While unrest gripped much of Latin America in 2019, it was the coronavirus that took center stage and ripped through the region in 2020, upending everything from commercial trade to the operations of local gangs and transnational criminal organizations.
It’s too early to tell with any degree of certainty how exactly the pandemic may have impacted levels of violence, but there were notable developments, including significant reductions in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Venezuela, historically some of the most homicidal nations in Latin America and the Caribbean.
In its annual Homicide Round-Up, InSight Crime looks into the region’s country-by-country murder rates and the factors influencing them.
*Jamaica: 46.5 per 100,000
Jamaica recorded 1,301 killings in 2020 and had the region’s highest homicide rate at 46.5 per 100,000 people, according to official data published by the Constabulary Force. The United Nations considers any homicide rate of 10 per 100,000 citizens or above to be an “epidemic.” Jamaica’s total killings marked a marginal decline from 2019’s total of 1,339 murders and came as another welcome improvement over 2017’s sum of 1,647.
Breaking from an overall decrease in “serious” crimes last year, shootings across the nation rose. Gangs in Jamaica and Haiti have reportedly been engaged in a deadly trade where marijuana is exchanged for guns. Boats loaded with up to 3,000 pounds of cannabis have been heading from Jamaica to nearby Haiti, where drugs are swapped for handguns and high-powered assault weapons, according to an investigative report by the Jamaica Gleaner.
Following ongoing efforts to target gang violence through the enforcement of Zones of Special Operations and plans for mass trials last year, Jamaican Prime Minister Andrew Holness called for citizens to help curb the nation’s culture of violence in his New Year message.
Holness added that as part of Jamaica’s long-term security plan, officials intend to expand Zones of Special Operations, while modernizing technology used by its police and defense force heading into 2021.
Venezuela: 45.6 per 100,000
Despite the continuing economic, social and political crises unfolding in the country, Venezuela recorded a substantial decrease in homicides in 2020. The 11,891 murders logged throughout the year, according to data from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia — OVV), accounted for a homicide rate of 45.6 per 100,000 citizens and a nearly 30 percent reduction from 2019’s figures.
While violence is indeed still rampant, the data represent an important drop-off across the country, almost certainly helped by quarantine and other restrictions on movement due to the coronavirus. However, other security indicators raised serious concerns. For the first time in the country’s history, according to the OVV, killings by security forces, which have been on the rise since 2016 across the entire nation, accounted for a worrying share of homicides. For every 100 killings perpetrated by alleged criminals, 101 homicides were attributed to the country’s security forces.
While important to acknowledge the drop in killings recorded in 2020, the OVV warned that a violence epidemic continues to plague every single state, as well as the capital district of Caracas. Three of the country’s most homicidal municipalities with murder rates above 100 — El Callao, Roscio and Sifontes — are all located in the mining region of Bolívar state, which is hotly contested by mining unions, guerrillas from the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) and government security forces, according to the OVV.
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Honduras: 37.6 per 100,000
After seeing an uptick in murders in 2019 for the first time in several years, authorities in Honduras recorded a slight drop in killings in 2020. The 3,496 homicides logged throughout the year represented a homicide rate of 37.6 per 100,000 — or an average of about 10 murders per day, according to the government’s preliminary findings. While down almost 13 percent from the number of killings in 2019, Honduras remained the most violent country in Central America.
Indeed, dynamics on the streets may have calmed down, but the country’s penal system — oversaturated with about twice as many prisoners as it’s capable of accommodating — saw a deadly wave of violence during 2020. Its maximum-security prisons were upended by various riots, massacres and targeted killings. What’s more, authorities also recorded the first-ever massacre inside a female prison, when six women with suspected links to the MS13 were murdered by rival Barrio 18 members in mid-June.
In addition, shifts in power led to some high-profile political assassinations. In May 2020, gunmen shot dead a former congressman for the ruling National Party with ties to a drug trafficking organization that emerged in Copán in the shadow of the powerful Valles clan. Then in June, a congressional candidate for the National Party was murdered in Atlántida.
Quelling the deadly violence will remain a pressing issue this upcoming year for whoever assumes power after the 2021 presidential election. In just the first four days of 2021, the government had already logged 54 homicides, up from the 42 killings recorded during the start of 2020, according to local media reports.
