Unrest gripped much of Latin America and the Caribbean throughout 2019. From record violence in Mexico that recalled the darkest days of the drug war, to increased fighting among armed groups in Colombia vying for control in the absence of the FARC and a rise in massacres in Honduras, the region was again one of the world’s most homicidal last year.
In its annual Homicide Round-Up, InSight Crime looks into the country-by-country murder rates and the factors influencing them.
Venezuela: 60.3 per 100,000
As the economic, political and social crisis wages on in Venezuela, the country continues to be the most murderous in Latin America after recording 16,506 killings in 2019, according to data from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia – OVV). The homicide rate decreased nearly 25 percent from 81.4 per 100,000 citizens in 2018 to 60.3 per 100,000 citizens in 2019.
While the drop is important, there is still cause for concern. In part, the reduction can be attributed to the increased territorial control of organized crime groups and the migration of small-time criminals to other countries in the region. The ongoing crisis has also limited crime opportunities, according to the Venezuelan Violence Observatory.
At the same time, an elite police unit called the Special Action Forces (Fuerza de Acciones Especiales – FAES) has targeted the country’s massive hyper-violent gangs. But the unit has also been accused of committing scores of extrajudicial killings.
Jamaica: 47.4 per 100,000*
Jamaica’s 1,326 murders in 2019 gave it a homicide rate of 47.4 per 100,000, marginally higher than 2018’s rate of 47. Though still a considerable improvement over 2017’s rate of 55.7, Jamaican authorities have been unable to stop the violence.
Part of the country’s response was the declaration of states of public emergency in certain parishes, which granted police emergency powers to make mass arrests. The long-term results of this crackdown, which includes deploying the army to certain hotspots, have yet to be determined.
Nevertheless, Prime Minister Andrew Holness has opted to expand areas under states of emergency in 2020, as well as planning to institute more Zones of Special Operations (ZOSOs), where the military participates in police operations.
Honduras: 41.2 per 100,000*
Honduras saw an uptick in murders for the first time since 2012, fueled in part by the numerous massacres committed throughout the year. According to official government figures, the 3,996 homicides recorded in 2019 represents a 7.1 percent increase over the 3,731 violent deaths seen in 2018. The marked drop in homicides in neighboring El Salvador, as well as the continued steady decrease in Guatemala, has once again made Honduras the most dangerous country in Central America.
These figures cast doubt over the security policy of the administration of President Juan Orlando Hernández. He came under fire last November for signing an agreement with the US government confirming Honduras as a “safe third country” for asylum-seekers awaiting immigration proceedings in the United States. The embattled president also saw the conviction of his brother, former congressman Tony Hernández, in October for trafficking an estimated 200,000 kilograms of cocaine into the United States.
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Trinidad and Tobago: 37.4 per 100,000
With approximately 522 murders recorded in Trinidad and Tobago, its homicide rate of 37.4 per 100,000 marked one of the deadliest years in the island nation’s history. The country outpaced last year’s 516 homicides and was just under 2008’s record of 550, according to local media reports.
The island nation’s proximity to Venezuela makes the country particularly susceptible to the ongoing security crisis in that country. In May, authorities announced the arrest of a leader of the Venezuelan gang Evander, suggesting that Venezuelan criminal elements have infiltrated the twin island nation. Nevertheless, Security Minister Stuart Young said in December that “while there has not been substantial evidence to support the existence of Venezuelan gangs operating in Trinidad and Tobago, their association with local criminals is possible.”
In response to the security situation, an agency that assesses police and fire response conducted an assessment that revealed the majority of violent crimes are committed by street gangs and are not connected to the drug trade. At the same time, an “overwhelmed and under-resourced” criminal justice system has led to a high rate of impunity and left state institutions with a severe lack of legitimacy, according to the report. In July, Police Commissioner Gary Griffith warned that the situation of extreme crime “is going to go on, and on, and on.”
El Salvador: 36 per 100,000
The drop in homicides recorded in El Salvador in 2019 was unprecedented in recent years. The National Police’s tally of 2,390 homicides last year represented a murder rate of just 36 per 100,000, a significant reduction for a country that for years ranked as one of the most violent in the world.
