In a year marked by political and criminal turmoil, Latin American capitals did not escape the effects of the corruption, organized crime and state repression experienced throughout the region.
From the violent clashes between security forces and protests in Nicaragua and Chile, to the splintering of criminal groups in the capitals of Mexico and Colombia, capital cities in the region ranked among the most violent in the world.
In this special report, InSight Crime analyzes the homicide rate of each of Latin America’s capital cities, identifying the factors leading to these rates of violence.
*Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly reported that Panama City’s homicide rate was 44 per 100,000 people. This wrong calculation was based on a misunderstanding between figures for Panama City and the larger District of Panama. Our coverage of organized crime relies on thorough checking of facts and figures, especially when making such regional comparisons. Sometimes, we fall short. We regret the error.
Caracas, Venezuela: 76 per 100,000
In the midst of the economic, political and social crisis faced by Venezuelans, Caracas has become the most violent capital city in Latin America.
In 2019, the homicide rate reached 76 for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia - OVV).
While this statistic represents a drop in violent deaths in comparison with 2018, when, according to the OVV, the homicide rate reached 100 for every 100,000 inhabitants, the situation continues to be critical and Caracas continues to be among the five most violent states in Venezuela, following Miranda, Bolívar and Aragua.
As in the rest of the country, these violence rates are the result of homicides carried out by common and organized criminal actors, as well as killings committed by state security forces, including the Special Action Forces (Fuerzas de Acciones Especiales - FAES).
The infamous megabandas, local armed groups dedicated to extortion, kidnapping, theft, contract killings and drug trafficking, also contribute to the violence.
San Juan, Puerto Rico: 53.5 per 100,000*
In comparison with 2018, in which 144 homicides were committed, the Puerto Rican capital experienced a significant spike in murders in 2019, wrapping up the year with 172 violent deaths. San Juan is now ranked as the second deadliest city on this list with 53.5 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.
According to declarations made by San Juan’s Mayor Carmen Yulín Cruz, the homicide rate has grown in several parts of the island due to common delinquency, gender-based violence and drug trafficking.
SEE ALSO: InSight Crime’s 2019 Homicide Round-Up
Given that authorities’ attention has been focused on responding to the natural emergencies that Puerto Rico has faced over the last two years, the island has become vulnerable to exploitation by gangs and transnational criminal organizations, which are using the island more and more as a stopover point for drug shipments.
Guatemala City, Guatemala: 42.5 per 100,000
While the national decline in violent deaths Guatemala has seen in recent years continued in Guatemala City, the capital's homicide rate for 2018 of 42.5 homicides per 100,000 residents remained well above the national average of 23.6.
Extortion continues to be one of the main sources of violence in Guatemala's capital. The gangs MS13 and Barrio 18 control large areas within Guatemala City, where they demand payments from shopkeepers, large businesses, drivers for public transport services and garbage collectors, among others.
As observed by InSight Crime during a major investigation released in 2019, these gangs have annual earnings of around three or four million dollars from extortion alone.
This steady flow of income has provided the gangs with the capital to invest in other tools necessary for their activities: weapons, wholesale drug purchases and criminal infrastructure.
The situation of violence is accentuated in the capital due to the availability of weapons in the country. In Guatemala, handguns are used for around 75 percent of killings, according to data from Guatemala’s National Forensic Science Institute (Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses de Guatemala - INACIF).
Tegucigalpa, Honduras: 41 per 100,000*
Tegucigalpa experienced a small decline in homicides in 2019. The number of violent deaths went from 542 in 2018 to 516 in 2019, a rate of 41 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.
SEE ALSO: Honduras Drop in Homicides One Part of Complex Security Situation
The national government has attributed this decline to its security strategy which, between 2012 and 2017, focused on combating large criminal structures, dismantling powerful organizations like the Valles Cartel, purging the national police of corrupt officials and modernizing its penitentiary system.
Nevertheless, Tegucigalpa continues to be dominated by gangs like MS13 and Barrio 18, that use urban areas as recruitment and operational centers. In fact, the government’s policies seem to have eliminated the competition between the gangs, allowing them to consolidate their power, implementing policies to reduce violence in recent years.
San Salvador, El Salvador: 35.3 per 100,000
The homicide rate in San Salvador has declined for another consecutive year with 35.3 violent deaths for every 100,000 inhabitants in 2019, according to the Northern Triangle Violence Observatory (Observatorio de Violencia del Triángulo Norte.)
In 2015, the homicide rate stood at around 108.5 for every 100,000 but it has rapidly declined as the result of a detente between El Salvador's main gangs.
Between 2015 and 2018 the homicide rate fell by 53 percent, with El Salvador’s government taking credit, touting the implementation of new security measures under the Territorial Control Plan.
