Does Latin America really have five of the world's most peaceful countries?
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Does Latin America really have five of the world's most peaceful countries?

Looking for a peaceful place to get away from it all? It may come as a surprise, but Latin America is home to nearly half of the world’s conflict-free countries — though that still doesn’t mean they’re entirely peaceful.

In the Institute for Economics and Peace’s (IEP’s) new 2014 study of peace and conflict, just 11 countries were found to be free of both internal and external conflicts. Of those nations, which included famously conflict-averse countries like Switzerland and Japan, five — Brazil, Chile, Costa Rica, Panama and Uruguay — were in Latin America.

The Global Peace Index, as the study is called, ranks the level of peace in 162 countries (accounting for 99.6 percent of the global population) by analyzing levels of safety and security in society, domestic or international conflicts and the degree of militarization.

While the low rankings for actual organized conflict are something for these five countries to celebrate, they are just part of the complete study.

The index ranks countries based on 22 different indicators that measure “the absence of violence or the fear of violence.” This means that in addition to a country’s actual involvement in domestic or international conflicts, the country is also ranked based on characteristics like weapons imports and exports, displaced persons, access to weapons, violent demonstrations, political instability and perceived criminality in society.

Brazil, for example, may have the lowest possible score for organized conflicts, but it was just 91st on the overall index. While Brazilians may not be worried about getting bombed by another county, Brazil has very high levels of perceived criminality, access to weapons and violent crime. It was also among the countries with the worst possible ranking for homicide rates and, as the entire world witnessed prior to and during the World Cup, high incidence of violent demonstrations and police brutality.

See also: In Rio favelas, a wave of post-World Cup violence

Panama, another “conflict-free” country, also had a high homicide rate and a relatively high percentage of the population in jail, compared with the rest of the region.

One of the study’s most troubling conclusions was the observation of a “notable deterioration” in global levels of peace in the seven years since the first index was published.

The IEP found that only 51 of the countries studied have improved their levels of peace since 2008, while the other 111 have all gotten worse. Overall, “the world has become less peaceful over the last year” because of increased terrorist activity, a greater number of conflicts and growing populations of refugees and displaced persons.

The study also found that while external conflicts may be decreasing, the number of internal conflicts within states has gone up, particularly in regions like Africa and the Middle East.

According to the study, an estimated 500 million people live in countries at risk of instability and conflict — 200 million of them below the poverty line.

How did Latin America score?

On the overall index, the highest-ranking Latin American country was Uruguay, coming in at 29th, just ahead of Chile at number 30. Even these weren’t perfect, though — both had relatively high access to weapons and a tendency toward violent demonstrations.

The region’s lowest-scoring country was Colombia, all the way down at 150, due to the nation’s ongoing internal conflict, millions of displaced persons and numerous incidents of terrorist activity.

Mexico was barely above Colombia, coming in at 138. Though Mexico does not have an official civil conflict like Colombia — at least not at the national level — the catastrophic spike in crime in the last decade as a result of increased drug activity and more powerful cartels has resulted in sky-high levels of violence and instability in the daily lives of most residents. Mexico had the worst possible rankings for homicides, violent crime and deaths from internal conflict.

The index estimates the national cost of violence to Mexico’s economy at almost US$173 billion.

Venezuela, Peru and the three countries of the Northern Triangle (Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador) all had rankings above 100, with high levels of violent crime, homicides and perceived criminality in society.

Though it currently enjoys a relatively high level of peace (43 on this year’s index), Argentina was highlighted by the IEP as one of 10 countries likely to deteriorate in peace over the next two years.