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Book Review:
Excellent report on violence in Latin America

Citizen Security in Latin America: Facts and Figures

Robert Muggah and Katherine Aguirre Tobon, 2018

This book is an outstanding report from the Igarape Institute. This report contain both shocking statistics and an insightful discussion of causes and solutions to homicide and violent crime in the Caribbean, Central America and South America. 




  • Latin America countries have 8% of the world's population and account for 33% of homicides. 

  • There were almost 160,000 homicides in Latin America in 2016; the homicide rate for all of Latin America was 21.7 per 100,000 in 2012 vs. 7 per 100,000 for the world as a whole. 

  • The homicide rate has been increasing an average of 3.79% per year for the past decade with a population growth of 1.1% per year. 

  • The authors estimate that in 2020, the Latin America homicide rate will exceed 28 per 100,000. 

  • 2.5 million people have died violently in Latin America since 2000, mostly due to homicide, almost certainly an underestimate, according to the authors. 

  • Four countries in the region, Brazil, Columbia, Mexico and Venezuela accounted for about a quarter of the world's homicides in recent years. 

  • 44 of 50 cities with the highest homicide rates are in Latin America.  

  • The rate of physical assault and violent robbery is estimated to be 426 per 100,000 in South America and 364 per 100,000 in Central America vs. 70 per 100,000 in North America and 45 per 1000 in Northern Europe.   

  • 17 of 20 countries with the highest homicide rates are in Latin America. Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have homicide rates 3-5 times higher than the rate for all of Latin America.  

  • 80% of murder victims are male; half of victims are 15-29 years of age at the time of death. 


During the past two decades, there has been a large decline in homicide rates in Africa, Asia and Oceania and a modest decline in Europe. The U.S homicide rate in recent years has been about 5.3 per 100,000 vs.1.7 per 100,000 in Canada. Four U.S. cities have homicide rates greater than 44 per 100,000 - St. Louis, Baltimore, Detroit and New Orleans; these cities are among the 50 most murderous cities in the world as reflected by their homicide rates. 


There are large differences in homicide rates and criminal violence among countries in Latin America. Chile has a homicide rate half the U.S. rate. Costa Rica, Peru, Ecuador and Nicaragua have much lower than average homicide rates compared to other countries in the region.  According to the authors, homicide rates for cities and regions of Latin America vary greatly, for example 2 per 100,000 at the low end vs. 200 per 100,000 at the peak. Nevertheless, according to the authors, "half of the region's 300 largest cities feature (homicide) rates that are at least 5 times the global average."   




Criminal violence is highly concentrated in large urban areas in Latin America. Concentrations of poverty, income inequality, high rates of youth unemployment, gangs, low confidence in police forces and the judiciary are associated with high rates of homicides, kidnappings and assaults in Latin America. The most distressing piece of information in this report is that recent reductions in poverty in Latin America ( 80 million fewer persons living in poverty in 2012 compared to 2003) and in income inequality have led to increases, not a decrease, in criminal violence. The authors cite a World Bank report which states: "homicides first increase as per capita income grows and then declines at high levels of per capita income." Another way to view the relationship between reductions in poverty and the increase in homicides is that when many people in a country or region of the world experience an improvement in material well being, that part of the population that does not benefit views their exclusion from the productive job market as increasingly intolerable. The positive effects of reduced poverty may lead to an increase in the expectations of disadvantaged young males, expectations that cannot be met in the job market.  According to the authors, about a quarter of homicides in Latin America are gang related. In addition, a number of Latin American societies have doubled down on mass incarceration and longer prison sentences in violent and overcrowded prisons. These authors believe that these policies have failed to reduce violence because prisons are "criminogenic" in that they connect young males to criminal networks, and in doing so, serve as recruitment centers for criminal gangs. 


A large percentage of the population of Latin America does not trust the police or the judiciary in their countries. Almost half (44%) stated in a recent survey that they believe the police themselves are involved in crime; thus many citizens are unwilling to reach out to the police for protection; they have nowhere to turn when they are threatened and victimized. These authors claim that affluent persons and businesses have increasingly turned to private security forces for protection. According to this report, there are more private security guards in Latin America (3.8 million) than police officers (2.6 million). Many of those persons who cannot pay for private security and are afraid to seek help from police are without recourse, completely vulnerable to predation. Latin American countries have the highest levels of fear and insecurity in the world, according to perception surveys, these authors claim. Vigilantism is alive and well in some Latin American countries in which almost one-third of citizens admit to participating in vigilante actions.           


Proposed Solutions   


These authors are strong proponents of citizen security initiatives that have achieved remarkable reductions (70-90%) in homicide rates and assaults in some Latin American cities, including Medellin, Bogota, Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and San Pedro Sula.  These initiatives are combinations of public health approaches to epidemiological data and prevention ( e.g., job training, skill development) and initiatives designed to strengthen social cohesion, "bolstering civic identity,"  strengthening collective efficacy and a commitment to the belief in "mutual rights and obligations." However, these authors acknowledge that very few of the 1300 citizen security initiatives in Latin America over the past two decades have been rigorously evaluated.   


These authors pretty much ignore political ideology and social institutions as either causes or solutions with the exception of public attitudes toward police and the judiciary and reduced dependence on incarceration.  It appears that political ideology of recent or current political leaders/ regimes has little, if any, effect on homicide rates. Cuba's homicide rate (5.4 per 100,000) is about the same as the U.S. rate. Venezuela's homicide rate (higher than 50 in 100,000) is one of the highest in Latin America. The Christian Science Monitor recently ran a story regarding the decline in belief in democracy in Latin America. It seems evident to many in Latin America that democratic institutions have been as vulnerable to widespread corruption, and as incapable of ensuring public safety, as authoritarian governments, of which there have been many since the Spanish were forced to leave South America in the early 19th century. 


The authors of this report have a sociological perspective and do not discuss the historical legacy of Spanish colonialism, the subject of Marie Arana's recent book, Silver, Sword and Stone (2019). The Spanish were unspeakably cruel, and they created and sustained some of the most unequal societies in the world through slavery, murder, intimidation and repression of political opponents.  For whatever reason, social institutions and economic systems of various sorts ( capitalism, socialism, democracy, military dictatorships, charismatic leaders, etc.) have not been able to curb homicidal violence in Latin America, which has been worsening since 2000 while most of the rest of the world has been moving in a more positive direction.  Arana considers various unlikely explanations for Latin American violence, for example the genetic transfer of elevated rates of PTSD, but none that are convincing. Any reader of this summary who has an explanation for the horrific increase in violence in Latin America or ideas regarding creative political responses, please let me know.    

-- Dee Wilson

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