Latin America: The Most Dangerous Region in the World

EspañolLatin America faces a paradox. Even though the countries in the region have achieved a substantial decrease of poverty and unemployment rates and annual growth over 4 percent, their high levels of insecurity impede their development. According to the Regional Human Development Report 2013-2014, “Citizen Security with a Human Face: Evidence and Proposals for Latin America,” recently published by the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), the weak side of the region is its violence, crime, and insecurity.

The report offers a regional perspective on citizen security for the eighteen countries in continental Latin America, from Mexico to Argentina and including the Dominican Republic. It analyzes the deficiencies in the application of security policies and puts forward alternatives to overcome them. It also invites governments of the region to move beyond reflection and act, through creative and innovative answers, and learn from successes and failures.

“With this new report, we are ready to turn their proposals into actions and to expand our relations with the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean to increase citizen security and human development,” says Helen Clark, under-secretary general of the United Nations and administrator of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP).

During the last decade, the region has experienced rising violence, with more than 100,000 murders registered per year. In addition, these countries exhibit a growth and spread of crimes, as well as a rise of fear in citizens. Between 2000 and 2010, the murder rate in Latin America and the Caribbean grew up by 12 percent — while in all other regions it declined or stayed the same — for more the one million people murdered during that decade.

Honduras is not only the country with the highest murder rate in the region, but in the entire world: 86.5 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. However, its crime perception levels remain in line with the regional average: eight out of 10 citizens feel safe in their neighborhoods.

Chile is the country with the lowest murder rate in the region. Colombia, on the other hand, decreased its murder rate by almost a 50 percent in a decade, and Guatemala and El Salvador also have registered a substantial fall in recent years. Costa Rica, which already had a relatively low murder rate, achieved a decrease close to 15 percent between 2011 and 2012.

In the majority of the countries examined in this report, Latin Americans consider common or petty crime — over organized crime and criminal gangs — as the main threat. The percentage of the total population that have suffered theft, with or without violence, varies from 10.82 percent in Chile up to 25.19 percent in Ecuador.

It’s important to highlight, though, that in the 18 surveyed countries, respondents gave higher rates of theft than those reported by the authorities. This disparity is mainly due to the obstacles to reporting crimes and the citizens’ distrust of judicial institutions.

This crisis of trust in police forces and justice systems has contributed indirectly to illegal, parallel tactics — “taking justice by their own hands.” This distrust also manifests itself in an increase in the hiring of private guards, and therefore an inequality in the access of security. In fact, the region has 3,811,302 private guards, compared to 2,616,753 police agents.

The report also reveals a penitentiary system crisis facing almost every country in the region. Overpopulation and growing numbers of people still awaiting trial are the most evident symptoms. Prisons have emerged as places that harbor and promote violence, human rights violations, criminal networks, and recidivism.

According to this report, murder rates aren’t directly related to poverty rates or inequality. Rather, the explanation for the rise in violence and crime is multidimensional. The report explores four dimensions: (1) the economic-structural dimension, that points out the low quality of growth and employment which has generated “aspirational crime”; (2) the social dimension, related to structural changes in families – with an important increase in single parent homes, dropout rates, and accelerated urban development that erodes the traditional social fabric; (3) a heightened presence of crime drivers such as alcohol, drugs, and heavier weapons; and (4) the lack of state capacity to address their security challenges.

Heraldo Muñoz, assistant secretary-general and director of the Regional Bureau for Latin America and the Caribbean of UNDP, recommends a National Agreement for Citizen Security between police forces and social forces of every country, to align their efforts. Also, he suggests the creation of a Regional Forum of Citizen Security of Latin America and the Caribbean, to identify common challenges, share successful experiences, and identify cooperation mechanisms. Muñoz says “there is no single magical solution to solve this problem, but insecurity does have a cure.”

Translated by Marcela Estrada.

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