*Trinidad & Tobago: 28.2 per 100,000
The island nation of Trinidad and Tobago recorded a significant fall in homicides last year. According to the nation’s Police Service, 395 murders were committed in 2020, equating to a homicide rate of 28.2 per 100,000. This was a welcome decline from its 2019 total of 539, which marked one of the nation’s deadliest years on record. What’s more, the country welcomed its lowest murder rate in eight years, according to authorities.
In his ”End of Year Address,” National Police Commissioner Gary Griffith reported serious incidences of crime in the country had fallen by 30 percent in 2020 when compared to the previous year, adding that kidnappings had been reduced by over 40 percent. However, most murders committed in the country remain unresolved and, as such, unpunished.
The island nation’s proximity to Venezuela has historically raised concerns as pirate attacks linked to conflicts over drug trafficking routes have been known to occur in waters between the two countries.
Mexico: 27 per 100,000
After seeing record homicides each of the last three years, the number of killings documented by authorities in Mexico in 2020 stabilized, although the overall security situation remained tenuous at best.
The 34,515 murders and at least 969 femicides — the deadliest year since 2015, when authorities started documenting such crimes — recorded last year, according to Security Secretary Ricardo Mejía and data from the Executive Secretariat for Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública — SNSP), totaled 35,484 violent deaths and represented a homicide rate of 27 per 100,000, an overall drop of less than one percent from 2019.
The central state of Guanajuato was again the country’s most violent, with almost 5,000 people murdered there last year alone, or an average of about 12 per day. The state was also deadly for police officers. The 84 police killings recorded in the state represented 16 percent of the total 524 officers murdered across the country in 2020, a sizable uptick from the 446 officers murdered in 2019, according to data from the watchdog group Causa en Común.
After Guanajuato, the states of Baja California, Estado de Mexico, Chihuahua, Jalisco and Michoacán were Mexico’s most homicidal in 2020, accounting for more than half of homicides nation-wide.
At least part of the bloodshed in Guanajuato can be attributed to an ongoing battle between the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación — CJNG) and Santa Rosa de Lima Cartel, whose leader, José Antonio Yépez Ortiz, alias “El Marro,” was arrested in mid-2020. Criminal fighting also provoked significant bloodshed in neighboring Zacatecas, where a five-way battle over the fentanyl trade intensified last year. This helped homicides spike to over 1,000 and the state’s homicide rate to reach more than double the national average.
But violence in Mexico can’t just be attributed to rival criminal groups. Political powers — whether criminal leaders or elected officials, which at times are one and the same — have historically also relied on violence to establish order and maintain power.
At the same time, killings by security forces have also increased considerably in the past decade. In one supposed July 2020 confrontation, 12 alleged members of an organized crime group were killed as part of a military operation in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas. One soldier was even ordered to kill a suspect that had survived the firefight. No government forces were injured or killed.
The violence has not let up during the first weeks of 2021. On January 11, a gun battle between security forces and an armed commando left at least nine individuals dead, including a police officer, in the city of Villagrán, which sits between Salamanca and Celaya, both crucial for oil theft activities.
Belize: 24.3 per 100,000
The murder rate in Belize — situated on the eastern coast of Central America, sandwiched between the Caribbean Sea and the dense jungles of Guatemala — dropped again in 2020. The 102 murders recorded by the Belize Crime Observatory represented a murder rate of 24.3 per 100,000 citizens, down almost 24 percent from 2019 and marking the lowest levels of violence in the last decade.
However, despite a marked decline in murders nation-wide, violence in the port town of Belize City continued to pose a unique challenge for authorities. While murders dropped in the north side of the city, violence ticked up on the city’s south side. By year’s end, Belize City accounted for 46 percent of murders committed across the country in 2020.
Authorities worked to crack down on the violence, declaring a series of states of emergencies beginning in March 2020 in an effort to apprehend suspected gang members linked to various murders thought to be linked to criminal dynamics.
Belize also confronted other security problems in 2020. In October, at least 28 inmates escaped from the Belize Central Prison, the biggest jailbreak in the country’s history and a major setback for a prison system that has largely avoided such controversy.
