from Latin America's Moment and Latin America Studies Program

2011 Trends in Latin America: Shifting Violence

December 30, 2011

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A stuffed bear hangs from a cross of a child's grave at the children section of the San Rafael cemetery in Ciudad Juarez (Courtesy Reuters).

Latin America has the ignominious distinction of being one of most violent regions in world. Though not known for its wars or even (at least violent) border disputes, homicide rates average nearly 20 per 100,000 people. Central and South America are among the most murderous regions worldwide, behind only  Southern Africa. Six of the ten most violent nations in the world are in Latin America, with Honduras and El Salvador claiming the number one and two spots. The biggest headline-grabber this last year has been Mexico, which counted some 12,000 deaths in 2011 and over 40,000 drug related homicides since the start of President Calderón’s term (non-official estimates put these numbers even higher). Though Mexico is not the most violent in per capita terms, this escalation has deeply impacted the country.

But the region’s security outlook is not all gloom and doom. Ciudad Juárez, still Mexico’s most violent city, saw its homicides drop by almost half since 2010, to just under 1,700 this year. Given the well-documented inertial effect of violence (i.e. violence tends to breed more violence, ratcheting up the effect over time), this is a doubly encouraging trend. Further south, the Brazilian government rolled out its “Favela Pacification Program” beyond the original pilot (launched in 2008), sending Police Pacification Units (UPPs) to 19 favelas in Rio de Janeiro. Since last year, the city’s homicide rate dropped 13 percent and armed confrontations with police were down by a quarter. Meanwhile, Guatemala enjoyed a relatively peaceful year, with a slight (2.5 percent) decline in murders, bringing its homicide rate under 40 for the first time since 2004.