In 2021, most countries in Latin America and the Caribbean experienced a marked increase in murders. Resurgent violence was to be expected after some of the world’s longest COVID-19 lockdowns were lifted.
Much of the population found themselves sinking deeper into poverty. With schools late to reopen, teenagers returned to the streets with little to do, making them prime targets for recruitment.
The pandemic also made law enforcement more difficult. Police were stretched thin, as officers fell ill or were needed for other functions.
Organized crime groups, meanwhile, found fresh opportunities in a reemerging world. As cocaine trafficking picked up, gangs killed for their corners of the trade.
SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2021: COVID Chaos, Corruption, Deforestation and Synthetic Drugs
Ecuador – sandwiched between two cocaine-producing countries and home to a major port for smuggling drugs to Europe – saw killings nearly double and the deadliest prison gang riots in its history. In Costa Rica, murders spiked in provinces critical for cocaine smuggling. Killings by hired guns surged in Paraguay and Peru.
Despite a slight reduction in murders, Mexico was engulfed in grisly cartel violence, as groups likened to small armies battled for territory. Along the lawless Colombia-Venezuela border, armed actors of all stripes warred, leaving scores dead and thousands displaced.
Venezuela’s security forces were accused of killing citizens everywhere from Caracas to remote rural towns. The northern triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras remained some of the deadliest in the region.
Jamaica was shaken by such brutal violence that the country’s prime minister appeared at a loss as to what to do. And Haiti, even before the July assassination of its president, fell into turmoil, suffering its worst year of violence in a decade.
Meanwhile, countries that typically have the lowest homicide rates – such as Argentina, Chile and Uruguay – were alleged to be underplaying violence in 2021, with official figures hard to interpret.
In its annual Homicide Round-Up, InSight Crime reports on the region’s country-by-country murder rates and on the factors driving the bloodshed.
*Jamaica: 49.4 per 100,000
For the second year in a row, the Caribbean island nation of Jamaica had the highest murder rate in the region.
The Constabulary Force recorded 1,463 killings in 2021, giving the country a homicide rate that reached nearly 50 per 100,000 people. Jamaicans were shaken last year by brutal slayings and spiraling violence amid a “third wave” of COVID-19.
Homicides were up by 10 percent in late November, when Prime Minister Andrew Holness announced that he was imposing a state of emergency in seven of the island’s deadliest police districts. The districts chosen – four in the capital of Kingston and three in the west of the country – had homicide rates as high as 190 per 100,000 residents.
About a third of the country came under a state of emergency, which allowed for the deployment of the army and more police checkpoints. A typical response to insecurity, the state of emergency ended after two weeks when the restrictions were not supported by legislators.
According to Police Commissioner Antony Anderson, criminal gangs accounted for nearly three quarters of the country’s homicides in 2021. The gangs, he said, profit from the drugs-for-guns trade, extortion, and scam rings. He also alleged that they are supported by overseas criminal organizations.
Zones of Special Operations, where authorities can conduct searches without warrants and impose curfews, have been expanded, including in Westmoreland, a parish on the southwestern tip of the island that recorded the biggest one-year increase in killings. There, murders jumped from 80 in 2020 to 128 in 2021. The spike in violence came as the parish was hit hard economically by the pandemic, which resulted in the collapse of its tourism and sugar industries.
In his New Year’s address, Prime Minister Holness said he would increase penalties for possession of illegal weapons. Shortly afterward, however, the nation was shocked by a wave of bloodshed that was unlike anything before. More than 70 people were murdered in just 15 days in January.
Venezuela: 40.9 per 100,000
Though homicides dropped by six percent in Venezuela, the country remained one of the deadliest in the region.
According to data from the Venezuelan Violence Observatory (Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia - OVV), the country recorded 11,081 violent deaths in 2021, 810 fewer than in 2020. The murder rate was 40.9 per 100,000 people, according to the non-governmental organization, which included homicides, killings by authorities, deaths under investigation, and disappearances in its tally. Without disappearances, the country’s homicide rate dips to 33 per 100,000.
Criminals killed 3,112 people in 2021, or about nine per day. Other forms of violent crime, including robberies and vehicle thefts, rose by more than 10 percent. The jump, according to OVV, may stem from thieves targeting people and stores carrying US dollars.
