- Outside of active war zones, Latin America is the world’s most violent region, despite some variations among countries there.
- No single thing explains why there’s so much bloodshed, but there are several factors common throughout the region.
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Latin America is home to about 8% of the world’s population but has about one-third of its homicides — in 2016, that meant some 400 homicides a day, or roughly 146,000 a year. But the bloodshed is not evenly distributed.
In Mexico, the region’s second most populous country, 33,753 homicide victims in 2018 set a record for the second year in a row; 17,142 victims in the first half of this year likely means 2019 will set a new mark.
In Brazil, the most populated country in the region, homicides fell 13% between 2017 and 2018, but that still means 51,589 people were killed. Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras, regarded as some of the world’s most violent countries, have also seen declines, as has Colombia, long riven by political and drug-related violence.
The regional homicide rate has increased 3.7% annually over the past decade — three times the population growth rate of 1.1%.
“It’s a heterogeneous region,” Robert Muggah, research director at Brazil’s Igarapé Institute and an expert on crime and crime prevention, told Business Insider this spring. “There’s huge variations in terms of homicides, from Chile through to Mexico and Venezuela and Brazil.”
Chile’s 2.7 homicides per 100,000 people in 2018 were about half the US’s 5.3 — Mexico and Brazil’s 25 per 100,000 and Venezuela’s 80 were many times more.
“There isn’t one monolithic factor” that explains this killing, Muggah said. “I think that’s sort of obvious, but it’s important to say.”
“But there are what we call invariant factors — factors that seem to correlate with homicide across time and space — and there are a few of them.”
“Income inequality, measured by Gini, is strongly correlated with homicide over time and space, and Latin America has 15 of the 20 most unequal countries, measured by Gini inequality, on the planet,” Muggah said.
Governments in the region have sought to close that gap and address poverty with measures like conditional cash transfers, which require recipients to meet certain criteria to receive benefits. High prices for exports, like oil, also enabled governments to reduce inequality during the 2000s.
But disparities persist, and the region’s recent economic slowdown has endangered gains that have been made.
These divides create conditions that allow them to be perpetuated, Muggah said.
“When you have large disparities in wealth, you create greater competition among populations that experience varying levels of mobility, and this inequality also creates competition between the rich and the poor for public goods.”
“Elites tend not to be interested in servicing public goods, including policing, and what you tend to get is substandard provision of these public goods in … areas of concentrated disadvantage, which reinforces negative feedback.”
Unemployment, especially among young men.
“You have high, high rates of unemployment in Latin America, reaching 30% regionally, but you also have low-quality employment for large numbers of young people, wherein the trade-offs of a life of informality vs. a low-paying job in a formal sector becomes a little less obvious,” Muggah said.
“Where you see these high rates of youth employment, you can see how it [leads] to crime.”
The estimated unemployment rate for Latin America and the Caribbean fell slightly to 7.8% in 2018 after three years of increases, the International Labor Organization said at the end of 2018. That figure, based on data collected in the first nine months of 2018, still meant some 25 million women and men in the region were unemployed.
A lack of work, particularly for youths, often translates directly to crime. “In Brazil, every … 2% increase in unemployment results in a 1% increase in homicide,” Muggah said. “There’s a pretty linear relationship.”
Rising violence can also have a negative effect on employment.
With a 10-percentage-point increase in homicide rates in an area of Mexico, “you see an increase in unemployment in that region of half a point,” Viridiana Rios, a visiting professor at Harvard and expert on crime and economics in Mexico, said in early 2016.
“Unemployment currently in Mexico is 5%, so for each 10 points of increase in the homicide rates, you see half a point extra on unemployment. That’s pretty significant,” Rios said.
Low-quality education and poor school retention.
“Where you have low levels of enrollment, low quality of education, and high levels of absenteeism, you tend to see higher rates of lethal violence,” Muggah said, noting that these factors were present in many places, including the US.
The issue isn’t necessarily education spending, according to Shannon O’Neil, senior fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. Outlays for public education in the region are, on average, 5% of GDP, similar to the US and EU.
But much of that money goes to universities rather than primary and secondary schools, subsidizing the rich, and some is siphoned off by corruption, O’Neil wrote earlier this year.
Poor methods and poorly educated teachers also hinder students.
The Program for International Student Assessment for Development, which evaluates 15-year-old students in reading, math, and science, released an assessment this spring that included Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Paraguay.
Forty-five percent of students in those countries and 40% of students in other countries in the region reported skipping a day of school in the two weeks before the survey — 17% of students in Paraguay and Guatemala reported missing school for more than three months in a row.
Less than half of students in the four countries had fully functional indoor plumbing at school. With the exception of Ecuador, more than half of students in the countries went to schools without internet or computers for teachers.