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Why are Latin American cities the world’s most murderous?

Latin America cities are famed for many things, carnivals, beaches, and growing tech scenes among them. Unfortunately, one other thing they are known for is crime – particularly murder. 

Of course, a lot is made of violent cities and different organisations often produce different rankings. In 2016, by way of example, a Mexican group called the Citizens’ Council for Public Security & Criminal Justice named Caracas, Venezuela, as the world city with the highest murder rate for the previous year (2015, obviously). This year, Brazilian think-tank Instituto Igarapé named San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, as the number one most homicidal city; Caracas didn’t even get a mention.

However, both lists share one huge similarity. Each a gruesome ranking of 50, they were overwhelmingly dominated by Latin American cities. According to the first list, 41 out of the world’s 50 most murderous cities were from Latin America. In the second, it was 43. Given that some of the countries involved, Mexico included, have homicide rates that outstrip those of war zones.

“What we have in Latin America is a convergence of risk factors that have shaped an above average rate of homicide,” explains Instituto Igarapé’s Robert Muggah. “The only two regions in the world where we see homicide rising, outside of war zones, are in Latin America and southern Africa.”

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Among the Instituto Igarapé’s list, 25 of the cities are from Brazil. Mexico has six, and Honduras and El Salvador – countries with populations of just 8m and 6.1m respectively – boast three each. The most dangerous city, according to the Brazilian think tank, is Salvadorian capital, San Salvador, where 136.7 people out of every 100,000 was murdered in 2016.

“There is a convergence of factors,” Muggah continues:

“One of them is the very rapid rate of urbanisation. The unregulated and rapid nature of urbanisation creates a risk. When you cities growing at 3 per cent a year you tend to see social disorganisation. “Those cities that are growing fastest are also where we are seeing the largest concentration of crime and violence.

“The second factor, is inequality, both social and income equality. Latin American cities are hugely unequal, spatially and socio-economically.”

Data gathered by Instituto Igarapé comes directly from government sources, Muggah says, and does not include other agencies. As a result, no Venezuelan cities are currently on the list because of the unreliable nature of data that is supplied from the country. 

“We include data that is officially vetted,” he adds. “If the data is [very] unbelievable, we will not include it. The case in Caracas is interesting because they have three monitors: one is the government, the other is the OVV [the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia], and a third one, an NGO. All three issue wildly different statistics.”


Other reasons, Muggah says, include drugs and unemployment. Research suggests that for every one percent increase in unemployment, murder rates increase by 0.3 percent. High unemployment across the region has resulted in higher than usual murder rates in cities and urban centres.

Additionally, he adds, Latin America has impunity “in spades”. Some 93 per cent of Brazilian homicides do not end in conviction, a startling figure, especially when compared — for example — to Japan’s 98 percent conviction rate. “It’s almost a direct inversion,” Muggah adds. 

Destabilising factors, such as paramilitary groups and governments’ willingness to use the military where police would normally do, adds to the convergence of risks that boost Latin American murder rates, as does gang activity, especially related to the drugs trade. A huge area crack down on the drugs trade, where even low level offenders are jailed, has lead to mass incarceration in prisons that are controlled by gangs.  

Muggah explains that, unless something is done, murder rates will continue to spiral and grow. “The region has above average rates,” he says. “It looks like it will be four to five times above [the average] by 2030.”

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