Explaining High Murder Rates in Latin America: It’s Not Drugs
By Elaine Denny and Barbara F. Walter
In a background paper for the World Bank on homicide rates James D. Fearon found that in the last two decades murder rates around the world have either stayed steady or declined, except in Latin America and the Caribbean where they have significantly increased. This increase is across the board; as H. Hugo Frühling and Joseph Tulchin note in Crime and Violence in Latin America: Citizen Security, Democracy, and the State all homicide rates have been rising over the last 25 years regardless of whether a country had low or high homicide levels to begin with.
Most people might assume that this trend is due to higher levels of drug trafficking and the violence that surrounds competing drug cartels. This is wrong. Although Fearon found “a slight tendency for higher homicide levels in drug producing or trafficking countries,” this effect was not very large, and the increase in homicides can be found throughout the region whether drugs are present or not. Fearon’s analysis also found that trends in violence were not correlated with a country’s history of civil conflict.
What then might explain the rise in homicide rates in Latin America compared to the rest of the world? In a recent Global Study on Homicide, the United Nations highlighted a mix of factors that might be associated with a country’s murder rate. As complied by Rodrigo Soares and Joana Naritomi, these include high income inequality, the availability of guns, gang activity, the drug trade, alcohol abuse, unemployment, poor public education, a high youth population, as well as low incarceration rates and small police forces.
Of these factors, a number stand out as being uniquely present in Latin America. Compared to other regions of the world, citizens in Latin America do experience relatively higher levels of inequality, easier access to guns, and greater gang violence. But this doesn’t tell us why this causes individuals – especially young men – to kill each other. Here are three possible explanations.
Inequality, Individuals, and Institutions
Inequality appears to be key to explaining violence. Statistical studies have consistently found that income inequality predicts homicide rates better than poverty does. Moreover, other countries with similarly high levels of inequality, such as South Africa, have been found to have comparably high murder rates. We think this relationship exists for at least two reasons. First, large disparities in wealth create greater competition within large youth populations facing high unemployment and limited upward mobility. From an individual perspective, murder might be the consequence of young people driven to extreme measures – people who turn to violent crime or gang involvement as the easiest path for increasing wealth or status.
Second, income inequality also creates two disparate groups competing for public goods from the state – the rich and the poor – with the rich successfully lobbying for a disproportionate share of services (or for a service’s elimination). Latin America’s economic elite has strong political ties and their interests do not necessarily coincide with the interests of those living in poorer neighborhoods. Whereas poorer citizens might push for greater law enforcement and better policing in their neighborhoods, wealthier citizens might have no interest in public policing that does not directly benefit them. The result is the sub-standard provision of security in neighborhoods that need it the most. This argument would also apply to more indirect policies that benefit one group more than another such as job creation, public education, and affordable healthcare. Promotion of elite interests, therefore, not only calcifies the inequality gap, but siphons money away from law enforcement in poorer neighborhoods.
The Big Neighbor to the North
One notable difference between Latin America and the rest of the world is its proximity to the United States; proximity that results in a relatively easy southward flow of weapons, a northward flow of drugs , and more meddling by a powerful neighbor. Latin America’s relations with the hemispheric superpower arguably have often resulted in destabilizing political intervention and lackluster growth initiatives, which in turn may contribute to the inequality described above.
Furthermore, in a region where over 70 percent of murders are committed with firearms, the availability of guns plays a major role in violence levels. Consider Jamaica – a country that consistently has some of the highest homicide rates in the world. In Jamaica the majority of guns seized in the last decade can be traced back to Florida. Initial studies also suggest that the region’s access to guns – including semiautomatic weapons – increased after the US Federal Assault Weapons Ban expired in 2004. The expiration of this law has been shown responsible for at least 16.4% of the increase in Mexican homicides between 2004 and 2008.
Taken together, these factors provide a motive and the means to commit murder, on top of a legacy of insecurity when national interests or citizen mandates have conflicted with US interests.
Gang violence and suboptimal equilibria
Still, these factors do not necessarily explain why murder rates are rising. We think this increase has something to do with the particular form of violence – gang-on-gang violence – that is happening in Latin America.
Gang violence has a specific dynamic that makes it self-perpetuating. The initial cause might be competition, anger, an initiation rite, or even a mistake. But once the initial killing takes place, the code of conduct surrounding gangs demands retaliation. Retaliation is not only a way to exact revenge, but is also a way to establish one’s status. The effect, however, is that one killing begets another killing. Once someone is killed, retaliation becomes a self-perpetuating equilibrium that is impossible to escape without losing standing in the game.
How do you stop this cycle? An event that occurred in El Salvador this past March offers insight. In March 2012 a truce was brokered by the Catholic Church between El Salvador’s two major gangs. Since the truce, homicide rates in the country – which previously had hovered around the third highest in the world – plummeted by almost two-thirds. Murders are now down from an average of fourteen murders per day to five, with a decrease of over 50% from the same period last year.
Why was the Catholic Church so effective despite no real means to enforce the truce? The Church’s intervention offered gangs a face-saving way to break the cycle of reprisals they were stuck in. Suddenly, a gang’s decision NOT to retaliate represented taking the moral high ground rather than showing weakness.
Prior work has applied game theory’s Stag Hunt to post-crisis situations, showing how a disintegration of social order can result in a suboptimal equilibrium of violence or lawlessness. Perhaps Latin America’s economic disparities and institutional realities have catalyzed such destabilization in slow motion, leading to a status quo where young men are killing each other in the streets with little incentive to stop. Such a theory is consistent with Fajnzylber, Lederman, and Loayza, who find that homicides are caused by inequality and are self-perpetuating. The violence then increases over time as a culture of payback creates a world where one murder builds on another.
While the problem of high homicide rates is complex, it’s not intractable. This discussion highlights different possible points of entry for policy to reduce murder rates, from motive (institutionalized inequality and its frustrations), to the means (illicit arms trade), to the mechanism (retaliatory and status-driven violence). Of course, other factors, such as strained social fabric or the effectiveness of police and judicial institutions, are at play as well. We invite comments on the causal pathways driving homicide trends in Latin America, as well as the most promising domestic and foreign policy approaches to stem the region’s rising murder rates.