Caracas remained the epicenter of violence in the country. The Capital District recorded a homicide rate of 80 per 100,000 residents, according to OVV. Violence in the city was stoked when authorities took on the El Koki gang, first in the neighborhood of La Vega and then in the gang’s stronghold of Cota 905. The raid of La Vega left nearly two dozen people dead. Six months later, nearly 30 people were killed when some 800 troops laid siege to Cota 905, conducting house-to-house searches amid firefights. In both offensives, authorities were accused of indiscriminately shooting residents in their efforts to root out the gang and its leader, Carlos Luis Revete, alias “El Koki.”
SEE ALSO: El Koki's Victory – An Urban Invasion in Caracas
Security forces in Venezuela were almost as deadly as the criminals, killing about six people per day. According to OVV, 2,332 homicides in Venezuela were cataloged as cases in which the victims resisted authorities, though it's unclear how that determination was made.
The four states in Venezuela that recorded the highest murder rates were Miranda, Bolívar, Delta Amacuro and Aragua. InSight Crime recently chronicled how Colombian guerrilla groups, armed gangs and security forces have battled to control illegal mining In the gold-rich state of Bolívar.
Along the Colombian border, the state of Apure was gripped by a war between the Venezuelan military and dissident Colombian fighters belonging to the 10th Front of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). A massive military operation that began March 21 forced thousands to flee their homes. During the conflict, which lasted about two months, more than a dozen soldiers were killed. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, accused Venezuelan security forces of summarily executing at least four people who were then made up to look like guerrillas.
Venezuela’s lawless border region was also the site of the killing of three top ex-FARC commanders: Seuxis Pausías Hernández, alias “Jesús Santrich,” Hernán Darío Velásquez, alias "El Paisa," and Henry Castellanos Garzón, alias "Romaña."
Honduras: 38.6 per 100,000
Honduras maintained the ignominious title of Central America’s most deadly country in 2021, with a homicide rate of 38.6 per 100,000 people.
The 3,651 killings recorded last year, according to preliminary government figures, was an uptick from the 3,599 in 2020, but still below the nearly 4,000 homicides in 2019.
Massacres – killings of three or more people – occurred at an alarming rate of about one a week in 2021. The 53 multiple killings were often the product of gang disputes or revenge assassinations. Criminologist Nery Ordóñez pointed to a string of massacres in the wake of large drug seizures in the northern part of the country.
The department of Cortes, which includes the city of San Pedro Sula, recorded the most massacres of any department, with 41 people killed in 14 events. The country’s second-largest city, San Pedro Sula, is a stronghold of the MS13. There, the street gang has come to dominate the sale and trafficking of a potent, lucrative form of marijuana.
The Francisco Morazán department’s central district, which includes the capital and the nearby city of Comayagüela, recorded the most killings of any urban area, with 481.
In 2021, Honduras saw some of its worst political violence in the run-up to November’s presidential elections. According to El Heraldo, 68 candidates in various local and national races were killed last year. Thirty-one belonged to former President Juan Orlando Hernández’s right-wing National Party, which has long been accused of corruption and involvement in drug trafficking. Twenty murdered candidates had been part of the left-wing Libre Party headed by Xiomara Castro, whose win ended more than a decade of National Party rule. Members of the less influential Liberal Party were not spared. In the weeks leading up to the election, three Liberal candidates were assassinated, including a popular mayor seeking his fifth term.
President Castro has promised to demilitarize policing, a break from the iron fist policies of previous administrations. Any increase in violence, however, is likely to test her commitment to that strategy.
*Trinidad & Tobago: 32 per 100,000
Trinidad and Tobago saw a 12 percent increase in murders last year.
The island nation recorded 448 homicides in 2021, a jump from 399 in 2020, according to the press, citing the country's police service. However, Trinidad and Tobago's death toll was below that of 2019, when the country recorded 539 murders, one of the deadliest years on record.
The acting police commissioner, McDonald Jacob, tried to explain away the increase in bloodshed, telling the press in December that “murder is the main barometer that many tend to judge performance over. But we have had significant reduction in other crime." He pointed to decreases in theft and robberies.
However, other violent crimes – including shootings, sex crimes and kidnappings – increased amid the surge in violence.
At least 33 femicides occurred in 2021. Violence against women, including protesters, has long been ignored by the government. The targeting of nationals of Chinese origin, especially business owners, also continued in 2021. A 72-year-old shop owner, for example, was beaten to death during a robbery by three masked men.
The ongoing economic crisis and spike in criminality in Venezuela, just a few nautical miles away, has severely impacted Trinidad and Tobago. Piracy is rife in the waters between the two countries, and human trafficking is steadily increasing, with dozens of Venezuelan migrants dying when trying to make it to the island nation on packed boats.
