Latin America and the Caribbean is a region of stark paradoxes, and that has never been truer than in the past decade: Even as the continent enjoys one of its most dynamic economic booms, it’s suffering one of the worst violent crime crises in its history.
From Mexico, which has seen some 60,000 drug-related murders in the past six years; to Honduras, which now has the world’s highest murder rate; to Brazil, where gangland mayhem is a major concern in advance of next year’s soccer World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, the problem is as pervasive as it is harrowing.
According to a recent study by the Citizens Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice in Mexico, the world’s 10 most violent cities -- and more than 40 of the worst 50 -- are found in Latin America and the Caribbean:
Top 10 Most Violent Cities In 2011
- San Pedro Sula, Honduras
- Juarez, Mexico
- Maceio, Brazil
- Acapulco, Mexico
- Central District, Honduras
- Caracas, Venezuela
- Torreon, Mexico
- Chihuahua, Mexico
- Durango, Mexico
- Belem, Brazil
And just as Miami’s malls, casinos and condos have gained from Latin America’s recent financial success, so has South Florida benefited, sadly, from the region’s criminal scourge, which increasingly pushes Latin Americans to migrate with their new wealth to the United States.
On Thursday, June 6, NPR begins an 11-part series examining crime and violence in Latin America and the Caribbean. This hemispheric emergency lead to widespread fear and insecurity, undermine faith in state institutions, erode the rule of law and cripple development. You can follow their series here.
A Preview Of The NPR Series
NPR’s ambitious project explores the criminality, from narco-mafias to ransom kidnappings and criminal cops, but also its causes, from chronic social inequality to dysfunctional judicial systems.
The series focuses on five countries -- Mexico, Honduras, Colombia, Brazil and Venezuela, where NPR Morning Edition anchor Steve Inskeep had to reschedule an interview when its subject was suddenly kidnapped (and later released). It also features reporting by award-winning NPR veterans Juan Forero, Carrie Kahn and Lourdes Garcia-Navarro.
Garcia-Navarro, who is NPR’s new South America correspondent, spoke with me about the series from her base in São Paulo, Brazil. After recently completing a decade in the Middle East for NPR, she was shocked to find that Latin America in many ways is the more dangerous region today.
“The statistics are staggering,” she said. “Forty-three percent of the world’s homicides happen in Latin America, which is home to only 8% of the world’s population. And there’s really no sense of a front line or how to protect yourself from it.” As part of the NPR series, Garcia-Navarro assesses Brazilian officials’ efforts to “pacify” violent favelas, or slums, in cities like Rio de Janeiro ahead of the World Cup and Olympics.
But while authorities have had a measure of success in driving gang violence out and establishing more round-the-clock police presence, she found the effort has also had unintended consequences: many of the gangsters simply move on to smaller suburbs like the Rio bedroom community of Magé.“Critics say a lot of the violence just gets dispersed to other areas where the spotlight isn’t shining so brightly,” said Garcia-Navarro.
That illustrates how difficult crime-fighting remains across the region, in large part because police and judicial systems simply aren’t up to the task. In fact, they’re often a big part of the problem: Garcia-Navarro points out that many of Brazil’s homicides are committed by police themselves, as is the case in Mexico, for example, where cops all too often moonlight for drug cartels.
Garcia-Navarro also acknowledges that the crisis is driving up immigration to U.S. cities like Miami.
“Condos in Miami are being snapped up by people from Venezuela, where Caracas is really one of the most violent cities in the hemisphere now, and people from Brazil, Mexico,” Garcia-Navarro noted. “They’re able to buy them because the economies in those places are doing so well, but they’re leaving to Miami because the criminality [back home] is simply so bad.”
Not that Latin American and Caribbean economies aren’t affected, too. Economists, in fact, estimate that gang violence costs the Caribbean islands as much as 4% of their gross domestic product each year in areas such as lost tourism and productivity.
The U.S. bears some of the responsibility, however -- largely because its voracious demand for illegal drugs, as well as the widespread smuggling of assault weapons from the U.S. into Latin America, plays such a large role in the hemisphere’s criminal violence.
As the Organization of American States (OAS) holds its general assembly in Guatemala this week, the main issue will be Latin American insistence that the U.S. alter its drug-war strategy and focus more on reducing demand and even legalizing marijuana as a way to deprive drug mafias of some of their multi-billion-dollar revenues.
Whether or not the U.S. responds, the Latin American clamor indicates how frustrated the region has gotten -- and NPR’s comprehensive series promises to help us better understand why.
The Latin America Report is made possible by Espírito Sandto Bank and Morrison Brown Argiz & Fara, LLC.