*Colombia: 24.3 per 100,000
While the homicide rate in Colombia fell once more in 2020, the Andean nation struggled to confront a number of other security threats. The 12,018 homicides recorded by the National Police across the country last year marked a murder rate of 24.3 per 100,000 people, down just over six percent from the total killings tallied in 2019.
The long-term criminal hotspot of Antioquia accounted for the majority of the country’s drop in homicides last year, but the department continued to see active operations from a variety of criminal groups, such as the Urabeños, elements of the ex-FARC Mafia, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN) and Caparrapos, all of which are contesting this territory, often through a shifting web of alliances.
But while murders across the board are down, the targeted violence levied against social leaders and former combatants of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC) has not ceased.
The 73 former FARC rebels murdered in 2020, according to data from the United Nations’ Verification Mission in Colombia, accounted for almost 30 percent of the 248 former fighters that have been murdered since a historic peace agreement was signed with the government in 2016. At least 42 social leaders were also killed during last year, according to UN data, but the Colombian conflict monitoring group Indepaz puts the number of victims at more than 300.
What’s more, Indepaz documented 90 massacres — the killing of three or more people — for a total of 375 victims in 2020, a notable uptick that has prompted condemnation from the United Nations, non-governmental organizations and local community leaders.
El Salvador: 19.7 per 100,000
Authorities in El Salvador saw one of the most significant homicide declines in the country’s recent history in 2020. By year’s end, the National Police recorded just 1,332 homicides, down nearly 45 percent from 2019’s already-historic tally, and cutting the murder rate by more than half to 19.7 per 100,000.
The significance of El Salvador’s murder drop cannot be overstated. Just five years ago, the murder rate stood at more than 100. However, controversy has swirled around the measures taken to achieve such a drastic reduction in violence.
On the one hand, President Nayib Bukele has touted his administration’s Territorial Control Plan, which deployed more than 5,000 police and soldiers to gang strongholds in 2019. However, InSight Crime field research and an International Crisis Group investigation suggests that the country’s main street gangs — the MS13 and Revolucionarios and Sureños factions of the Barrio 18 — have entered into a truce with the government and made a concerted effort to curtail their use of violence.
Indeed, the local media organization El Faro uncovered that Bukele’s government had been actively negotiating with MS13 leaders to secure a drop in homicides and shore up political support for his Nuevas Ideas party ahead of the 2021 election season. In fact, Prison Director Osiris Luna had approved the transfer of several top MS13 leaders — known as “ranfleros” — in 2019 and 2020 to presumably facilitate these negotiations.
This is not the first time that government-gang negotiations have led to notable drop in murders in the country — a 2012 gang truce led to similar dips — and its apparent effectiveness raises fresh questions about how best to deal with deadly violence, not just in El Salvador, but across Latin America.
*Brazil: 19.3 per 100,000
As of September 2020, 30,727 murders were registered in Brazil, according to Globo’s Violence Monitor, giving the nation a projected annual total of 40,969 killings and an estimated homicide rate of 19.3 per 100,000 people. Once again, Brazil saw Latin America’s highest number of total killings in a given country. However, 2020’s figures broke from record drops in murders as homicides in the nation rose marginally from 2019’s total of 39,377.
The country’s northeastern zone was largely responsible for the overall uptick, while other regions saw deaths fall, according to Globo. The state of Ceará was a particular hotspot for violence, effected in part by a mutiny among its military police early in the year. Local media reported the state had seen its most violent February since at least 2013, when during a 13-day police strike, authorities registered 312 homicides, heavily contributing to the month’s overall total of 456 killings there.
The city of Manaus in Brazil’s northern state of Amazonas also saw bloodshed early last year, as a prolonged feud between two drug gangs — the Red Command (Comando Vermelho) and Family of the North (Familia do Norte — FDN) — intensified. From January, the Red Command sought to put an end to the war through a violent takeover of the state’s capital. Largely as a result of this, the city saw 106 murders in January alone and a further 55 by mid-February, according to Brazilian media citing police figures.