Belize: 29 per 100,000
With 125 murders in 2021, Belize was unable to follow on from a positive result in 2020, which saw the country's homicides reach their lowest point in a decade.
For the country’s commissioner of police, Chester Williams, who spoke to local media, this increase was due to deadly gang conflicts in May and June of last year.
Last July, Vice reported on how over two dozen feuding gangs in Belize City were essentially continuing, at a localized level, one of the most infamous gang rivalries of all time: the Bloods and Crips in Los Angeles. Deportees from the United States brought such loyalties to Belize in the 1980s, similar to how Central American migrants brought the MS13 to the Northern Triangle. Today, Belize’s gangs have atomized, only furthering the conflict.
The shooting death of a teenager led to particular outrage about gang violence. Fifteen-year-old Dwayne Gabourel was gunned down as he bought bread in September. Following his death, the government vowed to crack down on illegal weapons sales and gangs.
*Colombia: 26.8 per 100,000
Murders in Colombia rose to a level not seen in seven years, a turnaround for the Andean nation, which had made great strides in reducing killings.
According to the National Police, the country tallied 13,709 homicides in 2021, pushing its homicide rate up from a low of 23.8 per 100,000 people in 2020, to 26.8 last year. The 1,691 additional murders in 2021 can partly be attributed to the country’s reopening after a five-month COVID lockdown in 2020. Last year’s total killings, however, rose eight percent when compared with 2019, and 2021 was the first year since 2013 that Colombia surpassed 13,000 murders.
Increases in killings were seen in the country’s main cities and its hinterlands, though the factors driving violence differed.
According to police figures, both the cities of Cali and Bogotá recorded rises in homicides. In the capital, which saw a seven percent increase in homicides when compared to 2020, bloodshed surged in the city's western corridor. Bogotá also recorded jumps in other violent crimes, including a 12 percent increase in robberies.
Murders in Cali rose 13 percent. The city was convulsed by eight weeks of anti-government protests in May and June, during which 331 people were killed. After blockades were set up throughout the city, a slew of criminal groups unleashed violence.
Medellín saw a slight uptick in killings, increasing from 369 in 2020 to 403 in 2021.
Violence, meanwhile, surged in the country’s lawless Colombia-Venezuela border. The northeastern jungle region of Catatumbo, home to an abundance of coca crops, came under siege in a war between a dissident front of the demobilized FARC and the National Liberation Army (Ejército de Liberación Nacional - ELN), Colombia’s largest guerrilla group. In this battle for criminal control, the town of Tibú experienced what appeared to be the systematic killing of women.
On the other side of the country, the southwestern departments of Cauca and Valle de Cauca recorded nearly 100 people killed in 26 massacres. Both departments – critical for moving drugs out of the Pacific or to Ecuador – are a hornet’s nest of criminal actors, including three dissident FARC fronts, the ELN and the Urabeños drug gang, also known as the Gulf Clan (Clan del Golfo). In the central Antioquia department, 52 people were murdered in 14 massacres.
What’s more, Colombia continued to be one of the most dangerous countries in the world for social leaders. There also was an alarming trend of Venezuelan nationals being killed. In 2019, 444 Venezuelans were murdered. The number jumped to 625 in 2020, and 751 in 2021.
*Mexico: 26 per 100,000
While homicides in Mexico dipped in 2021, there was little cause for relief, as the country surpassed 30,000 murders for the fourth year in a row.
Last year, authorities in Mexico recorded 33,308 killings, giving the country a homicide rate of 26 per 100,000 people, according to data from the Secretariat of Security and Citizen Protection (Secretaría de Seguridad y Protección Ciudadana - SSPC). The total drop was about three percent from the 34,514 murders in 2020, following the trend of homicides in the country remaining relatively stable since a record high in 2018. Mexico has nonetheless shown little ability to keep the organized crime groups in check that drive violence in the country.
Just six states - Guanajuato, Baja California, Michoacán, the State of Mexico, Chihuahua and Jalisco - accounted for half of all murders.
A deadly ambush of a police unit in the State of Mexico left 13 officers dead in March. Grisly cartel violence engulfed the Mexican border city of Reynosa in June, when 19 people were gunned down in broad daylight.
"By any estimate, organized crime groups appear to account for a major share - if not the majority - of the recent increases in violence that Mexico has experienced,” according to the Organized Crime and Violence in Mexico 2021 report, released by the Justice in Mexico program at the University of San Diego.
