Rampant violence is Latin America's 'worst epidemic'

Posted in Latin America | 09-Oct-08 | Author: Rory Carroll| Source: The Guardian (UK)

Mexican soldiers and policemen enter a police station where authorities were presenting to the press three suspects of murdering two policemen recently in Tijuana, Mexico, Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008.

Violent crime in Latin America kills more people and wreaks more economic havoc than Aids, the head of the Organisation of American States warned this week. Drug trafficking, gang warfare, kidnapping and other crimes pose one of the gravest threats to the region's stability, said José Miguel Insulza. "It is an epidemic, a plague on our continent that kills more people than Aids or any other known epidemic. It destroys more homes than any economic crisis."

The warning came amid a backdrop of horrific violence in Mexico, where drug cartels are waging war against the state, and evidence that cities from Caracas to Buenos Aires are becoming more dangerous.

The number of people killed by gun crime in central and south America is four times the world average, according to UN estimates, with a homicide rate of more than 25 per 100,000 people. In parts of El Salvador, Guatemala and Venezuela the rate is more than 100 per 100,000.

The violence has been blamed on factors including poverty, inequality, cocaine trafficking, the legacy of civil wars, a bountiful supply of guns and corrupt, ineffective state institutions, notably the police, prisons and courts.

Anger at crime and distrust of the police often leads to lynchings, with several suspects recently beaten and hacked to death in Bolivia, Guatemala and Peru. There are even grimmer stories from jails which are controlled by inmates.

Rigoberta Menchu, Guatemala's human rights activist and Nobel laureate, has referred to crime as a cancer.

Crime stories, often accompanied by grisly images, dominate media coverage and rank at or near the top of public concerns. Most victims are impoverished slum-dwellers but the perception of danger still hinders tourism and investment, with several Caribbean countries feeling the sting of recent high-profile murders.

Some studies suggest Latin America"s income could be 25% higher if its crime rate, which began soaring in the 1980s, was similar to the rest of the world.

Aids, in contrast, has stayed largely in check, with HIV prevalence remaining at under 1% in most countries.

Insulza made his dramatic warning at a two-day security meeting of the OAS in Mexico City. He praised the host government's controversial decision to deploy 20,000 soldiers against powerful drug cartels, a move which provoked a vicious backlash. Thousands have died, the state has lost control of several areas and headless bodies are discovered with numbing regularity.

Mexico's president, Felipe Calderón, called for a pan-regional database on criminals and a "continental front" which would include the US. "We must attack simultaneously not only drug smuggling, but the world's main market," he said.

Some countries, such as Costa Rica, are relatively untouched by the violence and in Colombia, once-notorious cities such as Bogotá and Medellín have enjoyed a renaissance as leftwing insurgency has ebbed before a US-supported military offensive. Brazil's favelas, however, remain killing zones for gangs and police and a perceived crime wave in Argentina has driven anxious middle-class families into South Africa-style gated communities.