- Latin American countries are consistently among the most violent.
- Exactly how violent they are is harder to measure for social, political, and logistical reasons.
The most recent ranking of the world’s most violent cities by the Mexican research group Security, Justice, and Peace again drew attention to Latin America, which was home to 42 of the 50 cities on the list.
Latin America is indeed the most violent region, accounting for about 8% of the global population but tallying roughly one-third of the world’s intentional homicides.
While homicide is not the only kind of violent crime, it is generally considered the best measure of it.
"Of all the different types of crime, homicide is probably the easiest to track because there’s nothing more biologically evident than a dead body," Robert Muggah, the research director at Brazil’s Igarapé Institute and an expert on crime and crime prevention, told Business Insider.
In most places, there are also legal procedures that authorities are supposed to follow when dealing with homicides.
"So unlike, say, assault or robbery or sexual violence or domestic abuse, homicide is one of those variables that across time and space is relatively straightforward to capture," Muggah said, adding that researchers can draw on a panoply of sources — law enforcement, public-health agencies, nongovernmental groups, the press, and the public — to tabulate and track homicides over time.
But, as Latin America illustrates, there are a number of recurrent challenges that arise when collecting homicide data that complicate efforts to make comparisons and compile rankings.
Where did it happen?
"Are we looking at national data, state data, city data, and if we are looking at city data, in this case, how are we defining a city?" Muggah said.
A city’s geographic limits can be defined a number of ways. The UN has three: the city proper, delineated by administrative boundaries; the urban agglomeration, comprising a contiguous urban area; and the metropolitan area, the boundaries of which are based on social or economic connections.
The populations of each of those areas can vary enormously, as can the number of homicides.
"It turns out cities are surprisingly difficult to define. There is no unified or uniform definition of a city, and this has been a source of some consternation for geographers for over a century," Muggah said.
The Igarapé Institute eschews homicide rankings but does maintain a Homicide Monitor that compiles data on killings, using the urban-agglomeration definition for cities, Muggah said.
The Mexican group adheres to some set criteria, requiring minimum population of 300,000 people and excluding places with active conflicts, like Ukraine or Syria.
But, the group says in its methodology, whenever possible it includes all the municipalities that it assess as part of a city — "localities that form a unique urban system, clearly distinguishable from others, independent of the geographic-administrative divisions inside the countries."
Muggah and his colleagues noted issues with this method in relation to the 2015 ranking, which found Caracas to be the most violent city in the world. That year, others also noted the group based its tally on the homicide total for the metropolitan area of Cali, in southwest Colombia, and, in their view, overstated the number of homicides.
The group’s ranking for 2018, its most recent, put Tijuana at the top of the list, with a homicide rate of 138.26 per 100,000.
Tijuana has seen a precipitous rise in deadly violence, but the city’s public-security secretary disputed its rank, citing the inclusion of the nearby city of Rosarito in the homicide count and the failure to account for Tijuana’s migrant population.
SJP, for its part, rejected the criticism, saying that it based its population count on official numbers and that excluding Rosarito would have actually raised the homicide rate. (Though it did not say why it assessed Tijuana’s metropolitan area and not that of other cities.)
What’s a homicide?
REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez
"It turns out there are many kinds of homicide," Muggah said. "We have homicide that’s intentional. We have homicide that’s unintentional, which we also call manslaughter. We have homicide committed by police, which sometimes isn’t included in the formal homicide statistics."
Mexico has experienced an alarming increase in homicides, setting new records in 2017 and 2018.
Mexico’s official crime data includes two categories for homicide: "homicidio doloso," which refers to intentional homicides, and "homicidio culposo," which refers to manslaughter or unintentional homicides.
The most recent tallies for intentional homicides in Mexico in 2017 and 2018 are 28,868 and 33,369, respectively. The totals for all homicides are 46,640 in 2017 and 50,373 in 2018.
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