However, Samira Bueno, executive director of the Brazilian Public Security Forum, indicated heightened violence could be considered as part of a broader trend, telling Globo that states with well-structured policies to curb homicides, including Espírito Santo, Paraíba and São Paulo, had also seen increased killings. She suggested this could be due to the discontinuity of public policies previously adopted to tackle violence.
On the other hand, the state of Rio de Janeiro welcomed historically low murder rates in 2020. Despite seeing an initial uptick in killings carried out by police during the pandemic, Rio saw a largely downward trend in murders committed last summer. In September, the state recorded its lowest monthly homicide rate in over three decades, according to official data from its Public Security Institute (Instituto de Segurança Pública — ISP). In line with this, deaths at the hands of police fell substantially in June and July as operations targeting Rio’s favelas were suspended by Supreme Court officials.
Puerto Rico: 16.5 per 100,000
According to official data from the island’s police, Puerto Rico closed 2020 with 529 killings and a homicide rate of 16.5 per 100,000 people. This marked a slight decline from last year’s total of 614 and meant the territory was able to welcome its lowest number of homicides in over 30 years.
José Cepeda, professor of criminology at the Interamerican University, told El Nuevo Día the island’s mobility restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic, as well as heightened police presence, may be linked to decreased murders. He also suggested the pandemic’s effect on drug trafficking could have contributed to a lower number of overall killings. According to media reports, coronavirus restrictions struck a blow to drug traffickers operating on the island, as they reportedly struggled to access precursor chemicals required to produce fentanyl and methamphetamine — typically imported from China — amid the pandemic.
However, prior to Puerto Rico’s first coronavirus curfew in March, total homicides outweighed those recorded a year earlier. The island has faced a heightened climate of violence in years past. In 2019, this prompted a top Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) official on the island to declare a “security crisis” and request additional support from the mainland, after 78 people were killed in January alone.
According to data from the territory’s Gender Equality Observatory, Puerto Rico has also struggled with a rising number of femicides, with some citizens calling for a State of Emergency to combat gender-based violence as a result.
Guatemala: 15.3 per 100,000
Guatemala closed out 2020 with a total of 2,574 homicides and a murder rate of 15.3 per 100,000 during President Alejandro Giammattei’s first year in office, according to government data. This marked a 28 percent drop from 2019’s tally, falling in line with a steady decline in violence in recent years, almost certainly aided in part by a lengthy economic shutdown beginning in mid-March due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Of Guatemala’s 340 municipalities, just 18 of them accounted for half of the country’s total homicides, according to data from the Center for National Economic Research (Centro de Investigaciones Económicas Nacionales — CIEN). Nearly one-third of the country’s homicides, according to CIEN’s data, occurred in just six of Guatemala’s 22 departments: Guatemala, Escuintla, Izabal, Petén, Jutiapa, and Zacapa.
Along the Caribbean coast in Izabal, both Puerto Barrios and Puerto Santo Tomás de Castilla play important roles as part of a major overland drug smuggling route that stretches from Honduras to Guatemala’s border with Mexico.
President Giammattei also ordered a state of siege in Izabal and neighboring Alta Verapaz in July 2020 due to the presence of organized crime groups, which had allegedly attacked security forces and engaged in drug trafficking and smuggling contraband and migrants through the region.
Ultimately, “the good news is the drop in the homicide rate, … so it is possible to improve and continue to improve,” said CIEN investigator Walter Menchú. “There are also 93 municipalities where no homicides were registered, although special attention must be paid to the 18 municipalities that concentrate half of the homicidal violence.”
In addition, gender-based violence in the country has stirred increased attention as of late. Authorities in Guatemala recorded at least 455 femicides in 2020, according to data from the Attorney General’s Office’s Womens Observatory. The year before that, the country saw 701 femicides. And through just the first month of 2021, at least 23 such killings have been reported.
*Haiti: 13 per 100,000
Authorities in Haiti recorded 616 homicides through the end of May, according to data from the United Nations Security Council, putting the country on pace to record 1,478 homicides by the end of the year for a homicide rate of 13 per 100,000. During the first half of the year, 75 percent of murders occurred in the western Ouest department, where “criminality is traditionally more prevalent owing to gangs vying for control over the marginalized neighborhoods of [the capital] Port-au-Prince,” according to the UN.