Mexico’s criminal landscape has grown increasingly fragmented and predatory, creating a climate of hyperviolence. Firearms are used in the majority of murders, and criminal groups can rely on a steady flow of high-powered weapons from the United States. While the drug trade is still a major factor contributing to outbreaks of violence - especially synthetic drugs - kidnapping and extortion have also become increasingly profitable.
Government security forces were also culpable of committing heinous acts of violence. In early 2021, several members of an elite special operations unit in northern Tamaulipas state - some of whom received US training - were implicated in the massacre of 19 people, mostly migrants, along the US-Mexico border.
The killing of women continued to occur at an alarming rate last year. Since 2015, femicides have increased a staggering 135 percent, from 427 to 1,004 last year. The country has seen more than 900 femicides every year since 2018, or around 75 every month. Some experts suggest this might be the result of state prosecutors investigating more femicides, but there’s little doubt gender-based violence remains a serious problem in Mexico.
*Puerto Rico: 19.3 per 100,000
There were 616 homicides recorded by the National Police in Puerto Rico last year compared to 529 in the previous year, causing the homicide rate to jump up to 19.3 per 100,000 people and reversing the decline that had given the island nation its lowest homicide rate in over 30 years.
While this may seem like a step backward, last year’s record low homicide rate appears to have been suppressed by pandemic restrictions. With the easing of lockdown measures, homicide rates have rebounded back to levels seen in 2019.
Indeed, speaking to El Nuevo Día, Police Commissioner Antonio López Figueroa argued that data from this year should not be compared with 2020 figures, but instead with the previous year’s figures. To be sure, there is barely a noticeable difference between the number of homicides in 2021 and the 622 logged in 2019.
However, as drug flows through the Caribbean bounce back, Puerto Rico could again see increased violence as it did in years past.
*Brazil: 18.5 per 100,000
With 29,568 reported homicides from January to September, according to Globo’s Violence Monitor, Brazil stood to reach nearly 40,000 murders by the end of the year. This would give Brazil the highest number of homicides in 2021, ahead of Mexico, Colombia and Venezuela. The country, though, is also the region's most populous.
There were some security advances last year. According to preliminary statistics, the country's projected murder rate of 18.5 per 100,000 was a tick below that of 2020. State governments also reported positive trends. The capital, Brasilia, saw the lowest homicide rate in almost 45 years. The southern state of Santa Catarina reported its fewest murders in well over a decade, and even Rio de Janeiro, which so often hosts the bloodiest acts in the country, made some definite progress.
President Jair Bolsonaro was quick to claim credit, saying that murder rates and violent crime had fallen since he came to power.
But there were worrying signs that such gains might only be temporary. Police actions still claimed the lives of thousands of people a year with virtually total levels of impunity. There were accusations that police operations in which multiple people died were done in order to weaken drug gangs and allow militia groups to move into poorer neighborhoods. Reports of prisoners being tortured more than doubled in parts of the country in 2021. Long-simmering tensions between illegal miners and Indigenous communities in the Amazon boiled over, with regular killings on both sides.
While the tough police measures meant Brazil's gangs had a quieter year, a long-running war between the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV) and a number of rivals continued to claim lives in the northern state of Amazonas.
*El Salvador: 17.6 per 100,000
El Salvador saw another decline in murders last year, albeit a much smaller decrease than that of 2020, when killings were slashed nearly in half.
El Salvador’s National Police recorded 1,140 homicides in 2021, a drop of about 200 killings from 2020. A murder rate of just 17.6 per 100,000 people - while still high - was unimaginable in the Central American nation just several years ago, when the rate topped more than 100.
President Nayib Bukele has taken full credit for the plunge in killings, which he attributes to a security policy of sending police and troops into gang-controlled neighborhoods. But his claim was undercut when the US Treasury Department sanctioned administration officials late last year, alleging they had negotiated with incarcerated gang leaders to reduce homicides in exchange for access to cell phones and sex workers.
While the number of killings dropped, sudden spikes in homicides occurred last year. During three days in November, El Salvador recorded 46 homicides, including 22 on a single day, the worst daily death toll in 2021. Street gang bosses allegedly unleashed the killings.
Sudden waves of violence were the norm. At the start of 2021, nearly two dozen people were killed across three days. A single week in November tallied 21 murders.
Media attention on the killings appeared to rankle the Bukele administration, which limited information on homicide figures and altered data to exclude bodies discovered in mass graves.
Unresolved disappearances also jumped last year, leading to questions of whether the gangs were attempting to hide body counts.
