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Homicides could be halved in violent Latin American states - campaigners

by Sophie Hares | @SophieHares | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 21 June 2017 08:10 GMT

Suspected members of the Mara Salvatrucha gang (MS-13) are presented to the media after being detained on charges of homicide and terrorism under the Nemesis plan, a government strategy to curb gang activities, in Soyapango, El Salvador, Nov. 22, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

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In Latin America, 400 people are killed each day - and a fresh approach to ending the violence is needed, says a new report

By Sophie Hares

TEPIC, Mexico, June 21 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sky-high homicide rates in Latin America, where 400 people are killed each day, could be halved over a decade in the most violent nations with tactics such as targeting criminal hotspots and cracking down on impunity, say supporters of a new campaign.

Formed by over 30 organisations, "Instinct for Life" says the worst-hit countries - Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Honduras, Colombia, El Salvador and Guatemala – need to cut homicides by 7 percent a year to halve murder rates and save up to 365,000 lives over 10 years.

"Governments are spending a disproportionate amount on servicing their police, their prosecutors, their defenders, their penal systems - and growing them, at the expense of what are ultimately much more urgent requirements for human development," said Robert Muggah, research director of Brazil's Igarapé Institute, one of the campaign's coordinators.

The seven most dangerous countries account for around a third of the world's homicides, with violence in some cities on a par with war zones, according to a report by "Instinct for Life", which includes the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB) and the Organization of American States, alongside local non-profit and civil society groups.

In the highly urbanised region, where stark social inequality, youth unemployment and weak legal systems fuel crime, homicide rates in 120 cities were above 25 per 100,000 inhabitants, it said.

With 144,000 homicides a year, the region spends as much on security as it does on infrastructure, according to the report, which cited IADB figures showing violence and crime cost around 3.6 percent of the region's gross domestic product.

Meanwhile, systemic impunity in Latin America means "the opportunity cost of committing crime is very low", said Muggah.

Around 80 percent of homicides in Mexico are not prosecuted, rising to 92 percent in Honduras and Brazil, said the report.

Only around a third of people trust the judicial system in the region which has experienced a "normalisation of violence", it added.

Poor, young non-white men are most likely to be victims, but around 12 women are killed every day, with the highest rates in Honduras, El Salvador and Dominican Republic, said the report, citing U.N. figures.


Using data to target specific people and streets that are crime hotspots has had a positive impact in some places, along with rehabilitation programmes for those coming out of jail, said the report, urging governments to set clear targets.

Psychological techniques, such as cognitive behavioural therapy for potential perpetrators, have also proved successful, as have early childhood intervention and programmes to protect women, including health services and strict gun controls for abusive partners.

Muggah said those approaches deliver the best longer-term results but "aren't so popular politically as they don't give you the quick return".

Heavy-handed tactics - often linked to rising prison populations and human rights abuses including torture and disappearances – have not worked and have even increased violence in some countries, the report said.

There is growing awareness among mayors, legislators and businesses that building security from the ground up is more effective, the report said.

Ways to reduce urban crime include improving transport and infrastructure such as hospitals in poor areas, as well as smaller measures like installing cameras and street lighting, and eliminating dead-ends, it added.

But cities dominated by extreme violence can require tactics more akin to counter-insurgency, said Muggah.

Better security has often depended on the outcome of turf wars and truces between rival gangs, or deals hammered out with governments, said Muggah, referring to Medellin in Colombia, Mexico's Ciudad Juarez and Sao Paulo in Brazil.

"It's not in the interest of governments to often be vocal about that because these are deeply unpopular measures - most people in Latin America would like to see the bandits arrested, if not a lot worse," he said.

(Reporting by Sophie Hares; editing by Megan Rowling. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, resilience, women's rights, trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org)

The Thomson Reuters Foundation is reporting on resilience as part of its work on zilient.org, an online platform building a global network of people interested in resilience, in partnership with the Rockefeller Foundation.

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