However, what’s behind the sharp decline is much more complex. President Nayib Bukele’s credits his sending of troops into the streets to take back territory from the gangs for the decrease. But a number of analysts consulted by InSight Crime explained that the drop could also possibly be attributed to a concerted effort on the part of the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) and Barrio 18 to stop killing in order to maintain territorial control and avoid deadly confrontations with security forces.
With territorial control comes more opportunities for extortion, the gangs’ primary criminal activity and source of income. The Attorney General’s Office reported a 17.2 percent uptick in reported extortion cases in 2019. The high number of unresolved disappearances also undercuts the country’s success in reducing homicides.
Belize: 33.5 per 100,000*
The murder rate in Belize dropped slightly in 2019, but still remains one of the region’s most deadly countries. The 134 homicides seen last year, down from 143 in 2018, yielded a murder rate of 33.5 per 100,000 citizens, according to local media reports.
Despite not being an established hub for organized crime, the Central American nation, which is bordered by the Caribbean to the east and dense jungle to the west, saw an uptick in drug seizures throughout last year amid record cocaine production in Colombia. With limited interdiction capabilities on the part of authorities, coupled with the country’s porous border regions and strategic location, Belize offers an attractive transshipment point for US-bound cocaine.
It remains to be seen if this growing role in the international drug trade will have an impact on future rates of violent crime in the country.
Mexico: 27 per 100,000*
After two straight years of record-setting violence, Mexico recorded its most murderous year in a century in 2019. The 34,582 murders tallied last year, according to data from the Executive Secretariat for Public Security (Secretariado Ejecutivo del Sistema Nacional de Seguridad Pública — SNSP), represented a homicide rate of 27 per 100,000 citizens. The bloodshed capped off a tumultuous first year in office for President Andrés Manuel López Obrador and his “hugs not bullets” strategy for combating the country’s organized crime groups.
Upstart gangs with strong local bases contributed to the continued surge in killings. The gangs are the result of the break up of some of Mexico’s larger criminal groups, and they are unafraid of extreme violence. Security force members were also the target of attacks, and rival groups warred over control of lucrative criminal economies like local synthetic drug sales and extortion rackets.
The year was defined by a number of grisly massacres reminiscent of the worst days of the government’s “war on drugs,” including the brazen murder of nine women and children near the US-Mexico border. Bodies were also seen strewn across city streets and hanging from bridges in Michoacán, and Culiacán erupted in gunfire amid a siege by the Sinaloa Cartel. Yet some former law enforcement officials told InSight Crime that the worst might still be to come.
Colombia: 25.4 per 100,000*
After a steady decline in homicides between 2002 and 2017 and a small uptick in 2018, homicides in Colombia fell again in 2019 even as the country’s criminal landscape continues to adjust to the absence of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia — FARC). The 12,825 homicides recorded last year yielded a murder rate of 25.4 per 100,000 citizens, a slight drop from the 12,923 killings tallied in 2018, according to data presented by President Iván Duque.
From a car bomb in the capital Bogotá to other bombings of police stations and continued mass displacements of community members in strategic border regions, violence persisted across the country. FARC dissidents, the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional — ELN), the Urabeños paramilitary force and an array of other criminal groups were all battling for control over key drug production areas and trafficking routes.
At the same time, social leaders working to implement the peace accords signed in 2016 have been caught in the crossfire. The 106 human rights defenders murdered in 2019, according to data from Front Line Defenders, made Colombia the deadliest country in the world for such activists. What’s more, the United Nations reported that at least 15 social leaders were killed in just the first two weeks of 2020.
Guatemala: 21.5 per 100,000
Authorities in Guatemala saw yet another drop in the country’s homicide rate in 2019. After seeing 3,881 killings in 2018, the 3,578 murders reported last year knocked the murder rate down to 21.5 per 100,000 citizens in 2019, according to data from the Interior Ministry.