Guatemala: 16.6 per 100,000
As COVID-19 lockdown measures lifted last year, Guatemala suffered growing violence.
The Central American country recorded 2,843 homicides in 2021, giving the country a rate of 16.6 per 100,000 people, according to figures from the government’s Center for National Economic Research (Centro de Investigaciones Económicas Nacionales - CIEN). Guatemala tallied 266 more murders last year than in 2020, the least violent year in a decade.
The first stark divergence in year-over-year figures came in May. That month, the country recorded 253 killings, a major jump from the 177 in 2020, when lockdown measures were at their strictest.
October was the country’s deadliest month with 293 killings, according to government data.
The Mutual Support Group (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo), a civil society organization that tracks homicide figures via forensic investigations, put the death toll last year even higher, at 3,715 homicide victims through November.
According to GAM’s data, three departments had homicide rates above 50 per 100,000 people: Escuintla, Zacapa and Chiquimula. While all three are part of drug corridors, these regions also suffer from patterns of violence related to social and economic conflicts.
The department of Guatemala, which includes Guatemala City, accounted for nearly a third of all homicides. The city has long been plagued by gangs. Crimes related to urban violence, such as extortion, are common. According to GAM, vendors had the most dangerous profession, with more than 100 killed.
Extreme violence also appeared to be on the rise. GAM recorded 104 murder victims who showed signs of being tortured, nearly double the figure from 2020.
Such hyperviolence included the massacre of 13 members of a Maya community who were ambushed by armed men while they left Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, a municipality in the western mountains of the Sierra Madre, to collect corn. Victims included women and children, whose bodies were found dismembered and burned.
The specter of drug violence also loomed over towns along the country’s northwestern border with Mexico. In July and August, shootouts occurred in broad daylight on border highways. A video then circulated on social media of alleged members of Mexico’s powerful and violent Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cartel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG) threatening to kill a Guatemalan police inspector and three officers, whom they accused of stealing a drug shipment.
*Guyana: 15.2 per 100,000
Despite its small population, Guyana has maintained a fairly high homicide rate, reaching an estimated 20 per 100,000 in 2020. This appears to have dropped in 2021, with the country’s deputy police commissioner, Wendell Blanhum, reporting 119 murders from January to mid-November, a nearly 25 percent decrease from the 157 for the same period in 2020. Guyana's projected homicide rate in 2021 stands at 15.2 per 100,000 residents.
Guyanese authorities reported several problematic areas in curbing violence, including a shortage of police investigators.
A number of security flashpoints also came into focus in 2021, including an increase in illegal mining and a dramatic increase in gender-based violence.
*Ecuador: 14 per 100,000
In our annual GameChangers series, InSight Crime dove into Ecuador’s brutal struggles last year, covering a rapid escalation in gang violence, in murder-for-hire and in weapons trafficking, just as the country was battered by COVID-19.
The statistics remain shocking. Ecuador saw 2,464 murders in 2021, almost double the 1,362 seen in 2020, according to the national police. No other country in Latin America and the Caribbean came close to seeing such an increase. Ecuador ended the year with a homicide rate of 14 per 100,000, its highest in a decade.
At least 329 prisoners died in the country's worst jail riots, as the war between the Choneros, Lobos and other gangs spiraled out of control. In one conflict, 119 inmates were brutally murdered, as rival gang factions used automatic weapons and grenades inside prison walls. The two most dangerous Mexican cartels, the Sinaloa Cartel and CJNG, were blamed for arming the gangs, though the true extent of their influence remains unclear. Elsewhere, violence followed drug trafficking routes south from Colombia to the port of Guayaquil. Brokers from a range of international mafias made their presence felt and increased weapons trafficking through Ecuador, showing how the gangs became so well-armed.
The crisis has only escalated in 2022, with far more violent crimes reported in January 2022 than in 2021, including the execution of a suspected Albanian drug lord.
Haiti: 13.7 per 100,000
Last year, Haiti saw its worst violence in decades, as gangs ruled the country in the aftermath of the assassination of the country's president.
The Caribbean nation was on track for 1,630 murders in 2021, an 18 percent increase from 2020, according to preliminary data from the Intelligence and Operations Center (Centre de Renseignement et d'Opération) of Haiti’s National Police (Police Nationale d'Haiti) and the United Nations Integrated Office in Haiti (BINUH). The country's projected homicide rate of 13.7 per 100,000 people stands as the worst in recent years.
