Overcoming Latin America’s Crime Crisis

Violent crime undermines societies in much the same way that it blights individual victims. Indeed, many Latin American and Caribbean countries are caught in a vicious cycle: citizens have stopped trusting the criminal justice system because it cannot keep up with rising crime rates. If Latin America’s economies and democracies are to flourish, faith in such key institutions must be restored.

The number of homicides committed with firearms in Latin America – between 73,000 and 90,000 a year – is triple the world average. For people between 15 and 44, violence is the region’s leading killer. Though crime rates differ widely between (and within) nations, the reported homicide rates for Colombia, El Salvador, Venezuela, and Brazil are among the world’s highest. A recent United Nations-funded study estimated that violent crime costs El Salvador a whopping 11.5% of its GDP.

While we know that drugs and arms trafficking are major problems for some parts of Latin America, there’s no reliable information about their influence. It is difficult to compare victimization rates between nations because police records are often poor – generated by corrupt politicians or police administrations to support their political view of how crime should be handled.

Too often, policy debates about law and order discussions are mired in partisan divisions. Calls for more police and tougher prison sentences are seen as a right-wing effort to control the underclass, while prevention programs based on an enhanced standard of living are derided as “socialist.” But if we remove these ideological blinders and focus on costs and benefits, we can identify the best ways of tackling crime and violence.