HomeNewsAnalysisWhy Isn't Falling Inequality Making Latin America Safer?
ANALYSIS

Why Isn't Falling Inequality Making Latin America Safer?

EL SALVADOR / 10 JUL 2015 BY DAVID GAGNE EN

A common refrain for one of the root causes of violence in Latin America is the wide gap between the rich and the poor. Yet homicides in the region have continued to rise even as income inequality has fallen significantly.

Security analysts have frequently pointed to the unequal distribution of wealth in Latin America as a generator of crime and violence throughout the region, as well as in certain cities such as Salvador, Brazil. There is certainly some logic to this argument. After all, Latin America doubles as the most violent and the most unequal region in the world, according to the United Nations.

But a closer look at the data reveals surprising trends that run counter -- or at least, call into question -- this line of thinking.

During the first decade of the new millennium, Latin America was the only region in the world that experienced an increase in homicides. As can be seen in the graph below, this rise in violence was primarily due to a spike in the murder rates of El Salvador and Honduras, as well as the doubling, or near doubling, of homicides in Mexico, Panama, and Peru.

During that same time period, strong economic growth in Latin America was accompanied by a dramatic drop in income inequality across the region, as seen in the graph below. El Salvador's Gini coefficient - which measures income distribution within a country -- dropped by over 10 points, the second-biggest decrease of the selected countries, trailing only Bolivia.

As with homicides, Latin America's changing inequality rate becomes even more significant when compared to trends in the rest of the world. As the gap narrowed between the rich and the poor in Latin America, it became wider all across the globe.

So during a time when homicides were on the decline and income equality rose in every other region of the world, the exact opposite occurred in Latin America (see graph below).

These lower inequality rates were due to Latin America's expanding middle class, as opposed to stagnant income growth for the rich. Before 2000, the number of Latin Americans in poverty was about 2.5 times higher than those in the middle class, according to a 2012 report by the World Bank (pdf). By the end of the decade, an estimated 50 million people across Latin America had escaped poverty, and, for the first time ever, the size of the region's poor and middle classes were nearly the same. This trend is noteworthy in terms of how inequality in Latin America relates to violence, since poverty is often used as a recruitment tool for criminal organizations in the region.

InSight Crime Analysis

The odd coupling of Latin America's impressive economic performance with increased homicide rates during the 2000s suggests a reassessment of how inequality affects violence in the region may be in order. This is especially true for El Salvador's case, which saw one of the biggest declines in income inequality yet also experienced one of the steepest increases in murder rates. El Salvador's sharp fall in homicides in 2012 is considered to be largely due to the country's gang truce that was signed in March of that year.

SEE ALSO: El Salvador News and Profiles

This doesn't necessarily mean income inequality plays no role in the high levels of violence in Latin America. Despite falling Gini coefficients throughout much of the region, the divide between the rich and the poor remains more like a chasm than a fissure. “The picture of inequality dynamics in Latin America during 2000-10 evokes contradictory emotions: the levels remain unacceptably high, but the changes are undeniable and point in the right direction,” the 2012 World Bank report states.

But the data indicates the causal link between inequality and violence in Latin America may be weaker than typically thought. If this is indeed the case, it would suggest another variable likely has a much bigger impact on homicide levels in Latin America than in other parts of the world: organized crime activity. Indeed, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) 2011 Global Study on Homicide (pdf) found:

In comparison to countries in other regions, countries in the Americas have, on average, high homicide rates associated with relatively high levels of development, suggesting that factors other than development, such as organized crime, play a disproportionate role in driving homicide levels.

SEE ASLO: Coverage of Homicides

Other factors like political upheaval can also create a spurious relationship between inequality and violence, rather than one of cause-and-effect. For example, Honduras experienced unprecedented levels of violence as well as soaring income inequality in the years following a military coup in 2009.

The World Bank has yet to release Gini statistics past 2012, but the significant deceleration of Latin American economies in recent years may be reversing the remarkable advances against inequality that were made in the previous decade. Nonetheless, Latin American countries may at least take solace in knowing it's unlikely higher levels of income inequality will have a direct impact on homicide rates.

share icon icon icon

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

What are your thoughts? Click here to send InSight Crime your comments.

We encourage readers to copy and distribute our work for non-commercial purposes, with attribution to InSight Crime in the byline and links to the original at both the top and bottom of the article. Check the Creative Commons website for more details of how to share our work, and please send us an email if you use an article.

Was this content helpful?

We want to sustain Latin America’s largest organized crime database, but in order to do so, we need resources.

DONATE

Related Content

GUATEMALA / 31 AUG 2012

While Guatemala saw a significant drop in homicides in the first seven months of 2012 compared to the previous year,…

CHEPE DIABLO / 30 OCT 2015

This is a story about El Salvador's Edward Snowdens, a group of police officers under investigation for leaking confidential documents,…

BRAZIL / 9 APR 2012

Authorities say that homicides are rising in Maceio, the world's third most violent city, thanks to the spread of crack…

About InSight Crime

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Tackles Illegal Fishing

15 OCT 2021

In October, InSight Crime and American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) began a year-long project on illegal, unreported, unregulated (IUU) fishing in…

THE ORGANIZATION

InSight Crime Featured in Handbook for Reporting on Organized Crime

8 OCT 2021

In late September, the Global Investigative Journalism Network (GIJN) published an excerpt of its forthcoming guide on reporting organized crime in Indonesia.

THE ORGANIZATION

Probing Organized Crime in Haiti

1 OCT 2021

InSight Crime has made it a priority to investigate organized crime in Haiti, where an impotent state is reeling after the July assassination of President Jovenel Moïse, coupled with an…

THE ORGANIZATION

Emergency First Aid in Hostile Environments

24 SEP 2021

At InSight Crime's annual treat, we ramped up hostile environment and emergency first aid training for our 40-member staff, many of whom conduct on-the-ground investigations in dangerous corners of the region.

THE ORGANIZATION

Series on Environmental Crime in the Amazon Generates Headlines

17 SEP 2021

InSight Crime and the Igarapé Institute have been delighted at the response to our joint investigation into environmental crimes in the Colombian Amazon. Coverage of our chapters dedicated to illegal mining…