The July killing of President Jovenel Moïse, followed by a devastating earthquake, left the country reeling. Powerful and violent criminal gangs, which have come to control upwards of 60 percent of the territory around the capital of Port-au-Prince, choked off aid and fuel deliveries, blockading the country's roads and ports. Meanwhile, a gang abduction of 17 missionaries put a spotlight on the explosion of kidnappings in the country.
Violence had already picked up before the president’s assassination, when gunmen shot and killed at least 19 people in the Delmas district of Port-au-Prince, according to reports from the National Human Rights Defense Network (Réseau National de Défense des Droits de l'Homme - RNDDH). Journalist Diego Charles and political activist Marie Antoinette Duclaire were among those murdered.
Between January and September, some 1,200 people were killed.
“Haiti is facing one of its worst outbreaks of violence since 1986,” Human Rights Watch said of the country in its 2021 World Report.
*Panama: 12.8 per 100,000
Long among Latin America’s safest countries, Panama’s extended trajectory of steadily increasing violence continued in 2021, with 554 homicides and a homicide rate of 12.8 per 100,000 citizens, according to official data from the Attorney General’s Office. There were 57 additional killings last year, an increase of about 11 percent from 2020.
In a statement to EFE, Police CommissionerJohn Dornheim said that “more than 70 percent of the homicides are related to national and transnational organized crime,” a claim supported by a string of violent killings in the Central American nation.
Most notably, three members of the Los Galácticos gang were gunned down in late October in a nightclub in San Felipe, the historic old town of Panama’s capital. The shooting allegedly stemmed from a cocaine shipment that the gang had stolen.
Panama’s gangs have grown bolder in recent years. To be sure, alleged hitmen killed Public Registry Deputy Director Agustín Lara while he was participating in registration day for his party, the ruling Democratic Revolutionary Party (Partido Revolucionario Democrático - PRD), in the crime-ridden San Miguelito area of Panama City, La Prensa reported.
With many of the country’s killings occurring near drug-trafficking hotspots, the increasing flow of cocaine through the shipping hub to destinations in Europe and elsewhere is likely to blame for the growing reach of organized crime in the Central American nation.
*Costa Rica: 11.5 per 100,000
Costa Rica tallied only 19 additional killings last year compared to the year before, but drug gang feuds sent murders spiraling in some corners of the Central American country.
Costa Rica’s 588 homicides in 2021 gave the country a murder rate of 11.5 per 100,000, just a tick above last year’s rate of 11.2, according to data from the country’s Judicial Investigation Agency (Organismo de Investigación Judicial - OIJ).
Still, authorities saw a reason for alarm after homicides jumped in two coastal provinces: Limón and Puntarenas.
Limón – home to 125 miles of Atlantic coastline and a massive port – led all other provinces last year in homicides, with 151.
Traffickers draw on Limón’s local gangs to receive, store and smuggle cocaine onto shipping containers headed for Europe. Control over this slice of the drug trade often drives violence in Limón.
Similarly, gang violence was blamed for record homicides in Costa Rica’s largest province, Puntarenas, whose Pacific coastline provides ample space for unloading cocaine-laden vessels launched from Colombia. Murders in Puntarenas topped 100 for the first time last year, with about half the killings occurring in the province’s central district. Most, according to authorities, came as a result of gang conflicts to control street drug sales.
Both Limón and Puntarenas have high rates of poverty and unemployment, providing a ready supply of recruits for gang wars.
*Dominican Republic: 10.3 per 100,000
According to data from the Citizen Security Observatory, there were 841 homicides recorded in the Dominican Republic between January and September 2021. If that trend held for the rest of the year, the country stands on track for 1,121 murders and a projected homicide rate of 10.3 per 100,000 citizens.
According to Daniel Pou, a political scientist and crime specialist interviewed by El Nuevo Diario, the increase in homicides was a part of a general upsurge in violence in the island country, which he theorized was driven by COVID-19 confinement policies.
Police officials also came under scrutiny for killing civilians, such as Robinsón Ramón Méndez Mancebo, who was shot in the chest. Officers originally alleged he was armed, but video footage disproved that claim.
The surge in violence comes as President Luis Abinader’s has made a commitment to crack down on organized crime. The Dominican Republic’s island status in the middle of the Caribbean makes it an ideal location for drug traffickers. Through his first nine months in office, public forces seized nearly 24 tons of narcotics, according to a May news release.
Uruguay: 8.5 per 100,000
According to the government's 2021 homicide statistics, Uruguay recorded 300 homicides last year, an 11 percent drop from the 338 murders in 2020 and 342 in 2019.