However, evidence suggests that the decline should be attributed more to a concerted effort by MS13 and Barrio 18 to reduce homicide rates and follow a protectionist policy: "to not [let] anyone mess with civilians." In fact, investigators argue that MS13 can increase and decrease the homicide rate at its will, a tactic used for negotiating with the Salvadoran government.
The gangs, or maras, have a particularly strong influence in San Salvador, dividing the neighborhoods in the capital city among them and controlling the streets through informal points of criminal control.
Port of Spain, Trinidad and Tobago: 24.5 per 100,000*
With close to 92 murders in 2019, the homicide rate reached 24.5 cases for every 100,000 residents, making this one of the most violent years for Port of Spain. The number of homicides registered during the first half of the year represented 82 percent of the total number of murders registered in 2018.
The deteriorating security situation in Trinidad and Tobago has occurred amidst a struggle within the island nation to combat organized crime, fueled by drug trafficking in the Caribbean and exacerbated by the situation in nearby Venezuela.
In the past, local gangs had been identified as responsible for the outbreaks of violence on the island. However, the arrest of Evander, the leader of a Venezuelan megabanda in May 2019, showed that Venezuelan criminal groups have infiltrated the island nation.
Trinidad and Tobago’s strategic location as a transit point for the rest of the Caribbean and markets like the United States and Europe, is the main reason for the arrival of these transnational drug trafficking networks to the island.
District of Panama, Panama: 18.5 per 100,000*
With 219 registered homicides in 2019, the District of Panama, which covers Panama City and its metropolitan area, experienced a 24 percent increase in violent deaths in comparison with 2018’s 176 registered cases. This increase leaves the District of Panama with a murder rate of 18.5 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to statistics published by the Attorney General's Office.
According to Rolando Mirones, Panama’s security minister, the majority of the country's murders were the result an increase in clashes between gangs.
According to the country's senior prosecutor for crimes of unlawful association, Nathaniel Murgas, police reports established that some 160 gangs operate in the country, with at least 60 operating in Panama City.
Given this context, the decision by Panamanian authorities to lift the restriction on arms imports into the country has drawn attention. The restriction on the import of weapons was in effect for almost a decade and its lifting could drive up violence at a time in which the homicide rate is already on the rise.
Figures covering only Panama City were not available.
Mexico City, Mexico: 17.6 per 100,000*
In 2019, Mexico City registered the highest rates of violence that the capital has seen in at least 25 years.
According to the Executive Secretariat of the National System of Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública - SESNSP), from January to December, 1,557 violent deaths were registered in Mexico City. This equates to an average of 4.3 people killed every day.
The criminal dynamics faced by the Mexican capital this year was marked by the fragmentation of organized criminal groups and the inability of the government to confront them, along with rampant corruption and collusion within the country’s security forces.
SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2019: Mexico’s Body Count Soars as AMLO Out of Ideas
While traditionally authorities in Mexico City have denied the presence of large organized criminal groups, evidence shows that several local structures operating in the city are linked to organizations with a presence in other states.
Over the last few years, La Unión Tepito and the Tláhuac Cartel have been the capital’s main criminal actors. Both groups have suffered strong blows after much of their leadership have been arrested or killed but their operations do not appear to have been diminished.
And vigilante self-defense groups are now emerging to respond to the criminal threat. Mexico City authorities are investigating a group known as the Fuerza Anti Unión, whose members, tired of extortions, kidnappings and murders at the hands of La Unión Tepito, decided to take justice into their own hands.
Likewise, capital city authorities are investigating at least 120 police officers accused of colluding with this illegal group, providing protection for its members in exchange for payments ranging between 18,000 and 20,000 pesos ($919-$1,020) per month.
Montevideo, Uruguay: 14.7 per 100,000*
With approximately 194 violent deaths and a homicide rate of 14.7 for every 100,000 inhabitants, the Uruguayan capital experimented a slight decrease in homicides with respect to 2018, a year in which 223 cases were reported.
Nevertheless, the rate remains high for a city that was until recently considered an example for the rest of the region.
According to official data published by Clarín, 60 percent of these homicides were related to settling of scores between criminals linked to drug trafficking.
This figure is not surprising if the country's growing use as a transshipment point for drug shipments is taken into account. According to statements by the head of the General Directorate for the Suppression of Illicit Drug Trafficking (Dirección General de Represión al Tráfico Ilícito de Drogas - DGRTD), Carlos Noria, 2019 wrapped up with a historic number of drug seizures, with approximately 12 tons of cocaine collected around the country.
