Why are Latin American cities the world’s most murderous?

A woman points to a poster commemorating her murdered husband and daughter in Bogota, Colombia. Image: Getty.

Latin America cities are famed for many things, carnivals, beaches, and growing tech scenes among them. Unfortunately, one other thing they are known for is crime – particularly murder. 

Of course, a lot is made of violent cities and different organisations often produce different rankings. In 2016, by way of example, a Mexican group called the Citizens’ Council for Public Security & Criminal Justice named Caracas, Venezuela, as the world city with the highest murder rate for the previous year (2015, obviously). This year, Brazilian think-tank Instituto Igarapé named San Salvador, the capital of El Salvador, as the number one most homicidal city; Caracas didn’t even get a mention.

However, both lists share one huge similarity. Each a gruesome ranking of 50, they were overwhelmingly dominated by Latin American cities. According to the first list, 41 out of the world’s 50 most murderous cities were from Latin America. In the second, it was 43. Given that some of the countries involved, Mexico included, have homicide rates that outstrip those of war zones.

“What we have in Latin America is a convergence of risk factors that have shaped an above average rate of homicide,” explains Instituto Igarapé’s Robert Muggah. “The only two regions in the world where we see homicide rising, outside of war zones, are in Latin America and southern Africa.”

Among the Instituto Igarapé’s list, 25 of the cities are from Brazil. Mexico has six, and Honduras and El Salvador – countries with populations of just 8m and 6.1m respectively – boast three each. The most dangerous city, according to the Brazilian think tank, is Salvadorian capital, San Salvador, where 136.7 people out of every 100,000 was murdered in 2016.

“There is a convergence of factors,” Muggah continues:

“One of them is the very rapid rate of urbanisation. The unregulated and rapid nature of urbanisation creates a risk. When you cities growing at 3 per cent a year you tend to see social disorganisation. “Those cities that are growing fastest are also where we are seeing the largest concentration of crime and violence.

“The second factor, is inequality, both social and income equality. Latin American cities are hugely unequal, spatially and socio-economically.”

Data gathered by Instituto Igarapé comes directly from government sources, Muggah says, and does not include other agencies. As a result, no Venezuelan cities are currently on the list because of the unreliable nature of data that is supplied from the country. 

“We include data that is officially vetted,” he adds. “If the data is [very] unbelievable, we will not include it. The case in Caracas is interesting because they have three monitors: one is the government, the other is the OVV [the Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia], and a third one, an NGO. All three issue wildly different statistics.”

Other reasons, Muggah says, include drugs and unemployment. Research suggests that for every one percent increase in unemployment, murder rates increase by 0.3 percent. High unemployment across the region has resulted in higher than usual murder rates in cities and urban centres.

Additionally, he adds, Latin America has impunity “in spades”. Some 93 per cent of Brazilian homicides do not end in conviction, a startling figure, especially when compared — for example — to Japan’s 98 percent conviction rate. “It’s almost a direct inversion,” Muggah adds. 

Destabilising factors, such as paramilitary groups and governments’ willingness to use the military where police would normally do, adds to the convergence of risks that boost Latin American murder rates, as does gang activity, especially related to the drugs trade. A huge area crack down on the drugs trade, where even low level offenders are jailed, has lead to mass incarceration in prisons that are controlled by gangs.  

Muggah explains that, unless something is done, murder rates will continue to spiral and grow. “The region has above average rates,” he says. “It looks like it will be four to five times above [the average] by 2030.”

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Was the decline in Liverpool’s historic population really that unusual?

A view of Liverpool from Birkenhead. Image: Getty.

It is often reported that Liverpool’s population halved after the 1930s. But is this true? Or is it a myth?

Often, it’s simply assumed that it’s true. The end. Indeed, proud Londoner Lord Adonis – a leading proponent of the Liverpool-bypassing High Speed 2 railway, current chair of the National Infrastructure Commission, and generally a very influential person – stood on the stairs in Liverpool Town Hall in 2011 and said:

“The population of Liverpool has nearly halved in the last 50 years.”

This raises two questions. Firstly, did the population of the City of Liverpool really nearly halve in the 50 year period to 2011? That’s easy to check using this University of Portsmouth website – so I did just that (even though I knew he was wrong anyway). In 2011, the population of the City of Liverpool was 466,415. Fifty years earlier, in 1961, it was 737,637, which equates to a 37 per cent drop. Oops!

In fact, the City of Liverpool’s peak population was recorded in the 1931 Census as 846,302. Its lowest subsequent figure was recorded in the 2001 Census as 439,428 – which represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over a 70 year period.

