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Why Does Latin America Dominate the World's Most Violent Cities List?

BRAZIL / 24 MAR 2022 BY CHRIS DALBY, PARKER ASMANN AND GABRIELLE GORDER EN

Much like in recent years, the 2021 ranking of the world's 50 most violent cities is littered with urban centers in Latin American and the Caribbean. The top eight are all in Mexico, and the region posted a total of 38 cities on the list, compiled each year by Mexico's Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y Justicia Penal - CCSPJP).

But not everywhere in Latin America is at risk.

Rather, the list exposes patterns or clusters that warrant further attention. From the Valle del Cauca department in Colombia claiming three spots, to a homicide spike in Mexico's tourist towns, the grim arrival of Ecuador, and the acute concentration of violence in northeast Brazil, InSight Crime dives into the main takeaways from the annual report.

Mexico Tops List Again

Mexico has long dominated the most violent cities list, consistently posting a greater number of urban centers than any other country. And 2021 was no different.

“Mexico has been the world epicenter of urban homicidal violence for the last three years,” and that’s without considering the thousands of people that disappear each year, according to the CCSPJP.

The world’s most violent city in 2021 was Zamora, in Mexico's Michoacán state. The country also posted eight cities in the top 10, and 18 of the 50 included in the entire study. A notable return to the list was Cancún – ranked 40th – a tourist hub on the Caribbean Sea not included since it first made the ranking in 2018 (13th).

The coastal city accounted for more than half of Quintana Roo state’s 651 murders in 2021. The violence in part stems from a booming tourism industry that has fostered excessive real estate development and rapid urbanization, contributing to rising violence and the expansion of organized crime in the city.

Violence between competing criminal groups has escalated, with the city now seeing beachside gunfights and midday assassinations. And in mid-March, authorities uncovered a “clandestine cemetery” in the city allegedly linked to the Jalisco Cartel New Generation (Cártel Jalisco Nueva Generación - CJNG).

SEE ALSO: In the Riviera Maya, Cartel Extortion Schemes Know No Limits

As of December 2021, Cancún was among the Mexican cities where citizens felt most insecure (85.5 percent), according to the National Urban Public Security Survey published by the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Instituto Nacional de Estadística y Geografía - INEGI).

Yet the violence is far from limited to Cancún. Multiple cities located on major drug trafficking routes were among the top 10 most violent cities in 2021. This included the manufacturing hub of Celaya (5th) and the key agricultural production center of Uruapan (8th), in central Mexico, as well as cities bordering the United States like Tijuana (4th) and Ciudad Juárez (6th).

Ciudad Juárez and Tijuana saw extreme violence in the late 2000s and early 2010s, fueled by drug trafficking disputes, corruption, globalization, urbanization and other factors. Homicide rates briefly stabilized around 2018, but now both border cities have again seen a spike murders.

Central America Drops Off, For Now

A notable feature of the most violent cities list was the continuing absence of El Salvador and Guatemala. Just like in 2020, Honduras’ two most populated cities – the capital Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula – were the only urban centers from Central America to make the list for 2021.

San Pedro Sula ranked 32nd, while the capital came in at 39th. The two cities have frequently appeared in the list because of generally high levels of violence in Honduras; in 2021, the country was the third-most homicidal country across Latin America and the Caribbean.

Honduras authorities logged at least one massacre every week in 2021, with Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula accounting for around 30 percent (16) of the massacres, according to government data compiled by newspaper El Heraldo. But the rankings of both cities have dropped in recent years; San Pedro Sula was previously ranked 15th in 2019, with Tegucigalpa 33rd.

In neighboring El Salvador, the country’s dramatic decline in homicides since 2019 has seen capital San Salvador escape the most violent cities list. The last time San Salvador made an appearance was in 2018, and since then no Salvadoran city has made the top 50.

President Nayib Bukele credits his flagship national security plan and military and police deployments for the decline in murders, but critics have cited a growing disappearance crisis and seemingly irrefutable evidence of negotiations between his government and street gangs the MS13 and Barrio 18 as possible explanations the drop.

It is not the first time alleged gang negotiations have caused a substantial lull in violence. A controversial gang truce brokered by El Salvador officials in 2012 also led to a marked drop in murders, although violence skyrocketed after that truce fell apart three years later.

The current negotiations have also shown signs of fraying. A killing spree that saw almost 50 homicides over a 72-hour period in November 2021 provided a stark reminder of how quickly the gangs can change tune and leverage violence to their own benefit.

Meanwhile, neighboring capital Guatemala City also remained off the list, having last appeared in 2019, despite the country's homicide rate creeping up around 10 percent. The spike in murders came after a decades-long decline following a peak in 2009, when the country saw more than 6,500 murders and the homicide rate stood at 46.5 per 100,000 people.

Still, social and economic conflict remain important drivers of homicides in Guatemala, along with high violence in gang-controlled areas and key drug trafficking corridors along its borders with Mexico, Honduras and El Salvador.

Ecuador Has Arrived

The inclusion of port city Guayaquil – ranked 50th – is the first time an Ecuadorean city has appeared on this list since it began in 2013. Yet it was inevitable. In 2021, Ecuador saw its homicide rate increase faster than any other country in Latin America and the Caribbean. Murders almost doubled year-on-year as gang warfare spiralled out of control.