However, the opposition Broad Front party alleged the figures had been deflated, citing a category of “suspicious deaths” created by the Interior Ministry, which, they said, meant dozens of homicides had been excluded from the total.
While considered one of the safer countries in Latin America, Uruguay has suffered the spillover effects of a feud between Brazilian gangs in its northeastern border city of Rivera. Three Brazilian gangs – Bala na Cara, the Manos and the Tauras gangs – have been fighting for several years to control the drug trade in Brazil’s southern state of Rio Grande do Sul, along the Uruguay border. By May of last year, at least 16 homicides in Uruaguay had been attributed to the gang conflict.
*Paraguay: 7.4 per 100,000
Driven in part by an onslaught of murders by hired guns, killings in Paraguay rose last year.
The nation recorded 525 murders in 2021, a nine percent jump from the 481 in 2020, according to data from the Interior Ministry. Paraguay’s homicide rate of 7.4 per 100,000 was low for Latin America. But one method of murder – mostly linked to organized crime and criminal gangs – was on the rise: targeted killings.
Between January and October of last year, Paraguay tallied 151 murders by hitmen, which equated to one every 48 hours, according to a study by investigator Jorge Rolón Luna.
Rolón Luna, the former director of the country's citizen security observatory, told Última Hora that increased trafficking activity, as well as conflicts over territory and routes for the cocaine trade, was likely to blame for the increasing deployment of hired guns.
Known as sicariato, targeted killings left a trail of bloodshed in the Paraguay-Brazil border department of Amambay. About a quarter of the country’s homicides occurred in the eastern department, which includes Pedro Juan Caballero, a border city accustomed to violence.
A variety of actors – from freelance traffickers to members of Brazil’s most powerful gang, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) – have a presence in the city. According to an InSight Crime investigation, the PCC’s incursions into the region’s marijuana and cocaine trades have upset the criminal balance, leading to a spike in violence.
In Pedro Juan Caballero, the escalating attacks by hired guns struck home in late October, when the daughter of Amambay’s governor was shot dead in an SUV alongside two other young women. Gunmen emptied more than 100 rounds into the vehicle, killing the driver and apparent target, local drug trafficker Osmar Álvarez, alias “Bebeto.”
The violence, however, wasn’t relegated to border outposts. Paraguay’s capital of Asunción and its populous Central Department were also gripped by targeted killings.
In late September, a navy captain was gunned down just blocks from the home of the interior minister.
*Nicaragua: 5.7 per 100,000
During a year in which President Daniel Ortega jailed top officials and criminalized dissent ahead of elections, violence in Nicaragua picked up.
According to security expert Elvira Cuadra, who tracks murders in the country through media reports and other independent sources, 189 people were killed during the first six months of last year, putting the country on pace for a homicide rate of 5.7 per 100,00 in 2021, according to InSight Crime's calculations.
Between January and June, Cuadra recorded 153 murder cases, a jump from 104 during the same period in 2020.
In a September presentation of her findings, Cuadra said that violence in the country was not only “sustained and growing over time” but extreme, noting that nearly 40 percent of shooting victims were struck multiple times, and nearly half of stabbing victims suffered multiple wounds. In two cases, she said, police were alleged to be the perpetrators.
Cuadra added that the election year provided a “favorable context for this violence.”
Outright violence where citizens were harmed did not appear to occur ahead of Ortega securing his fourth consecutive term. However, Urnas Abiertas, an election observation group, recorded more than 1,600 instances of political violence. This included police and paramilitary groups holding people hostage in targeted areas for hours or even days, during which they were harassed and threatened.
Ortega also harnessed the justice system to crack down on opponents. According to Human Rights Watch, authorities detained seven presidential candidates and at least 32 government critics, some of whom were subjected to abuse that included “daily interrogations, prolonged solitary confinement, and insufficient food.”
(InSight Crime used Cuadra’s data to calculate yearly homicide figures due to official data being unreliable or nonexistent)
*Peru: 4.3 per 100,000
In the final months of last year, officials in Peru sought the declaration of a state of emergency in the capital and in a northwestern department to stem rising violence.
According to figures provided by Peru's National Institute of Statistics and Information (Instituto Nacional de Estadística e Informática -- INEI), the country recorded 356 murders from January to March. Based on the limited data, the country is on track for 1,427 homicides and a projected homicide rate of 4.3 per 100,000 people.