Compare this to the population figures for the similarly sized City of Manchester. Its peak population also recorded in the 1931 Census as 748,729, and its lowest subsequent figure was also recorded in the 2001 Census, as 392,830. This also represents a 48 per cent decline from the peak population, over the same 70 year period.

So, as can be seen here, Liverpool is not a special case at all. Which makes me wonder why it is often singled out or portrayed as exceptional in this regard, in the media and, indeed, by some badly briefed politicians. Even London has a similar story to tell, and it is told rather well in this recent article by a Londoner, for the Museum of London. (Editor’s note: It’s one of mine.)

This leads me onto the second question: where have all those people gone: London? The Moon? Mars?

Well, it turns out that the answer is bit boring and obvious actually: after World War 2, lots of people moved to the suburbs. You know: cars, commuter trains, slum clearance, the Blitz, all that stuff. In other words, Liverpool is just like many other places: after the war, this country experienced a depopulation bonanza.

So what form did this movement to the suburbs take, as far as Liverpool was concerned? Well, people moved and were moved to the suburbs of Greater Liverpool, in what are now the outer boroughs of the city region: Halton, Knowsley, St Helens, Sefton, Wirral. Others moved further, to Cheshire West & Chester, West Lancashire, Warrington, even nearby North Wales, as previously discussed here.

In common with many cities, indeed, Liverpool City Council actually built and owned large several ‘New Town’ council estates, to which they moved tens of thousands of people to from Liverpool’s inner districts: Winsford in Cheshire West (where comedian John Bishop grew up), Runcorn in Halton (where comedian John Bishop also grew up), Skelmersdale in West Lancashire, Kirkby in Knowsley. There is nothing unique or sinister here about Liverpool (apart from comedian John Bishop). This was common practice across the country – Indeed, it was central government policy – and resulted in about 160,000 people being ‘removed’ from the Liverpool local authority area.

Many other people also moved to the nearby suburbs of Greater Liverpool to private housing – another trend reflected across the country. It’s worth acknowledging, however, that cities across the world are subject to a level of ‘churn’ in population, whereby many people move out and many people move in, over time, too.

So how did those prominent images of derelict streets in the inner-city part of the City of Liverpool local authority area come about? For that, you have to blame the last Labour government’s over-zealous ‘Housing Market Renewal Initiative’ (HMRI) disaster – and the over enthusiastic participation of the then-Lib Dem controlled city council. On the promise of ‘free’ money from central government, the latter removed hundreds of people from their homes with a view to demolishing the Victorian terraces, and building new replacements. Many of these houses, in truth, were already fully modernised, owner-occupied houses within viable and longstanding communities, as can be seen here in Voelas Street, one of the famous Welsh Streets of Liverpool:

Voelas Street before HMRI implementation. Image: WelshStreets.co.uk.

The same picture after HMRI implementation Image: WelshStreets.co.uk. 

Nonetheless: the council bought the houses and ‘tinned them up’ ready for demolition. Then the coalition Conservative/Lib Dem government, elected in 2010, pulled the plug on the scheme. 

Fast forward to 2017 and many of the condemned houses have been renovated, in a process which is still ongoing. These are over-subscribed when they come to market, suggesting that the idea was never appropriate for Liverpool on that scale. 

At any rate, it turns out that the Liverpool metropolitan population is pretty much the same as it was at its peak in 1931 (depending where the local borough boundaries are arbitrarily drawn). It just begs the question: why are well educated and supposedly clever people misrepresenting the Liverpool metropolis, in particular, in this way so often? Surely they aren’t stupid are they?

And why are some people so determined to always isolate the City of Liverpool from its hinterland, while London is always described in terms of its whole urban area? It just confuses and undermines what would otherwise often be worthwhile comparisons and discussions. Or, to put it another way: “never, ever, compare apples with larger urban zones”.

In a recent Channel 4 documentary, for example, the well-known and respected journalist Michael Burke directly compared the forecast population growths, by 2039, of the City of Liverpool single local authority area against that of the combined 33 local authority areas of Greater London: 42,722 versus 2.187,708. I mean, what bizarre point is such an inappropriate comparison even trying to make? It is like comparing the projected growth of a normal sized-person’s head with the projected growth of the whole of an obese person, over a protracted period.

Having said all that, there is an important sensible conversation to be had as to why the populations of the Greater Liverpool metropolis and others haven’t grown as fast as maybe should have been the case, whilst, in recent times, the Greater London population has been burgeoning. But constantly pitching it as some sort of rare local apocalypse helps no one.

Dave Mail has declared himself CityMetric’s Liverpool City Region correspondent. He will be updating us on the brave new world of Liverpool City Region, mostly monthly, in ‘E-mail from Liverpool City Region’ and he is on twitter @davemail2017.