A report by the Inter-American Dialogue casts Latin America in a grim light, suggesting that much-touted reforms have not significantly improved citizen security, with crime still holding back the region’s political and economic development.

Analysts, politicians and academics agree: Latin America is on the rise. While most of the developed world suffered the effects of the 2008 recession, Latin American economies managed to hold together reasonably well, with regional GDP falling by 1.8 percent in 2009, but bouncing back with 6 percent growth in 2010. The region’s GDP is predicted to expand by 3.7 percent in 2012.

What’s more, UN statistics indicate that poverty in Latin America is at its lowest rate in 20 years, falling from 48.4 percent in 1990 to 31.4 percent in 2010. In the same period, the rate of extreme poverty fell from 22.6 to 12.3 percent. This economic success suggests that Latin America may have turned a corner in its decades-long struggle against inequality and economic mismanagement, leading some to herald the 2010s as “Latin America’s decade.”

But while the region is looking up on the economic front, a new report authored by Gino Costa of the Washington, DC-based Inter-American Dialogue on the state of crime and insecurity in Latin America tells a very different story. Using data from regional governments, think tanks and international organizations, Costa portrays regional governments as gravely threatened by drug trafficking networks, powerful organized crime syndicates and persistent high levels of violence.

The average homicide rate in Latin America has jumped in the last decade, growing 30 percent from 2000 to a 26 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2008. But while the media often tends to categorize violence in the region by country, the Dialogue’s report illustrates some surprising variations within countries which show that the region’s fiercest “drug wars” are often concentrated in just a few cities or municipalities.

For instance, Costa points out that some 80 percent of murders in Mexico between December 2006 and July 2010 were committed in just 7 percent of that country’s municipalities, mainly in the beleaguered states of Baja California, Chihuahua, Sinaloa, Michoacan and Guerrero. In El Salvador, more than two-thirds of homicides are committed in only 30 (11 percent) of the country’s 262 municipalities. Similar “hotspots” exist in Guatemala, Colombia, Peru and other countries across the region, serving as a reminder that citizen insecurity often has as much to do with local dynamics as it does with national security policy.

The spike in Latin America’s homicide rate has been accompanied by a shift in public perceptions of security. Either because of firsthand experience or increased media attention to the issue, more Latin Americans rate security as their biggest concern than ever before. Costa cites data from public opinion polling project Latinobarometro which indicates that anxiety over crime has been growing steadily since the organization began monitoring the issue in 1995, and finally supplanted economic status region-wide as the number one concern in 2007.

Perhaps the most interesting element of Costa’s paper is his highlighting of the puzzling lack of evidence for the causes of the region’s high homicide rate. Although the prevailing wisdom suggests that much of the violence in Latin America is fueled by the drug trade, the UN’s 2011 Global Study on Homicide claims that only a quarter of homicides in the region are linked to drug trafficking. A look at violence in the Andean region supports this. If drug trafficking were the main cause of violence, one would expect the homicide rates of Peru (5.2 per 100,000) and Bolivia (8.9) — the second and third largest producers of cocaine, respectively — to be on par with that of Colombia (33.4).

Ultimately, Costa suggests that the best indicator of security is a functioning judicial system and well-established rule of law. One of the most commonly prescribed aspects of judicial reform in the region is police reform. As InSight Crime has documented, governments in Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador, Argentina, Peru, Colombia and many other Latin American countries have pledged to purge corruption from within the ranks of their respective police forces in recent years. However, this is easier said than done. Despite the reform efforts, negative perceptions of police throughout the region have remained relatively unchanged over the last 10 years, with roughly two thirds of citizens in Latin America expressing a lack of faith in the police. Considering the high level of victimization, however (roughly one third of Latin Americans reported being robbed, assaulted or otherwise targeted by criminals in 2010), this is hardly surprising.

If the region is to match its rising economic profile with security improvements, Latin American governments will have to work hard to professionalize their police forces and build the capacity of judges and prosecutors. As the ongoing efforts of the United Nations-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemal (CICIG) illustrate, this process takes years, and often requires international assistance, two factors which may be unpopular domestically. As such, many governments in the region are turning to militarized, “mano dura” (iron fist) approaches, promising to cut crime rates through sheer force. As InSight Crime has reported, however, such strategies are risky, and may be just as dangerous to the development of democratic institutions as organized crime itself.

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.