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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Urgently needed: Timely, more detailed standardized data on US evictions

Graffiti asking for rent forgiveness is seen on a wall on La Brea Ave amid the Covid-19 pandemic in Los Angeles, California. (Valerie Macon/AFP via Getty Images)

Last week the Eviction Lab, a team of eviction and housing policy researchers at Princeton University, released a new dashboard that provides timely, city-level US eviction data for use in monitoring eviction spikes and other trends as Covid restrictions ease. 

In 2018, Eviction Lab released the first national database of evictions in the US. The nationwide data are granular, going down to the level of a few city blocks in some places, but lagged by several years, so their use is more geared toward understanding the scope of the problem across the US, rather than making timely decisions to help city residents now. 

Eviction Lab’s new Eviction Tracking System, however, provides weekly updates on evictions by city and compares them to baseline data from past years. The researchers hope that the timeliness of this new data will allow for quicker action in the event that the US begins to see a wave of evictions once Covid eviction moratoriums are phased out.

But, due to a lack of standardization in eviction filings across the US, the Eviction Tracking System is currently available for only 11 cities, leaving many more places facing a high risk of eviction spikes out of the loop.

Each city included in the Eviction Tracking System shows rolling weekly and monthly eviction filing counts. A percent change is calculated by comparing current eviction filings to baseline eviction filings for a quick look at whether a city might be experiencing an uptick.

Timely US eviction data for a handful of cities is now available from the Eviction Lab. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

The tracking system also provides a more detailed report on each city’s Covid eviction moratorium efforts and more granular geographic and demographic information on the city’s evictions.

Click to the above image to see a city-level eviction map, in this case for Pittsburgh. (Courtesy Eviction Lab)

As part of their Covid Resource, the Eviction Lab together with Columbia Law School professor Emily Benfer also compiled a scorecard for each US state that ranks Covid-related tenant protection measures. A total of 15 of the 50 US states plus Washington DC received a score of zero because those states provided little if any protections.

CityMetric talked with Peter Hepburn, an assistant professor at Rutgers who just finished a two-year postdoc at the Eviction Lab, and Jeff Reichman, principal at the data science research firm January Advisors, about the struggles involved in collecting and analysing eviction data across the US.

Perhaps the most notable hurdle both researchers addressed is that there’s no standardized reporting of evictions across jurisdictions. Most evictions are reported to county-level governments, however what “reporting” means differs among and even within each county. 

In Texas, evictions go through the Justice of the Peace Courts. In Virginia they’re processed by General District Courts. Judges in Milwaukee are sealing more eviction case documents that come through their courtroom. In Austin, Pittsburgh and Richmond, eviction addresses aren’t available online but ZIP codes are. In Denver you have to pay about $7 to access a single eviction filing. In Alabama*, it’s $10 per eviction filing. 

Once the filings are acquired, the next barrier is normalizing them. While some jurisdictions share reporting systems, many have different fields and formats. Some are digital, but many are images of text or handwritten documents that require optical character recognition programs and natural language processors in order to translate them into data. That, or the filings would have to be processed by hand. 

“There's not enough interns in the world to do that work,” says Hepburn.

Aggregating data from all of these sources and normalizing them requires knowledge of the nuances in each jurisdiction. “It would be nice if, for every region, we were looking for the exact same things,” says Reichman. “Instead, depending on the vendor that they use, and depending on how the data is made available, it's a puzzle for each one.”

In December of 2019, US Senators Michael Bennet of Colorado and Rob Portman of Ohio introduced a bill that would set up state and local grants aimed at reducing low-income evictions. Included in the bill is a measure to enhance data collection. Hepburn is hopeful that the bill could one day mean an easier job for those trying to analyse eviction data.

That said, Hepburn and Reichman caution against the public release of granular eviction data. 

“In a lot of cases, what this gets used for is for tenant screening services,” says Hepburn. “There are companies that go and collect these data and make them available to landlords to try to check and see if their potential tenants have been previously evicted, or even just filed against for eviction, without any sort of judgement.”

According to research by Eviction Lab principal Matthew Desmond and Tracey Shollenberger, who is now vice president of science at Harvard’s Center for Policing Equity, residents who have been evicted or even just filed against for eviction often have a much harder time finding equal-quality housing in the future. That coupled with evidence that evictions affect minority populations at disproportionate rates can lead to widening racial and economic gaps in neighborhoods.

While opening up raw data on evictions to the public would not be the best option, making timely, granular data available to researchers and government officials can improve the system’s ability to respond to potential eviction crises.

Data on current and historical evictions can help city officials spot trends in who is getting evicted and who is doing the evicting. It can help inform new housing policy and reform old housing policies that may put more vulnerable citizens at undue risk.

Hepburn says that the Eviction Lab is currently working, in part with the ACLU, on research that shows the extent to which Black renters are disproportionately affected by the eviction crisis.

More broadly, says Hepburn, better data can help provide some oversight for a system which is largely unregulated.

“It's the Wild West, right? There's no right to representation. Defendants have no right to counsel. They're on their own here,” says Hepburn. “I mean, this is people losing their homes, and they're being processed in bulk very quickly by the system that has very little oversight, and that we know very little about.”

A 2018 report by the Philadelphia Mayor’s Taskforce on Eviction Prevention and Response found that of Philadelphia’s 22,500 eviction cases in 2016, tenants had legal representation in only 9% of them.

Included in Hepburn’s eviction data wishlist is an additional ask, something that is rarely included in any of the filings that the Eviction Lab and January Advisors have been poring over for years. He wants to know the relationship between money owed and monthly rent.

“At the individual level, if you were found to owe $1,500, was that on an apartment that's $1,500 a month? Or was it an apartment that's $500 a month? Because that makes a big difference in the story you're telling about the nature of the crisis, right? If you're letting somebody get three months behind that's different than evicting them immediately once they fall behind,” Hepburn says.

Now that the Eviction Tracking System has been out for a week, Hepburn says one of the next steps is to start reaching out to state and local governments to see if they can garner interest in the project. While he’s not ready to name any names just yet, he says that they’re already involved in talks with some interested parties.

*Correction: This story initially misidentified a jurisdiction that charges $10 to access an eviction filing. It is the state of Alabama, not the city of Atlanta. Also, at the time of publication, Peter Hepburn was an assistant professor at Rutgers, not an associate professor.

Alexandra Kanik is a data reporter at CityMetric.