In mid-2020, a controversial figure, former police officer Jimmy Chérizier, alias “Barbecue,” orchestrated the “G9 an Fanmi,” (G9 and Family), an alliance brokered between at least nine gangs in Port-au-Prince that has reportedly benefited from strong ties to the government of President Jovenel Moïse.
There were hopes that the agreement would help curtail violence, but not all of the capital city’s gangs wanted to fall in line. One July clash between the G9 alliance and a rival gang leader who refused to join left an eight-month-old infant dead. One community leader told InSight Crime that the alliance is a “ticking time bomb, and it might already be too late.”
With the gang alliance on fragile footing and unrest growing amid calls for a new president, already-deadly violence in Haiti could very likely persist.
*Panama: 11.6 per 100,000
Panama recorded 497 homicides last year, according to data from the Attorney General’s Office, giving the country a homicide rate of 11.6 per 100,000 people. This marked a slight increase from 2019’s total of 480.
While President Laurentino Cortizo pledged to improve public security, in January of last year officials announced they would end a near decade-long ban on the importation of firearms, a move that may have benefitted traffickers and corrupt officials in the country’s context of increased violent crime.
Although overall Panama remains one of Central America’s least murderous nations, homicides in its province of Panama Oeste surged last year, almost doubling from 51 in 2019 to 93 in 2020. The country’s Bagdad crime syndicate struggled to maintain control over increased drug flows and saw associated internal clashes as factions rebelled. A cycle of revenge killings carried out by members — some of which targeted victims in their own homes — strongly contributed to the western province recording one of its bloodiest years on record.
The province of Colón was another hotspot for violence, recording 96 killings last year and marking a significant increase from its 2019 total of 80 homicides. According to media reports, Public Security Minister Juan Pino pinned Colón’s rise in violence on rivalries between gangs linked to the drug trade.
Costa Rica: 11.2 per 100,000
The murder rate in Costa Rica has remained more or less steady since 2016, and did so again in 2020. The 569 killings recorded by authorities last year, according to official data presented by the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial — OIJ), marked a slight uptick from 2019 and a murder rate of 11.2 per 100,000 people.
The bloodshed in 2020 was highly concentrated. The whole of Costa Rica is divided into seven provinces and 82 cantons, but last year, just 14 of these cantons accounted for 64 percent of the country’s total murders, according to the OIJ’s analysis. The capital San José saw the most homicides at 52, followed by Limón with 51.
OIJ Director Walter Espinoza attributed much of the violence to battles for territory and control of local drug trafficking, but there are likely other factors at play, such as the availability of weapons. According to a 2019 report from the Programa Estado de la Nación (State of the Nation Report), an organization that promotes human development in Costa Rica and Central America, guns are used in 66 percent of the country’s murders.
That said, Security Minister Michael Soto and Limón public prosecutor Miguel Jiménez told InSight Crime last year that homicides are becoming less tied to organized crime as “[criminal organizations] are learning that violence is bad for business,” which may help explain the steady rates of violence in recent years.
*Uruguay: 9.3 per 100,000
Uruguay’s homicide rate remained relatively stable, as total killings decreased for a second consecutive year. According to government data, the nation recorded 326 murders in 2020, giving it a homicide rate of 9.3 per 100,000. This followed a record high of 416 killings just two years before.
Despite a welcome decline in murders, Uruguay saw a spate of security issues arise last year. The country faced an increased number of attacks made against authorities, with the Interior Ministry revealing close to 80 police officials across the country had been assaulted during the first five weeks of 2020 alone. Around one-third of such attacks were linked to violent robberies, some of which led to officers’ firearms being stolen for potential resale in Brazil or domestic use by gangs.
The country also saw attacks against members of its military, with the unprecedented murder of three soldiers standing guard at the Fortaleza de Cerro naval base in the capital, Montevideo. Both trends raised concerns that criminal actors are beginning to act more brazenly in a country long known to be one of the region’s safest.
*Dominican Republic: 9 per 100,000
As of September 2020, the Dominican Republic recorded 705 murders according to its Citizen Security Observatory, giving the country a projected annual total of 940 killings and a homicide rate of 9 per 100,000. This continues the nation’s unbroken decline in homicides since 2011, following 2019’s total of 1,026 homicides.