While little can be gleaned from the figures, news reports indicated surging violence in Peru's cities. Lima and the neighboring port city of Callao recorded 776 homicides between January and November of last year. More than half were targeted killings, according to RPP Noticias.
Interior Minister Avelino Guillén, who recently resigned, asked legislators to declare a state of emergency in the capital to confront rising crime – a move that would allow for troops to conduct patrols.
The governor of La Libertad also sought to declare a state of emergency for his department in northwest Peru. In 2021, more than 200 killings were recorded in La Libertad, which includes the city of Trujillo, where a five-year-old boy was killed when gunmen shot into his home.
In the country’s Amazon region, where illegal logging and coca crops flourish, members of Indigenous communities continued to be murdered. Two were slain in the span of a week, including the cousin of a leader of the Sinchi Roca community, who was kidnapped and tortured before being killed.
Ahead of presidential elections in June, Shining Path (Sendero Luminoso) militants killed 18 people, including two children, when they attacked a bar in the Apurimac, Ene and Mantaro River Valley (Vraem), the jungle region that produces most of the country’s cocaine.
Chile: 3.6 per 100,000
Homicides dropped by nearly 25 percent in Chile when compared to 2020, one of the country's deadliest years.
Chile recorded 698 homicides in 2021, a drop from 918 in 2020, according to police statistics. While the country's homicide rate of 3.6 per 100,000 was the lowest in Latin America, the country has experienced escalating violence in recent years amid gang and drug trafficking activity.
There was disagreement, however, about the country's homicide rate. In early January, Attorney General Jorge Abott claimed the homicide rate had increased to about 5 percent while Interior Ministry maintained it was closer to 3.5 percent.
"We have seen a lot of violence, a lot of homicides that seem to be the settling of scores, such as those where a person is killed inside a moving vehicle,” Pilar Lizana, a public security expert from think tank AthenaLab, told newspaper El Mercurio.
While Chile long avoided the type of criminal activity and gangs that plagued other countries, that no longer appears to be the case. Last year, waves of migrants were smuggled into the country, with many Haitians and Venezuelans journeying across the country's remote border from Bolivia, sometimes with fatal consequences. Profits from smuggling their countrymen even drew one of Latin America’s most dangerous gangs, Venezuela’s Tren de Aragua, to Chilean soil.
Drug hauls were also up, with almost 30 tons of marijuana and cocaine seized last year, more than double the previous year’s tally. And weapons traffickers also set their sights on Chile as a gateway into Latin America, focusing their efforts on the port of Iquique, from where guns have made their way to other countries to the north.
Gang activity also caused alarm. Narco-funerals, riotous burials for gang members mostly associated with Mexico and Colombia, happened so frequently that a presidential candidate promised to ban fireworks.
Argentina releases its crime statistics late compared to most other countries, meaning it is not possible to provide information about this year's homicide figures or rate. In 2020, the country reached 2,416 murders, the highest level in three years but still a dramatic improvement from the 3,228 homicides seen in 2014.
However, some Argentine cities and regions have released their local statistics, making it possible to look at local dynamics. By far the most violent part of the country was the city of Rosario, in the province of Santa Fe. Long controlled by a group called the Monos, Rosario’s homicide rate was triple the national average in 2020. The situation only worsened in 2021. Last year, 241 separate murders were recorded in Rosario, the worst death toll in seven years, according to local press reports.
Numerous reasons have fed into Rosario becoming Argentina’s violence capital, but most hearken back to the Monos gang defending its territory. With much of the Monos leadership behind bars for decades, other criminal groups are muscling in on prime real estate for drug trafficking and contraband smuggling.
Out west, the province of Mendoza, a hub for human and drug trafficking with Chile, reported a small drop in killings.
Despite requests for official data, authorities in Bolivia had not responded to InSight Crime or published homicide figures for 2021 by the time of publication. These statistics are also unavailable for the past two years, but the Andean nation has generally seen lower levels of violence than its neighbors in the region.
That said, gender-based violence remains a serious problem, growing once more in 2021. Last year, authorities documented at least 108 femicides, according to data from the Gender Observatory of the Women's Coordinator, a Bolivian women's rights group. Such crimes have jumped a shocking 315 percent since 2015, as the country has averaged more than 100 targeted killings of women each year.
“Women and girls remain at high risk of violence,” Human Rights Watch said in its 2021 World Report.
*Murder rates calculated by InSight Crime based on available homicide data and the country’s 2020 estimated population total, according to The World Bank. Partial data will be updated as complete figures become available.