However, the country is still rife with insecurity. As InSight Crime detailed in a year-long investigation with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime, Guatemala has the highest extortion rate among its Central American neighbors in El Salvador and Honduras. The MS13 and Barrio 18 continue to control large swaths of the capital Guatemala City, demanding payments from small business owners and bus drivers in the transport sector.
What’s more, the security policies of new President Alejandro Giammattei will also likely affect violence in the country. The president has pledged to clamp down on the country’s gangs in part by labeling them as terrorists groups and their members terrorists. Such hard-line strategies have failed to yield positive results in the past, and would also take resources away from anti-corruption investigations following the ousting of the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), whose work may have in part helped lower rates of violent crime.
Puerto Rico: 20.1 per 100,000*
There were 363 murders on the island through July 2019, according to data from the Puerto Rican police. If this trend held for the rest of the year, it would give Puerto Rico a total of 622 homicides and a murder rate of 20.1 per 100,000, largely unchanged from 2018’s rate of 20.
Last year opened with a spate of murders in Puerto Rico. Seventy-eight homicides were recorded by the end of January, prompting the top Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) official on the island to declare a “security crisis” and request additional support from the mainland. In October, a massacre in a residential complex in San Juan forced Governor Wanda Vázquez to convene an emergency meeting with security officials that increased police presence on streets throughout the territory.
Nevertheless, an ongoing debt crisis coupled with political instability has stretched Puerto Rico’s public services to their breaking point. Law enforcement came under fire this year for undercounting murdered women, suggesting that official data may not reflect the reality of public security on the island.
Brazil: 19.7 per 100,000*
With a projected total of 41,250 homicides, or 113 per day, Brazil by far had Latin America’s highest total number of murders in 2019. Nevertheless, the figure represents a notable 16 percent improvement over last year’s total of 48,802, as reported by Globo’s Violence Monitor. This reduction is the greatest improvement to Brazil’s homicide rate in 11 years.
All states reported a reduction in the homicide rate through the first eight months of the year, according to Globo, with Acre, Ceará and Rio Grande do Norte reporting the greatest drop at over 30 percent. Officials in these states pointed to the adoption of social crime-prevention programs, increased collaboration between security forces and the justice system, as well as improvements to the Brazilian prison system, such as the isolation or transfer of leaders of criminal groups,
While President Jair Bolsonaro was quick to claim responsibility for the improvement before the UN General Assembly last year, questions remain over the efficacy of his administration’s security policies. Many of the innovations cited by officials were made at the state rather than federal level. Similarly, increased inter-institutional cooperation and improvements to the investigative powers of law enforcement were implemented by Bolsonaro’s predecessor, Michel Temer.
Civil society has also expressed its concern over the country’s human rights situation, specifically regarding killings committed by police reaching record levels, the discovery of several mass graves, and the murder of 23 human rights defenders in 2019, to name a few.
Panama: 11.2 per 100,000*
Panama’s homicide rate hit 11.2 per 100,000 in 2019 after authorities recorded 472 homicides for the year, an increase from 2018’s total of 439, according to data from the Public Ministry. Commenting on the uptick in violence in February last year, former President Arturo Vallarino said increased police salaries and a shake-up of high ranking officers had not led to better security.
In response to the deteriorating security situation, Varela’s successor, Laurentino Cortizo, has pledged to improve public security, promising more police on the streets, more frequent anti-gang operations and the creation of a Prison Security Service (Servicio de Seguridad Penitenciaria).
Drugs are also increasingly transiting the country, with Panamanian authorities seizing a record-breaking 87 tons last year, according to Security Minister Rolando Mirones.
Costa Rica: 11 per 100,000*
The homicide rate in Costa Rica remained relatively stable in 2019 as the overall number of killings decreased for the second consecutive year. The 560 murders recorded by authorities, according to official data presented by the Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial – OIJ), represented a murder rate of 11 per 100,000 citizens, slightly lower than the rate seen in 2018.