The country’s new president, Luis Abinader, was quick to put police reform at the top of his security priorities after he was sworn in last August. The move was a welcome step in a country where corrupt security forces have long hampered efforts to combat organized crime groups, as they have in the past facilitated the flow of international drug shipments through the nation.
*Peru: 8.3 per 100,000
Peru’s homicide rate appears to have remained relatively stable in 2020. From January to June, the country’s National Institute of Statistics and Information (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática — INEI) registered 1,358 reports of both manslaughter and intentional homicide, which gave the nation a projected annual total of 2,716 and an estimated homicide rate of 8.3 per 100,000.
The available data point to a marginal decline from 2019’s total of 2,803 murders and reflect a gradual downward trend in homicides for the country since killings spiked at 3,012 in 2018. However, last year’s projected total would still be the nation’s third-highest in recent years.
Increased violence in the country is almost certainly connected to its prolonged state of political unrest, indicating why homicides continue to remain higher than those recorded prior to 2018. In November, former president Martín Vizcarra was removed by Peru’s Congress over corruption allegations — which he denied — sparking violent clashes between police and protestors in Lima and other cities.
However, the nation was also met with other violent trends. Social leaders in Peru were increasingly targeted during the pandemic. Four Indigenous leaders in the country’s Amazon were slain after the government declared a state of emergency over COVID-19, revealing how environmental defenders fighting against illegal logging, mining and drug trafficking had been left to face threats of violence largely unassisted by authorities. Meanwhile, violence along the nation’s border with Ecuador thrived as contraband smugglers clashed.
Ecuador: 7.7 per 100,000
Despite typically enjoying relatively low rates of violence, Ecuador saw an uptick in murders last year as part of a growing trend. The nation recorded 1,049 homicides through the end of November, according to data from the National Institute for Statistics and Census (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos — INEC), closing the year with 1,357 murders and a homicide rate of 7.7 per 100,000, up from 2019’s total killings, according to local media reports.
Guayaquil was a hotspot for violence in the country during 2020. Gangs repeatedly clashed in the city and shifted from publicly murdering their victims in the streets and at family gatherings to increasingly kidnapping and killing their targets as the year went on. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Guayaquil registered more murders than any other city in Ecuador up until October, according to media reports. While Guayaquil recorded 279 homicides within the first ten months of 2020, the nation’s second-most murderous city, Quito, reported a significantly lower total of 110.
Ecuador also saw violent clashes at its border with Peru, as contraband smugglers turned to bloodshed. Between October and November, a series of assassinations in the canton of Huaquillas were attributed to gang members fighting for control of illegal crossings by which both people and contraband are smuggled.
*Paraguay: 6.6 per 100,000
Authorities in Paraguay recorded 481 homicides in 2020, marking about a 13 percent drop from the 554 murders seen in 2019 and the lowest number of killings documented since 2008, according to official data from the Interior Ministry.
In total, 60 percent of murders committed in the country last year were done so with firearms. The 137 homicides recorded in Amambay department, an important marijuana smuggling corridor that sits along Paraguay’s eastern border with Brazil, accounted for 28 percent of the country’s killings, according to data from the Interior Ministry’s Citizen Security Observatory.
Deadly violence in Amambay kicked off early in 2020. In February last year, suspected gunmen from Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital — PCC) shot and killed journalist Lourenço “Leo” Veras — who had assisted InSight Crime’s ongoing investigations in the area, as well as other foreign media — in the border town of Pedro Juan Caballero, a key hub for organized crime.
As InSight Crime documented in an in-depth investigation of the PCC, the group has spread into Paraguay aided by deep-seated corruption and weak state capacity. Through the use of extreme violence against rival gangs, the PCC seems increasingly well-positioned to make a bid for control beyond the border region to include Paraguay’s prison system, as well as smuggling routes in the country’s east.
*Argentina: 4.6 per 100,000
Throughout the first six months of 2020, authorities in Argentina recorded 1,044 homicides, a slight drop from the number of killings recorded during that same time in 2019, according to data from Security Minister Sabina Frederic and the National Criminal Intelligence System (Sistema Nacional de Inteligencia Criminal). This put the country on pace to record 2,088 homicides by year’s end and a homicide rate of 4.6 per 100,000, just below 2019’s final tally.
