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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The mountain in North Wales that tried to stop the UK’s blackout

Elidir Fawr, the mountain in question. Image: Jem Collins.

Last Friday, the UK’s National Grid turned to mush. Not the official term perhaps, but an accurate one after nearly one million people were left without power across the country, with hundreds more stranded at train stations – or even on trains (which isn’t nearly as fun as it might immediately sound). 

Traffic lights stopped working, back-up power failed in hospitals, and business secretary Andrea Leadsom launched an investigation into exactly what happened. So far though, the long and short of it is that a gas-fired power station in Bedfordshire failed just before 5 o’clock, followed just two minutes later by Hornsea offshore wind farm. 

However, amid the resulting chaos and inevitable search to find someone to blame for the outage, a set of mountains (yes, mountains) in North Wales were working extremely hard to keep the lights on.

From the outside, Elidir Fawr, doesn’t scream power generation. Sitting across from the slightly better known Mount Snowdon, it actually seems quite passive. After all, it is a mountain, and the last slate quarry in the area closed in 1969.

At a push, you’d probably guess the buildings at the base of the mountain were something to do with the area’s industrial past, mostly thanks to the blasting scars on its side, as I did when I first walked past last Saturday. 

But, buried deep into Elidir Fawr is the ability to generate an astounding 1,728 megawatts of electricity – enough to power 2.5 million homes, more than the entire population of the Liverpool region. And the plant is capable of running for five hours.

Dubbed by locals at the ‘Electric Mountain’, Dinorwig Power Station, is made up of 16km of underground tunnels (complete with their own traffic light system), in an excavation which could easily house St Paul’s Cathedral.

Instead, it’s home to six reversible pumps/turbines which are capable of reaching full capacity in just 16 seconds. Which is probably best, as Londoners would miss the view.

‘A Back-Up Facility for The National Grid’

And, just as it often is, the Electric Mountain was called into action on Friday. A spokesperson for First Hydro Company, which owns the generators at Dinorwig, and the slightly smaller Ffestiniog, both in Snowdonia, confirmed that last Friday they’d been asked to start generating by the National Grid.

But just how does a mountain help to ease the effects of a blackout? Or as it’s more regularly used, when there’s a surge in demand for electricity – most commonly when we all pop the kettle on at half-time during the World Cup, scientifically known as TV pick-up.

The answer lies in the lakes at both the top and bottom of Elidir Fawr. Marchlyn Mawr, at the top of the mountain, houses an incredible 7 million tonnes of water, which can be fed down through the mountain to the lake at the bottom, Llyn Peris, generating electricity as it goes.

“Pumped storage technology enables dynamic response electricity production – ofering a critical back-up facility during periods of mismatched supply and demand on the national grid system,” First Hydro Company explains.

The tech works essentially the same way as conventional hydro power – or if you want to be retro, a spruced up waterwheel. When the plant releases water from the upper reservoir, as well as having gravity on their side (the lakes are half a kilometre apart vertically) the water shafts become smaller and smaller, further ramping up the pressure. 

This, in turn, spins the turbines which are linked to the generators, with valves regulating the water flow. Unlike traditional UK power stations, which can take hours to get to full capacity, at Dinorwig it’s a matter of 16 seconds from a cold start, or as little as five if the plant is on standby.

And, designed with the UK’s 50hz frequency in mind, the generator is also built to shut off quickly and avoid overloading the network. Despite the immense water pressure, the valves are able to close off the supply within just 20 seconds. 

At night, the same thing simply happens in reverse, as low-cost, surplus energy from the grid is used to pump the water back up to where it came from, ready for another day of hectic TV scheduling. Or blackouts, take your pick.

Completed in 1984, the power station was the product of a decade of work, and the largest civil engineering project commissioned at the time – and it remains one of Europe’s largest manmade caverns. Not that you’d know it from the outside. And really, if we’ve learned anything from this, it’s that looks can be deceiving, and that mountains can actually be really damn good at making electricity. 

Jem Collins is a digital journalist and editor whose work focuses on human rights, rural stories and careers. She’s the founder and editor of Journo Resources, and you can also find her tweeting @Jem_Collins.