While violence in the Central American nation is minimal when compared to its neighbors, the country’s criminal landscape has become increasingly sophisticated. Once just a key transshipment point for drugs reaching the United States, the country has also in recent years developed into a critical departure point for cocaine shipments from Colombia en route to lucrative European markets.
At the same time, local criminal groups in the country are developing more advanced operations with associates in Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico. So-called transportista networks are finding demand for their services, including building clandestine airstrips, refueling drug planes and preparing them to depart for other countries. Other groups like Los Moreco have succeeded in staying independent and charging criminal groups to use key drug trafficking routes under their control.
With the growing presence of such groups in the country, future drug violence is a top concern.
Uruguay: 9.8 per 100,000*
Uruguay saw a welcome drop in homicides last year, according to government data, following a record high of 414 murders in 2018. Yet with an estimated 342 violent deaths and a homicide rate of 9.8 per 100,000, the country that has long been described as a safe haven remains the third-most murderous in South America.
Several security issues cropped up in 2019. Major drug busts on Uruguay’s air and maritime routes last summer captured over five tons of cocaine destined for Europe, suggesting that criminal groups have expanded Uruguay’s role as a major drug transshipment point. The dramatic escape of Italian ‘Ndrangheta boss Rocco Morabito also cast doubt over the robustness of Uruguay’s institutions. And, as government officials pointed out, increased feuding between organized crime groups may be driving homicides.
Public security took center stage in Uruguay’s close presidential race. Ultimately, center-left Frente Amplio, the ruling party for the last 15 years, was edged out by the conservative National Party. Nevertheless, voters narrowly rejected the proposed “Live Without Fear” security plan, which would have led to the militarization of Uruguay’s public security, a strategy that has failed to control crime elsewhere in Latin America.
Dominican Republic: 9.5 per 100,000*
There were 742 murders in the Dominican Republic as of September 2019, according to the Citizen Security Observatory, which gives the country a projected total of 989 killings and a homicide rate of 9.5 per 100,000. This marks a notable improvement over 2018’s rate of 10.4, and it continues the country’s unbroken downward trend in homicides since 2011.
The country also managed to rid itself of the drug trafficking network of kingpin César Emilio Peralta, alias “El Abusador.” In September, police took down his crime syndicate in the capital of Santo Domingo, striking a blow to cocaine trafficking in the country.
Peru: 8.5 per 100,000*
Authorities in Peru logged approximately 2,708 homicides in 2019. While the figure represents a 10 percent improvement over 2018’s record 3,012 murders, it is the second-highest total in recent years.
The increased violence in Peru is almost certainly linked to the prolonged political unrest the country has faced over the past two years. 2019 was declared the year of the fight against corruption and impunity by President Martín Vizcarra, and last year saw several dramatic turns. In April, recently-resigned President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski was charged for his involvement in the massive Odebrecht corruption scandal. A week later, former president Alan García Perez committed suicide during his arrest on similar charges, while in July another ex-president, Alejandro Toledo, was arrested in California on an extradition order. The situation came to a head in September, when Vizcarra was suspended by Peruvian lawmakers over his decision to dissolve Congress.
Last year’s “broken constitutional order,” in the words of interim president Mercedes Aráoz, likely played into the hands of the country’s criminal elements. Coca crops boomed amid a security vacuum along the country’s border with Bolivia. Illegal gold mining operations expanded into new regions. And Shining Path guerrillas plotted to ramp up drug trafficking operations and attacks against the state.
Nicaragua: 7.5 per 100,000
After spiking in 2018 due to nation-wide unrest and a brutal crackdown on opposition protesters by President Daniel Ortega, levels of recorded violence in 2019 appear to have dropped back to earlier levels seen in 2017 and 2016. The 488 homicides tallied in 2019 represented a murder rate of 7.5 per 100,000 citizens.
While the turmoil is still ongoing, state security forces and pro-government paramilitary groups do not appear to have violently cracked down on and disappeared hundreds of students, activists and oppositions leaders in 2019 with as much frequency as they did in 2018. That said, scores of opposition members continue to be detained arbitrarily on trumped up charges, and the country’s security outlook remains uncertain at best.
