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The problem of high crime in the world is a “very Latin American and Caribbean” (LAC) problem. It is disproportionately concentrated in this region.
This is clear by looking at homicide rates comparatively. Although crime encompasses multiple forms of assault against persons and property, experts treat the homicide rate as the best indicator of a country’s crime problem. The reason is that the homicide rate is the most reliable crime statistic available: people are more likely to report a person’s death from crime than any other form of crime. And the data for homicide rates is unambiguous: Latin America and the Caribbean are world champions of crime.
Figure 1 shows average homicide rates for countries between 2005 and 2010 relative to income levels. Of the 27 countries with average homicide rates above 10 per 100,000, all but six are LAC countries. The top six murder nation-states in the world are all LAC.
It is conceivable that African homicide rates are underreported, and some analysts believe that better data would bring many African cases closer to Latin American levels. Nevertheless, there is plenty of evidence that some of the highest crime rates in the world exist in Latin America.
Figure 1 also shows that, in general, the relationship between crime and income is very weak. The trend line slopes downward in this figure, but this line would become flatter if one excludes LAC cases.
By the same token, it is important to recognize that a few LAC countries have low homicide rates (below 10 percent). These represent regional anomalies. However, even these low-murder LAC countries tend to have homicide rates above the majority of countries in the data set.
Crime is often blamed on two economic factors: poverty and income inequality. Yet, the evidence is not that clean-cut. Figure 2 shows the relationship between average homicide rates and poverty headcount. The relationship is very weak. Regarding income inequality: the relationship is stronger than with poverty (see Figure 3). But considering that LAC countries display some of the highest levels of inequality in the world, it’s not clear whether it’s inequality or simply the Latin American condition that is shaping this relationship. In fact, omitting LAC cases flattens the trendline.
Because poverty and inequality do not seem to be powerful predictors of high crime, and because high crime rates are very LAC-concentrated, one has to be more accepting of alternative explanations for high crime rates. These are all more plausible explanations:
Figure 1 also shows how exceptional Venezuela’s crime rate is. Venezuela is part of the only five countries in the world with rates averaging higher than 40 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants in the period between 2005 and 2010.2 The other countries are much smaller, and poorer (El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Jamaica).
When compared to countries in its income category, Venezuela is a salient outlier as well: its distance from other countries around its income category is large. No other country near Venezuela’s income category has higher homicide rates.
The worst part is that the crime in Venezuela is probably higher than the UN data reports. Independent observers in Venezuela place the rate for 2012 at 70 per 100,000.
Furthermore, Venezuela’s rates are increasing, whereas most countries with similar income levels as Venezuela have seen stable (e.g., Costa Rica) or declining (e.g., Colombia) homicide rates since the early 2000s.
In short, compared to peer countries—either the rest of Latin America or the countries with similar incomes—Venezuela is a case apart.
Although President Hugo Chávez hardly talks about crime, it is incorrect to say that his government has done nothing to combat crime. In fact, a newspaper story reports at least 20 different “planes de seguridad” since Chávez took office in 1999.3
The problem in Venezuela seems to be not so much lack of attention, but lack of appropriate attention. The government is stuck in an ideological trap that prevents it from responding appropriately to crime. This ideological trap has two components.
The first is the government’s belief in the idea that that crime is the result of capitalism, and especially poverty. Because the government likes to claim that capitalism, and especially poverty, are in retreat in Venezuela, it thus cannot accept openly that the crime wave is potent and growing. Hence, the government’s efforts to combat crime have all been low energy.
The second ideological problem is the government’s strong belief in the indispensability and unassailability of the military. The belief in the indispensability of the military means that the government’s only response to crime consists of deploying the coercive side of the state, mostly the national guard, instead of experimenting with a variety of supplementary tools, such as working with neighbors, revamping the court system, collaborating with the private sector, etc.
And the belief in the unassailability of the military means that the government does very little to combat crime within the national guard itself. Living under almost perfect impunity, the national guard has become the country’s strongest accomplice to crime. Rather than a tool to combat crime, the national guard has become, literally, a partner in crime.
Thus, while Venezuela may very well suffer from all the drivers that cause high crime in LAC, an important distinction must be made. In Mexico and Central America, a vital driver of high homicide rates is the state’s declared war on the drug trade and drug lords. In Venezuela, the primary cause is not so much the state’s war on crime, but rather the state’s insufficient response to crime. The lesson from Venezuela is that it is hopeless to fight crime across society if authorities are reluctant to fight crime within the state. Impunity within the state—in Latin America especially—seems deadly.