Latin America is suffering a true homicide epidemic. In some countries, deaths — mostly through the means of firearms, perpetrated by young men on other young men — are reducing life expectancy, something that is seldom observed (in the contemporary era only dramatic shocks like wars, civil strife, or in the case of the former Soviet Union the dramatic transition away from communism, have witness such reversals). We live in an era of greater longevity and human progress, for example with the epidemiological transition, where children are saved from respiratory and diarrheal diseases or with modern medicine saving millions suffering from chronic ailments like cancer or heart disease from premature death.
But in many places in Latin America life remains “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short”. According to the best epidemiological data available, produced by the Global Burden of Disease, which generates comparable information of mortality by hundreds of medical doctors, epidemiologists, statisticians and demographers all over the world, in 2016 around 6.7 million Latin Americans died that year from any cause. Around one in ten (618 thousand) died from injuries, where life is not shortened due to pathogens or chronic disease, including traffic and other accidents, and interpersonal violence. Of all these injuries, around 155 thousand were homicides.
Let us put death in perspective. In the Americas very few people died, according to the 2016 data, from “forces of nature”, such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and the like (less than three thousand deaths, although the revised numbers from Puerto Rico should make us aware of how difficult these kinds of estimations actually are). Not a single Latin American died, according to the best study available, from the typical issues that fill headlines and most concerns for international agencies, namely conflict and terrorism. I repeat, the GBD places the death toll from terrorism and civil conflict in Latin America at zero.
In contrast, although admittedly an imperfect metric, because these are events that are often unrecorded in many countries in Latin America, police violence kills thousands. GBD estimates that 1541 people died from “executions and police conflict” in the Western Hemisphere, 506 in the United States, and virtually all the remainder in Brazil. If better data for Mexico, Venezuela and Central America existed, there is little doubt in my mind that more people are dying in the Americas at the hand of the legitimate monopolists of violence, the police, than from natural disasters. And yet, Latin America is a region at Peace.
The around 155 thousand deaths from interpersonal violence are primarily of young men victims of firearms (around two thirds of the deaths). Those killed by sharp objects and other means include an important share of women. Firearms, I might also add, also kill an additional 37 thousand people through self-harm and unintentional injuries. Again, to put these numbers in perspective, deaths from interpersonal violence in Latin America are greater than the combined death toll of the worst humanitarian disasters and civil wars going on in the world, Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen (with 55, 25, 23 and 24 thousand deaths respectively in 2016). Brazil alone had more violent deaths than Syria. And Mexico as many as Afghanistan. And yet, Latin America is a region at Peace.
In terms of how this mortality is distributed geographically, measured in rates, in order to make data more comparable across places, outside of countries experiencing civil war, El Salvador is currently the most dangerous place on earth, with 54 deaths per 100,000. Federal Brazil and Mexico can be broken into state jurisdictions, yielding that the next most violent place in Latin America is the State of Alagoas in Brazil, followed by the tragedy unfolding already for so many years in Venezuela. Then we have Sergipe (again a State in Brazil) followed by the State of Guerrero (where Acapulco is located) in Mexico. The next highest homicide rates from interpersonal violence are all in other Brazilian States.
The next ten deadliest jurisdictions in the Western Hemisphere include the state of Chihuahua in Mexico (where the horrific femicides had already been going on two decades ago), Guatemala, Colombia and Honduras (from where the migrant caravan escaping violence started). Among countries in the rest of the world, only South Africa, Lesotho and Somalia have homicide rates similar to those observed in Latin America (and the four countries previously mentioned experiencing civil wars). Island countries in the Caribbean have homicide rates exceeding 20 per 100,000 including prime tourist destinations like the Virgin Islands or the Bahamas (as well as the well-known violence going on in Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago). And yet, Latin America is a region at Peace.
This is not to say that Latin America does not also have some bright spots, which should be grounds for optimism, in terms of knowing that there is nothing specifically cultural or predestined in this malaise, there are policy and institutional changes that should make a peaceful region possible. The safest places in the Western Hemisphere, according to this metric of homicides, are of course, Canada, but followed by Peru, Bermuda, Chile, Uruguay, Antigua and Barbuda and Cuba. All of these countries have homicide rates well below those observed in the United States.
Let me end my comments with four reflections emerging from the overview I have just provided.
First, the most notorious and significant difference between Latin America and the rest of the world, as it relates to the correlates of the homicide patterns, is that there seems to be a correlation of this type of premature death, and inequality. The inequality that is correlated is not the one produced by market incomes, as measured by the Gini coefficient, but the one that takes into account disposable income, after taxes and transfers. This suggests that the biggest structural condition that seems to be an important driver of violence in the region is the failure of governments to address income disparities, extreme poverty and destitution.
Second, the geographic conditions of proximity to drug markets and the availability of firearms seem to be important structural conditions that are also associated with the spread of violence in Latin America. These factors seem to be more important than fast urbanization, a large share of unemployed youth, or the inheritance of guerrillas or civil conflicts occurring in the past.
Third, the humanitarian response to this violence, in contrast to the well-developed frame of mind and international institutions in place to address civil war or natural disasters, is simply dismal. We seem to have little understanding around the world, for example, that the Venezuelan exodus is a humanitarian challenge as important and significant in numbers as the tragedies unfolding in Syria; or that the Honduran migrants marching towards the United States are actually escaping violence.
My final note is one of optimism. Some of the countries facing the most significant challenges of violence are nations with strong institutions and capacity to respond to them. Although in the immediacy of the latest elections in Brazil, we may have good reasons to fear that many governments will be completely incapable or unwilling to address the challenge of violence, the fact is that innovations and solutions are springing in the ground in a decentralized fashion in cities and towns throughout the region. Citizens are not simply waiting passively. And local leaders are taking action, when their national leaders do not.
The strengths of those solutions comes from the social fabric of society, communitarian networks of self-help, traditional forms of public good provision, as well as collaboration between organized civil society, the business community, and very often governments that are willing to respond to the most urgently needed public good in the region, namely citizen security and peace. As this conference will show, Positive Peace is not simply about lack of violence. Just like health is not simply about the absence of disease. Latin American young men and women can live longer (and healthier) lives and I hope we can think together on how to help making this possible.
Prepared for the positive Peace Conference “Envisioning A Positive Peace Agenda For The Americas”, Stanford University, November 5, 2018