Latin American and Caribbean countries are experiencing a murder epidemic, registering just 8% of the world’s population, but 33% of all reported homicides in 2012. There are over 120 cities in the region with homicide rates higher than 30 per 100,000. These urban centers and others around the world are experiencing almost a half million intentional homicides each year—a level of violence that attracts little global attention when compared with conventional wars.
The murder rates of different cities and countries are one of the most reliable indicators of wider perceptions and experiences of insecurity. Yet if this lethal violence is to be prevented, it is important to fully apprehend the global scope and scale of the problem. Contemporary technologies for data collection and analysis can enhance both awareness and understanding among officials and the public.
Brazil’s Igarapé Institute [with which the authors are both associated] recently launched a new open source data visualization tool called the Homicide Monitor to disseminate this much-needed information. The web-based platform was developed with support from the Open Society Foundations and Peace Research Institute Oslo and features the distribution, dimensions, and dynamics of homicide around the world. It currently registers 437,000-468,000 homicides a year globally, or between 6.2 and 6.9 murders per 100,000 people. In some areas, homicide is the leading cause of death for young people. In others, it is virtually non-existent.
The Monitor describes the total number of homicides and rates per 100,000 per country and, where data is available, the breakdown by gender and type of weapon. It includes data for more than 219 countries, dependencies and territories in 2000-2012. For Latin America and the Caribbean it also includes sub-national data on states and cities with populations over 250,000 people.
The data show a small number of countries account for a disproportionately large share of the global burden of murder. In 2012, the latest date for which relatively comprehensive information is available, one out of every four people violently killed each year around the world—outside ongoing war zones—was either Brazilian, Colombian, Mexican, or Venezuelan.
Brazil is in turn the key country affected, with 56,337 people violently killed during the year, at a rate of 29 per 100,000. Some 42,416 of them die from gunshot wounds. About 92% of the victims were male and over half of them were concentrated in the 15-29 age bracket. Homicide is the number one cause of death for young men in Brazil and one in 10 people murdered annually across the globe is Brazilian. In some areas, entire generations of potentially productive individuals are being lost to this violent epidemic.
Fast-growing cities in northeastern Brazil are particularly badly affected. The most violent state is Alagoas, with 2,046 homicides, or 64 homicides per 100,000 in 2012. The state’s murder rate has also been increasing steadily since 2000. Densely populated medium- and large-cities like Ananindeua registered the highest rate of 125.7 murders per 100,000 (608 killings) in the latest year. Next in line are Serra, with 89.5 killings per 100,000, Fortaleza (76.8), Joao Pessoa (76.5), and Cariacica (72.6). These rates are between 10 and 12 times the global average from 2012.
The Homicide Monitor, along with other tools, is intended to provoke reflection and stimulate debate. The goal is to inspire politicians and planners to more proactively engage with the issue rather than sidestep their obligations. After all, security is typically thought of as the primary responsibility of governments and the first right of citizens. And to make a lasting impact, decision-makers, practitioners, scholars, and journalists should engage in responsible and data-driven reflection and action.
The intention is to draw attention to the dangerous escalation of murder affecting large parts of the world, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. While the Homicide Monitor provides data on most countries around the world, it is especially focused on the most significantly affected areas. In the coming years, the Igarapé Institute will be adding sub-national data for North America and Western Europe; North, Central, and Southern Africa; the Middle East; and other parts of the world where murder rates are also especially high.
Special attention is also devoted to finding solutions to preventing and reducing murder. Already, some of the world’s leading criminologists and public health experts are analyzing the situation for the Igarapé Institute, and have started to identify solutions that have a solid track-record of success. As well as middle-income metropolises in Latin America and the Caribbean, they are focusing on evidence from cities across North America and Western Europe, where homicide rates have dropped by 40% over the past two decades.
While hotly debated, there are several factors that can explain this decline in homicide in wealthy and middle-income countries, providing potential lessons for less developed areas. On the one hand there are structural causes such as reductions in family size, improved access to education, improvements in social welfare, and declines in rapid urbanization.
On the other are institutional reasons, not least improvements in law enforcement and the effective application of “hot spot policing,” which employs data analysis to identify high-crime areas, allowing human and material resources to be deployed to specific neighborhoods, streets and even buildings where homicide has or is likely to occur. New tools and technologies for studying the murder epidemic still rampant in many parts of the world could help to significantly reduce the problem.
Robert Muggah is the Research Director of the Igarapé Institute as well as the SecDev Foundation. He is part of the World Economic Forum Global Agenda Council on Fragility, Conflict and Violence. He recently gave a TED talk on ways to reduce violence around the world. Renata Giannini is a Senior Researcher at the Igarapé Institute.