60% of Latin Americans say crime is getting worse
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60% of Latin Americans say crime is getting worse

Terrorism, water shortages, armed conflict, insufficient access to health care, poor education, gender inequality: all major issues that governments and citizens confront on a daily bases. Ask residents in Latin America, though, and they’ll say the biggest issue affecting their lives is security — and that it’s only getting worse.

A new report released this week by the CAF — Development Bank of Latin America found that 60 percent of respondents in Latin America thought that insecurity had increased in the last five years, and one quarter of the population said it was the single biggest issue affecting their quality of life.

According to a survey conducted by CAF in 2013, about 24 percent of Latin Americans said crime was the factor with the biggest negative effect on their lives — far more than other major issues like poverty (13 percent), poor health care (12.5 percent) or unemployment (9.2). This result is supported by answers to the Latinobarómetro public opinion survey, which found that the number of Latin Americans concerned about security above all else had grown exponentially in the last 20 years, from 5 percent in 1994 to more than 25 percent as of 2010.

Of course, perception of crime does not always reflect the reality — and it appears that many people in Latin America believe the places they live to be even less safe than they actually are. Survey respondents estimated that an average of 47 percent of households in their city — or almost half of the population — had been victims of some kind of crime. In reality, the rate was nearly half of that, or about 27 percent — still a high number in comparison to other regions, but not nearly as extreme as most citizen estimates.

Violent crime on the rise

The 2014 Economy and Development Report (RED, for its name in Spanish) recalls the January murder of former Venezuelan beauty queen Mónica Spear and her partner Thomas Berry, who were killed after their car broke down on a Venezuela highway. The circumstances of the case, including the famous victim and the fact that their five-year-old daughter was present, splashed the crime across headlines throughout the region.

As the report’s writers point out, though, similar incidents happen daily across Latin America. They may not receive as much media attention because the victims aren’t well know, but the researchers stress that “daily life for Latin Americans is characterized by the latent threat of becoming the next victim.”

The report, titled “For a safer Latin America: A new perspective for crime prevention and control,” highlights the drastic changes in homicide rates in many of the region’s most violent countries, noting that the number of homicides per 100,000 residents has doubled over the last 10-15 years in several countries, including El Salvador (from 35 in 2001-2003 to 69 in 2009-2011), Venezuela (from 20 in 1995-1997 to 50 in 2009-2011) and Mexico (doubling from 9 in 2001-2003 to 18 in 2009-2011). The authors also noted a troubling rise in some of the region’s perceived safer countries, including Costa Rica (where the homicide rate rose from 5 to 11) and Panama (from 10 to 21)

There was some good news on that front, though, as some countries that have historically struggled with high violent crime rates saw dramatic decreases. Colombia’s homicide rate dropped from 70 to 35, while Brazil’s declined from 30 to 21. However, as the report is quick to point out, these rates are still much higher than those in “developed” countries, which have an average homicide rate of 3 per 100,000 residents, or other developing regions like southeast Asia, where the homicide rate is 7.

Researchers also found that assaults (crimes involving contact) were 3.5 times more common in Latin America than in Europe, with a rate of 52 per 100,000 residents, compared to 150 in European nations.

Some of the cities with the highest reported rates of robberies, theft and scams included Arequipa, Córdoba, Guayaquil, Lima, Maracaibo, Montevideo and Santa Cruz, with Quito and Buenos Aires topping the list. According to the UNDP, robberies in Latin America have tripled in the last 25 years.

Overestimating and underreporting

Researchers cautioned that even these statistics may still be wildly off mark, as underreporting is one of the biggest factors complicating crime analysis throughout the region.

According to official statistics, most Latin American countries report an average of about 4 percent of households that have been victims of crimes. The CAF survey, however, found astronomically different numbers, with an average of 30 percent of respondents reporting they had been the victims of some kind of crime. El Salvador exhibited the most shocking difference, with an official victimization rate of 1.4 percent — and an unofficial rate, via the survey, of about 58 percent.

The extensive report delves much more into causes and effects of crime on both the large and small scale in major cities throughout the region and explores the relationship of factors like gangs and drug trafficking on the growth and perception of crime in Latin America, and offers recommendations to begin to improve the situation.

The increase in perceived incidence of crime is incredibly troubling in a region that is trying to encourage positive growth and development, yet clearly continues to struggle to overcome violent and oppressive structures that victimize citizens on a daily basis. As the report’s writers say, “citizen insecurity is, in many cases, a violation of the right to life.”