gangs.

There is no single monolithic factor that can explain Latin America and the Caribbean´s spike in violence. Even so, there are a host of recurring factors that are known to correlate strongly with the virulence of insecurity. In contrast to popular belief, poverty is not strongly correlated with violence. Rather, social and economic inequality, youth unemployment, rapid urbanization, weak police and justice institutions, and the widespread availability of firearms, ammunition appears to trigger violence. These factors, coupled with pervasive machismo and a misguided war on drugs, are the real culprits.

Over the past decade called "mano dura" approaches that promote repression, penalties, and incarceration have ratcheted-up violence and filled the region´s prisons to bursting point. Across the region prisons are known as "universities of crime" deepening networks of gang members rather than contributing to rehabilitation. Fortunately, some enlightened leaders across the region are calling for more investment in citizen security. With support from international agencies such as the Inter-American Development Bank and the United Nations, many states and cities are making progress in reversing violence and promoting social cohesion.

Citizens are also assuming a proactive role in promoting safety and security. Non-governmental organizations, civic action groups, private companies and universities across Latin America and the Caribbean are emphatically saying no to violence. Social movements such as Yo Soy 132 in Mexico and twitter and facebook campaigns are making their voices heard, demanding more accountability and inclusive security. These efforts need to be supported, including by the United Nations and others in the international community. At a minimum, violence reduction needs to be a central part of the post-2015 development agenda. Freedom from violence must be fundamental element and not a byproduct of development.