Bogotá, Colombia: 14.3 per 100,000*
According to the National Police's Crime Observatory, there were 1,032 murders reported in Bogotá in 2019, representing a slight decline with respect to the previous year, with 1,064 violent deaths reported. The 2019 data represents a homicide rate of 14.3 murders for every 100,000 inhabitants.
While the homicide rate fell briefly, there were several cases of dismembered victims that, according to authorities, are likely related to a settling of scores between micro-trafficking gangs.
After several interventions in the neighborhoods most affected by micro-trafficking in recent years, a fragmentation process occurred within the local drug market that has had the greatest effect on the city’s periphery—particularly the neighborhoods of Ciudad Bolívar, Kennedy and Bosa.
According to the Ombudsman's Office, it is not uncommon for these organizations to decide to move towards the southwestern part of the city. According to the entity, the neighborhoods that make up this part of the capital have a close relationship with the criminal dynamics operating in the rest of the county and serve as strategic corridor for the entry of drugs and weapons into the capital city.
The explosion of a car bomb at a police training school in Bogotá in January 2019 marked a return to urban warfare by the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN) in the capital. And they are not the only major criminal group present in the city.
According to the Ombudsman's Office, there are reports of criminal activity by structures such as Los Paisas, Los Costeños, Los Urabeños and dissidents of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC) inside the city.
Brasilia, Brazil: 13.7 per 100,000*
The homicide rate in Brasilia is low, for being the capital of the country with the highest number of murders in all of Latin America. With 408 violent deaths reported between January and June, figures published by Globo show a homicide rate of 13.7 for every 100,000 inhabitants in the first half of 2019.
Most of the homicides are the result of common crime, and the main security risks in the capital city stem from robberies and assaults. Still, small-scale organized criminal groups do operate in Brasilia, mainly because the metropolitan area offers a market for the sale of drugs, like cannabis, cocaine, coca paste, crack and merla (a byproduct of coca paste).
However, the criminal groups do not compete with the State for control of the capital city, as they do in other cities like Río de Janeiro and São Paulo, where the homicide rates are considerably higher. This dynamic is derived from the nature and structure of Brasilia, that is a well-planned administrative center with a well-equipped and receptive police force that offers few opportunities or incentives for criminal elements to thrive.
San José, Costa Rica: 12.9 per 100,000*
In late 2019, the Judicial Investigation Organization (Organismo de Investigación Judicial - OIJ) gave an encouraging statement regarding homicides in Costa Rica, reporting a nationwide decline. The capital, San José, was no exception, with a total of 181 murders, yielding a rate of 12.9 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.
But the OIJ stated that the majority of these violent deaths continue being the result of a settling of scores between criminal groups, quarrels and assaults involving a firearm.
SEE ALSO: Costa Rica Remains Peaceful In Fight Against Crime
In August 2019, José Efraín López Mendoza, alias “M-1,” the leader of the Revolutionary Movement of Organized Crime (Movimiento Revolucionario de Crimen Organizado - Moreco) was arrested in the capital city. López Mendoza is accused of drug trafficking and being linked to Mexico kingpin Ismael Zambada García, alias “El Mayo,” the head of the Sinaloa Cartel.
His arrest provided further evidence of the links between Costa Rican criminal groups and transnational drug trafficking, related to Costa Rica’s newfound position as a center for the reception, storage and trafficking of drugs.
Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic: 10.4 per 100,000*
With 100 murders in 2019, Santo Domingo wrapped up 2019 with a rise in violent deaths, resulting in a rate of 10.4 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, according to data from the Citizen Security Observatory. This figure is higher than the national average of 9.5.
The United States State Department has identified the Dominican Republic as one of the main transit countries for cocaine shipments traversing the Caribbean. Maritime trafficking, which includes the use of high-speed boats and commercial containers, is the main method for trafficking drugs to the island.
While Dominican criminal structures mainly serve as transporters for organizations in Colombia and Mexico, this has started to change and now Dominican groups are entering the big leagues, buying cocaine in Venezuela and taking direct control of the shipments once they reach the island.
Lima, Peru: 8 per 100,000*
Lima presented a total of 745 violent deaths in 2019, with the homicide rate falling at 8 out of every 100,000 inhabitants, according to police figures published in the newspaper Peru21. But the National Institute for Statistics and Information (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática - INEI) says just 6.5 percent of these homicides are related to organized crime.
Within the metropolitan area of Lima, one of the areas that experienced an uptick in violence was Callao, where 82 murders took place between January and August 2019. Drug trafficking, extortion and the growing presence of underage hitmen are some of the explanations offered by the police to explain this violence.
According to General Edgardo Garrido, police chief in Callao, the main reason behind the homicides is the drug trafficking that occurs around Callao's ports.
