NEW YORK –— The United Nations 2013 Global Study on Homicide once again ranks Latin America as the most violent region in the world with more than one-third of all global homicides.
The report by the UN’s Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC0 identifies a correlation between insecurity and illicit economies, especially in Latin America, Afghanistan, and West Africa. Latin America’s illicit market is particularly lucrative in illegal drugs, the chemicals necessary to manufacture drugs and weapons.
The illicit economy’s ability to corrupt, destabilize and fuel disease, violence, and death has made it an issue synonymous with Latin America. Especially relevant is the balloon effect, in which loss of production and trafficking in one country leads to an increase in others.
Honduras, Venezuela, El Salvador and Guatemala, now in the top five in homicides, are located between or near Colombia and Mexico, which are dominant producers, and the United States, which is a dominant consumer.
The illicit economy has been expanding its consumer base in Europe and West Africa, further increasing trafficking routes, profitability and membership. An illicit economy alone cannot be the only explanation for Latin America’s homicide rates, since such rates are not present in other high-trafficking areas in Central Asia and Europe.
Some analysts have suggested that Latin America suffers from a “culture of violence.” While socialization into a violent environment can result in desensitization to violence, it does not explain the presence of violence in the region.
It is merely the possible consequence of violence. Socialization does nothing to explain why the Latin American “culture of violence” is not present in countries such as Chile and Costa Rica, countries that have relatively low homicide rates even in comparison to the global average.
Among the most violent countries, factors such as urban sprawl, lack of institutional capacity, informal dispute resolution mechanisms, high-income inequality, high corruption, gang violence and a strong drug trafficking economy are all present.
The makeup of larger Latin American cities and capitals is the result of migration patterns that began in the 1940s. Millions of rural workers moved to major cities throughout the region, resulting in rampant urbanization and the growth of slums where up to half of the urban population reside.
Many of these areas were formed without the presence of a local government let alone any structure of governance. Property rights were, and continue to be, established through squatting and other informal means. Disputes over property rights are handled informally.
Gangs have flourished as way to manage business transactions, property transfers and dispute resolutions. As a result, gang violence in the “northern triangle” – Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala – has skyrocketed.
A lack of formal government structures at the local level has been accompanied by an absence of institutional capacity at the state level.
Criminality is difficult to establish when many homicides go unreported. Killings that are reported result only in 24 convictions out of 100 cases, compared to the global figure of 43 out of 100.
The UNODC notes the downward trend in conviction rates and the rising trend in homicides since 2007.
Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index ranks Honduras, Venezuela and Guatemala in the 70th percentile of the most corrupt countries in the world.
Statistics suggest that the value of life is remarkably lower in Latin America in relation to other regions of the world. The illicit economy is partially to blame. The UNODC reports that the correlation between areas of drug trafficking and homicide rates is most obvious in Guatemala and Honduras, while territorial disputes related to trafficking routes are notable in El Salvador.
Mismanagement at the highest levels of government and disregard for management at the lowest also are critical factors in recognizing influences driving homicide rates. Remedying the high levels of violence in Latin American must include correcting incompetence and corruption in institutions, especially at the local level.
Liana Eustacia Reyes is a freelance international affairs and security analyst and graduate student at New York University’s Department of Politics. Jorge de Cardenas is a practicing attorney and former staff member of the United Nations. He is currently based in Miami, FL.