The criminally strategic city of Rosario, the largest in central Sante Fe province along the banks of the Paraná River, saw the highest number of homicides in the last five years. Many of the killings are believed to be the result of drug trafficking organizations fighting for control of the expanding local market. Firearms were reportedly used in almost 80 percent of the killings.
Argentina’s strategic location and growing consumer market have made it a major transshipment point for illegal drugs, as well as the global arms trade. Many of the intended buyers of the high-powered weapons passing through the country are powerful prison gangs in neighboring Brazil and Paraguay.
*Chile: 3.7 per 100,000
Chile’s homicide rate hit 3.7 per 100,000 last year, as the nation’s Carabineros recorded 718 murders. While this marked a sharp 28 percent uptick from 2019’s total of 561 murders, Chile remained one of the least homicidal countries in Latin America or the Caribbean.
Jorge Márquez, the head of the homicide unit of Chile’s investigative police, told local media that in the capital Santiago, “there is an evident increase in the violence used both in the execution of homicides and in the way in which many of them have been committed.” What’s more, there has also been an uptick in femicides in recent years, increasing from 31 cases in 2017 to 37 in 2019. He also said the use of firearms in murders rose 42 percent, going from 295 cases in 2017 to 417 in 2020.
Political unrest in the country continued into 2020. Following a period of relative peace amid mobility restrictions associated with the coronavirus pandemic, violent clashes between security forces and protestors resumed a year after demonstrations over high living costs and extreme inequality had first erupted in the capital Santiago. In late October, the nation ultimately voted to rewrite its constitution, largely bringing an end to months of instability.
Ultimately, security officials and the wider population have continued to link rising homicides to organized crime. Drug trafficking in the nation has become increasingly prominent, diversified and violent, prompting Chileans to harbor heightened concerns around threats posed by organized crime.
In particular, violence associated with drug trafficking has been gradually increasing, with groups tapping into a growing national arms market and responding to consumer demand for synthetic drugs. Police complaints involving drug-related homicides more than tripled between 2010 and 2019, according to a report from Chile’s Drug Trafficking Observatory published last year.
“There is a direct relationship between homicides, organized crime, and drug trafficking, with the exception that our homicide rate remains among the lowest across the continent,” according to Márquez, the homicide detective.
*Nicaragua: 3.5 per 100,000
Official homicide data is tough to come by in Nicaragua. However, although limited in scope, a report from security expert Elvira Cuadra using media reports put the number of killings committed through the first six months of 2020 at 114. This country is projected to close the year with at least 228 homicides and a murder rate of 3.5 per 100,000.
“In Nicaragua, lethal violence continues, is persistent and shows an increasing trend … 19 murders were registered per month in the first six months and the violence is spreading to rural and urban areas,” Cuadra told local media last year.
Since nation-wide protests took off in 2018, the government of President Daniel Ortega has cracked down hard, repressing those in the opposition and relying on paramilitary groups to sow fear. All of this has increased the chances of more violence in the years to come, according to Cuadra.
Despite multiple requests for official data, authorities in Bolivia had yet to provide updated homicide data for 2019 or 2020 as of publication. A 2018 report from the Attorney General’s Office obtained by InSight Crime, which included the most highly committed crimes in the country, did not include any data on homicides.
That said, gender-based violence continues to raise alarms. Authorities have recorded more than 100 femicides in each of the last five years, according to data from the Gender Observatory of the Women’s Coordinator, a Bolivian women’s rights group. The at least 100 femicides reported in 2020 marked a 284 percent increase from the 26 femicides seen in 2013.
Last year, Bolivia saw President Luis Arce of the Movement to Socialism (Movimiento al Socialismo — MAS) party sworn into office, replacing the interim government of Jeanine Añez that was defined by a state-sanctioned crackdown on the opposition and widespread human rights abuses. Now, Arce will be tasked with re-orienting the country’s drug policy and thwarting the international drug trade.
*Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime based on available homicide data and the country’s 2020 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Partial data will be updated as complete figures become available.