Managua, Nicaragua: 6.6 per 100,000*
With an estimated 96 deaths in 2019, based on data published by the National Police for the first quarter of the year, Managua is the city with the highest number of homicides in Nicaragua, with a rate of 6.6 for every 100,000 inhabitants.
Although extrajudicial executions on the part of state security forces appear to have declined since 2018, government repression against human rights activists persists.
Incidents of abuse at the hands of the government and paramilitary forces are concentrated in Managua and are the primary cause of violence in the capital. Despite the clear evidence of the role played by civilian armed groups in repressing anti-government protests since April 2018, administration officials deny the existence of paramilitary groups within the country, calling the reports "smear campaigns."
Asunción, Paraguay: 6.3 per 100,000*
While authorities havee not yet published the country's murder rate for 2019, the relatively low level of killings seen in recent years in Asunción is atypical compared to Paraguay's border departments with Brazil, where the homicide rate can rise to over 70 per 100,000 people.
In 2018, the capital saw 33 killings, representing a rate of 6,3 homicides per 100,000 people, which is low compared to the rest of the country. And Asunción has seen homicides gradually decrease since 2010.
SEE ALSO: Deadly Riot Shows Paraguay Prisons Unprepared for PCC Onslaught
Unlike the border areas where clashes between the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) and local gangs have sent violence soaring, in Asunción, has been generally attributed to street crime.
But groups like the PCC have thrived inside the capital's prisons, which are among the most overpopulated in the country. In June 2019, PCC members massacred 10 members of Clan Rotela, a Paraguayan prison gang which has grown thanks to controlling the sale of crack in Asunción's poorer neighborhoods.
While the massace occurred in the regional prison of San Pedro, the dispute had its origins in the National Prison ofTacumbú in Asunción, after a PCC member was murdered by Clan Rotela.
In an interview with InSight Crime, the former director of Tacumbú prison, Jorge Fernández, stated that the situation in the prison was a ticking time bomb since just 43 guards per shift were in charge of watching almost 4,000 prisoners.
Santiago, Chile: 4.9 per 100,000*
Although Santiago continues to be one of the least violent capitals in Latin America, with a homicide rate of 4.9 for every 100,000 inhabitants according to the Chilean crime and analysis center (Centro de Estudios y Análisis del Delito - CEAD), the capital reported106 violent deaths in 2019, including a number due to violence during political protests.
Santiago's 17 percent increase in homicides when compared to the 2018 rate of 1.7, is actually attributed to the government's violent response to the protests that began in October which have resulted in more than 30 deaths.
The United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) sent a mission to report on the violent clashes between the security forces and the protestors that concluded that the police responded in a “fundamentally repressive manner,” particularly considering its “use of less lethal ammunition.”
Chile is also a key country for the transshipment of narcotics, and its urban centers, particularly Santiago, provide a consumer market for cocaine and marijuana, as well as synthetic drugs like LSD and ecstasy. Nevertheless, Santiago’s street gangs manage drug distribution with relatively little violence.
Buenos Aires, Argentina: 4.7 per 100,000*
Buenos Aires has historically had a low homicide rate. This year it falls just below the national average of 5 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, a rate of 4.6, representing 137 violent deaths in the city in 2018.
However, the fact that this figure is low does not mean that there is little crime in the capital. Most of the criminal activities that occur in Buenos Aires take place on the periphery of the city, specifically in the formal and informal neighborhoods that are not officially considered part of the Ciudad Autónoma de Buenos Aires, but rather known as the Greater Buenos Aires area. These neighborhoods are home to most of the groups responsible for drug trafficking in the capital.
Quito, Ecuador: N/A
While Ecuadorian authorities have yet to publish the homicide statistics for the capital city of Quito, the country’s National Institute for Statistics and Census (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos - INEC) reported 1,056 homicides across the country in 2019, which would equate to a homicide rate of about 6.7 for every 100,000 inhabitants.
Quito has traditionally maintained one of the lowest homicide rates in the region. In 2015, it reported a rate of 5.5 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants.
But despite the homicide rate being low in comparison to other regions, like Sucumbíos or Esmeraldas, Quito is not free of the negative effects of drug trafficking. Ecuador has become one of the world’s cocaine superhighways.
La Paz, Bolivia: N/A
While the government has still not published official homicide data for 2019, violence in Bolivia’s capital city, as well as in the rest of the country, was marked this year by the protests that triggered the controversial departure of President Evo Morales from power.
In November, at least 23 people died when military forces opened fire on members of indigenous communities in an attempt to violently suppress demonstrators.
*Homicide rate calculated by InSight Crime based on available homicide statistics from official sources and the total population as most recently estimated for each country.