Venezuela's capital city of Caracas is and will be, until January of next year at least, considered the world's most violent city... except it isn't.
Mexican non-governmental organization (NGO) the Citizen's Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal – CCSPJP) has published its list of the world's 50 Most Violent Cities in 2015, which ranked Caracas number one.
Since El Faro's Sala Negra was created five years ago, I have worked as a journalist who tries to understand violence indicators in El Salvador, and I like to compare them with what is happening in other countries in Latin America.
While international news agencies and prestigious media outlets elevate this Mexican NGO's list as absolute truth, we at Sala Negra dismissed it as a trusted source some two or three years ago. And we did it for one simple reason: in my opinion, the list's errors and superficiality are far too serious.
This article was originally published by El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and republished by InSight Crime with permission. See the original in Spanish here.
The great value of this list is that it details its methodology. For example, Caracas' homicide rate, which is calculated to the hundreth of a percentage at 119.87 per 100,000 residents, is not based on official figures. It is an estimate based on questionable journalistic reports that cite data from the morgue serving Caracas and its suburbs. In order to come up with the final estimate, the Mexican NGO then sliced out a percentage meant to represent an estimated number of deaths due to accidents or unintentional killings. Finally, they fail to include the municipalities of Greater Caracas, which also form part of the city's metropolitan area and use the same morgue. As I see it, the final result is based on far too many inferences, estimates and simplistic calculations to be trustworthy.
Here's another example: last year, San Pedro Sula of Honduras was ranked as the world's most violent city. The NGO tallied 1,317 homicides and a homicide rate of 171.20 per 100,000 residents. These numbers were published and disseminated by various news organizations. This year, San Pedro Sula is ranked second behind Caracas, but if you read the "fine print" within the methodology, you would find this: "First, it should be noted that our estimation of 1,317 homicides in 2014 was 14.29 percent below what was reported by the Police Statistical System, which reported 1,152 homicides." The NGO overestimated by 165 murders!
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But I wasn't moved to write this article because of what is happening in Caracas or San Pedro Sula. No, I wrote this because of a city about which I happen to know a little bit more: San Salvador. El Salvador's capital jumped this year from thirteenth to third place, and was attributed a homicide rate of 108.54 homicides per 100,000 residents.
Although it seem surprising, El Salvador has one of the most trusted and transparent systems for counting homicides in the entire Western Hemisphere, and reports homicide statistics almost immediately. Given this, the numerical differences are not so relevant, but – I repeat, in my opinion – the Mexican NGO's superficial methodology distorts the numbers.
First: the NGO attributes 1,918 homicides to "San Salvador" in 2015, when the official and public data has shown there was 1,932. The difference, as explained in the previous paragraph, is not significant. Going by this data would make El Salvador's homicide rate rise from 108.54 to 109.3 per 100,000 residents.
Second -- and here we begin to see methodological discrepancies -- the only city that exists in El Salvador, according to the criteria used by the NGO, is "San Salvador." Neither Santa Ana, nor San Miguel -- the country's second and third-most populated cities -- are classified as cities. Neither is Soyapango, a satellite city to San Salvador which is also densely populated.
Third -- what the NGO calls "San Salvador" is really the Metropolitan Area of San Salvador, an entity that consists of 14 municipalities. However, in my opinion, once you take into account the urban development seen in San Salvador over the past two decades, limiting "San Salvador" to these 14 municipalities is obsolete. Hence, a neighborhood like Tutultepeque de Nejapa is considered part of San Salvador, but not an important residential area like Via del Mar, which is located at the beginning of the road towards the port.
Fourth --I believe there are important differences between the municipalities that form part of the San Salvador Metropolitan Area, and they should not be lumped together. The security situation in municipalities like Santa Tecla and Antiguo Cuscatlán -- both of which are technically in a different department, La Libertad, outside of San Salvador -- have very little in common with the larger, urban area made up of eight other municipalities (San Salvador, Ciudad Delgado, Mejicanos, Ayutuxtepeque, Cuscatancingo, Apopa, Soyapango, and Ilopango). Despite the geographical difference and the disparate realities found in these municipalities, they are lumped together in the same homicide calculation, from which an average is extracted.
Among the most violent cities in the world, "San Salvador corresponds to the third position," the Mexican NGO states conclusively in their report. But for the reasons listed above, in my opinion the number of homicides in "San Salvador" is distorted, and so is the resulting affirmation about the capital city.
SEE ALSO: InDepth: Homicides
The reality is much more cruel: in the municipality of San Salvador, where 257,754 people reside, according to the Office of Statistics and Census (Dirección General de Estadística y Censos – DIGESTYC), there were 514 homicides. Thus, the homicide rate in the capital city is 199.3 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
If you take into account how the tourism industry and foreign investment will be impacted, as the result of being labeled the world's most violent city, we cannot complain. In some ways, the shortcuts taken by the Mexican NGO in their methodology actually helped San Salvador out. We came out looking ok.
In solemn headlines, the news is repeated by the BBC, El Mundo, and La Nación: Caracas is the world's most violent city, not San Salvador. A respected NGO says so. Who in London, Madrid, or Buenos Aires would care about what's happening in San Salvador's historic center?
*This article was originally published by El Faro and was translated, edited for clarity, and republished by InSight Crime with permission. See the original in Spanish here.