Ecuador: 6.7 per 100,000*
While being one of the world’s new “cocaine superhighways,” Ecuador has enjoyed low rates of violence. Through the end of November, authorities had recorded 1,056 homicides, according to data from the country’s National Institute of Statistics and Censuses (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Censos — INCE), putting it on pace to close the year with 1,152 homicides and a murder rate of 6.7 per 100,000 citizens, up from 5.7 in 2018.
Homicides have yet to return to levels seen in years past, but the murder increase is notable. Competing criminal groups composed of dissidents of the now largely demobilized FARC rebels have plunged strategic provinces for moving cocaine, like Esmeraldas and Sucumbíos along the Colombia-Ecuador border, into conflict. Such groups have ruled even in the face of security force deployments.
With the interests of European traffickers, Mexican cartels and some of Colombia’s most powerful criminal groups converging on the border, and the proliferation of illegal mining further inland, this might just be the early stages of a sustained increased to Ecuador’s murder rate.
Argentina: 5 per 100,000
In her outgoing address on December 3, former Security Minister Patricia Bullrich announced that 2019 was projected to have the lowest homicide rate since records began in 2001, at just five per 100,000. The drop was all the more impressive, Bullrich suggested, as it occurred during “adverse economic conditions.”
Discussions on security and Argentina’s severe economic crisis dominated the presidential race, which saw the Peronists return to power after their defeat in the 2015 elections. Newly-elected president Alberto Fernández has since set out to fulfill his campaign promise of creating a Security Council, an inter-institutional space where various elements of Argentina’s security apparatus can design long-term strategies to control crime.
However, Argentina’s success in lowering its homicide rate may be short-lived. Violence has rocked the city of Rosario in the early days of 2020, with 20 murders in as many days. Rosario has long-been the hub of the Los Monos criminal group, and it remains to be seen whether Fernández, who recently ordered 300 federal law enforcement officials to the region, can contain the violence.
Chile: 2.6 per 100,000*
With a total of 483 recorded murders in 2019, according to government data, Chile’s homicide rate of 2.6 makes it once again the safest country in Latin America.
However, the year was not a peaceful one for the South American nation. In July, President Sebastián Piñera militarized the country’s northern borders in an attempt to stem the influx of drugs from Peru and Bolivia. In late October, protests over high cost of living and extreme inequality erupted in the capital of Santiago, leading to a harsh crackdown from security forces. Piñera’s state of emergency declaration suspended citizens’ rights to movement and assembly. The Chilean military was also deployed to reassert control.
Violent confrontations between security forces and protestors prompted a United Nations (UN) investigation into possible human rights violations. The report, released in November, found that police “repeatedly breached their obligation to distinguish between violent protesters and people demonstrating peacefully.” Investigators documented four unlawful deaths that were directly linked to the arbitrary use of force by state security officers.
In 2018, Bolivia tallied a homicide rate of 6.3 per 100,000 people, down from levels of violence seen in 2017.
However, the government has yet to release official homicide data for 2019 as the country struggles to stabilize in the controversial aftermath of former President Evo Morales leaving office after a contested presidential election in October. In the weeks that followed, troops and protesters loyal to Morales clashed, leading to the deaths of dozens of protesters and Indigenous community members.
Paraguay’s homicide rate dipped to just over five per 100,000 citizens in 2018, a considerable drop from 2017’s rate of almost eight per 100,000. However, authorities have yet to finalize the number of killings recorded in 2019.
Brazil’s First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital – PCC) arguably poses the biggest threat to security in Paraguay, especially along the Brazil-Paraguay border. What’s more, local gangs in Paraguay have started to push back against the PCC’s incursion across the border. However, such groups are struggling to hold their own within the country’s prison system, which lacks the tools to house PCC gang members, making prison officials powerless to stop the group’s expansion. The is made worse by persistent police corruption and institutional weaknesses.
*Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime based on available homicide data and the country’s 2019 estimated population total, according to the Population Reference Bureau. Partial data will be updated as complete figures become available.