The news led to consternation in Ecuador with officials and experts rushing to defend it. Gustavo Zúñiga, president of the Guayaquil Corporation for Citizen Security (Corporación para la Seguridad Ciudadana de Guayaquil - CSCG), said that Guayaquil is not a violent city but a “victim of drug trafficking.”

Carlos Sevillano Páez, an expert in national security, criticized Guayaquil’s inclusion in the ranking, saying that if accurate data had been received from countries like Venezuela, Ecuador would have been spared.

But with the city and surrounding areas recording 621 murders last year, many would disagree. All evidence points to a chaotic security situation deteriorating at a breathtaking rate.

Fierce clashes between drug clans have flared up throughout the city, creating a pattern of generalized violence. And neighborhoods around the port of Guayaquil – prized criminal turf as the main exit point for cocaine transiting in Ecuador – have become the sites of regular gang warfare.

SEE ALSO: InSight Crime's 2021 Homicide Round-Up

Guasmo Sur, a neighborhood directly behind the main port, has become Guayaquil's most violent sector as gunfights have broken out between local gangs attempting to dislodge each other.

Colinas de la Florida, a suburb in northwestern Guayaquil, has also seen multiple shootouts and massacres. In October, it grabbed headlines after Olympic sprinter Álex Quiñónez was shot dead there.

Across the river from Guayaquil, the town of Durán has possibly seen the most harrowing violence. In February, two bodies were left hanging from a pedestrian bridge over a major road, a practice previously unheard of in Ecuador. The two gangs rumored to be involved, the Águilas (Eagles) and the Chone Killers, are both embroiled in a nationwide gang war.

The epicenter of this war is in Guayaquil, namely in the Litoral prison. In 2021, the Choneros, Ecuador’s largest criminal group, splintered as various subsidiary gangs turned on the main structure. The result was a string of gruesome massacres inside the jail, fuelled by automatic weapons and grenades. In total, over 200 prisoners were killed in the prison in three massacres last year.

So far, the violence has shown few signs of letting up. And with almost 300 homicides recorded in and around Guayaquil between January and March 2022, the city could find itself even higher on next year's ranking.

Valle del Cauca’s Hat Trick

Four Colombian cities appeared on the 2021 rankings, with the top three – Buenaventura, Cali and Palmira – all located in the same department: Valle del Cauca.

Bordering the Pacific Ocean and the coca-dense department of Cauca, Valle del Cauca is a pivotal location in the narcotics trade.

A port city, Buenaventura ranked 13th on the list, having not appeared in 2020. The city is hotly contested by criminal actors seeking control of maritime cocaine routes headed to Asia, the United States and Central America. There are an estimated two murders every three days in the city, linked to extortion, theft and other criminal economies, according to the Foundation for Peace and Reconciliation (Pares).

Local security experts and human rights defenders say a narco-paramilitary structure and a war between two rival factions of a local drug group linked to the Urabeños are responsible for the uptick in violence.

The next highest-ranked Colombian city was Cali (24th). Around 100 kilometers from Buenaventura, the capital of the Valle del Cauca department has long served as a transit point for cocaine, as well as a hub for money laundering and street-level drug peddling. Because of this, Cali has consistently appeared on the most violent cities list.

The city recorded a a 13 percent increase in homicides in 2021, with many gang-afflicted neighborhoods positing a spike in murder rates.

But the surge in violence can largely be attributed to a series of anti-government protests and police crackdowns that took place between May and June 2021. Various criminal groups took advantage of the unrest to advance their often conflicting agendas, including the National Liberation Army (Ejército de la Liberación Nacional - ELN), dissident factions of the demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia - FARC), and paramilitary organizations.

The protests also coincided with a spike in violence in the nearby city of Palmira, which ranked 34th on the list. The city last appeared in 2019 (37th). Palmira houses Valle del Cauca’s primary airport, which authorities say is used by criminal groups to export cocaine and illegal gold, as well as to import weapons from the United States.

Generalized Violence in Northeast Brazil

With nine cities on the list, Brazil’s northeast region accounts for almost 20 percent of the 2021 ranking. Though not traditionally home to prominent gangs, in recent years this area has seen the arrival of Brazil’s largest drug trafficking outfits that seek to control supply from Bolivia and Paraguay, along with maritime links to Europe.

Since 2016, the country’s two main gangs, the First Capital Command (Primeiro Comando da Capital - PCC) and the Red Command (Comando Vermelho - CV), have spent considerable manpower and money on controlling the northeast. Neither has come close to taming it.

Instead, the gangs have run into solidly entrenched local groups mounting fierce resistance, stealing drug shipments and claiming their own routes. The so-called Guardians of the State (Guardiões do Estado - GDE), a faction based in the state of Ceará, has enjoyed the most success in curtailing the gangs. The group is engaged in a bloody feud with the CV, focused on Fortaleza, a coastal city ranked 29th on the most violent cities list.

The CV also faces other fights in the region. In the port city of Salvador – ranked 28th – local faction Tropa do A has taken the fight to its larger rivals. Made up of remnants of a local gang that was forced to integrate with the CV, Tropa do A has been involved for multiple homicides in and around the state of Bahia in 2021 and 2022.

Ranked 33rd, the port city of Natal – the largest cocaine departure point in Brazil's northeast – remains a battle zone for criminal groups. The city records hundreds of homicides every year, reflecting the importance of nearby neighborhoods for criminal groups seeking to transport, control or even steal drug shipments.

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