Whenever Latin Americans from different national origins coincide in a social gathering, such as a dinner party or a game of dominoes, they begin by courteously paying compliment to the best attributes of each other’s countries.

The scenery, the weather, the cuisine, the beauty of the women are as thoroughly reviewed and praised as are the excellence of wines and poets. Then they allow themselves to discuss, say, each neighbor’s economic prospects in face of the current recession in a less formal and, if you will, self-scourging, moralistic and undignified way.

Thus sad expressions like, “my fellow Mexicans [or Venezuelans or Colombians or Peruvians] are far more corrupt [or lazy, or crass] than you people” can often be heard rapidly and courtly answered, “No, no, no: you just can’t imagine how corrupt [or lazy or crass] our own society is .”

Sooner or later they all end up engaging in a discussion as to which of their countries is the most violent and then the conversation—which by now may have risen in loudness and pitch, especially after a few drinks too many—suddenly comes to have absurd machista overtones: “Definitely, my friend, yours is a less violent society than ours. We are tops in that category, no question about it. You guys simply do not have what it takes to be really, really violent.” Ironically, any rebuttal of this kind of uncompromising opinion, however meek, can lead to a verbal brawl that turns the dinner party into an unmitigated disaster.

To be sure, the extent to which countries in Latin America are affected by crime and violence varies significantly. For 1994, the most recent year for which comprehensive data are available, homicide rates per 100,000 were 51.9, only in the Andean region.

Though crime and violence rates are especially high in post-conlift countries like El Salvador, where the homicide rate increased by 36% after the end of a 12 years merciless civil war in 1992, high levels of violence are not exclusively a symptom of countries experiencing or emerging from periods of political unrest. Rather, it appears that countries at varying levels of development are evenly affected by it.

Alarmingly, crime and violence levels have been on the rise since the 1970s, and strangely enough not all of its forms can be associated with drug trafficking or political conflict. Violence in Latin America is a heterogeneous phenomenon with a number of different manifestations: homicides, robberies, kidnappings, muggings, domestic violence, sexual violence, violence against children and the elderly, etc.

The 2002 “World Report on Violence and Health”, published by the World Health Organization, defines violence as the “intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, mal-development or deprivation”.

Having said so, a distinction seems to be in point: while crime and violence are closely related to one another they are not interchangeable. There is non-violent crime as well as non-criminal violence.

May be that is why using homicide rates as a proxy for all violence will not yield an accurate picture. Homicide rates give a skewed picture of the situation, since the majority of crime in Latin America tends to be property crime.

In a study in Colombia,1 two well-respected economists found that in the main metropolitan areas the rich households bear much of the burden of property crime, whereas the poor, especially people with low educational attainment, bear a disproportionate burden of domestic violence.

Many other victimization surveys, carried out in many other Latin American countries show that different socio-economic groups experience violence differently. Evidence at the local level indicates that those who suffer from social and cultural exclusion, such as indigenous groups and afro-descendants, are likely to be disproportionately affected by violence. Ethnic and rural violence is especially pervasive in rural settings.

Economists began exploring the effects of crime and violence on development in the mid-1990s, and since, a number of scholars have convincingly argued that crime and violence are among the key obstacles for development in our region by driving the depreciation of all forms of capital, i.e. physical, human and social.

Violence disproportionately affect the poor and erodes their livelihoods and assets. Arguably, the more assets an individual or household can acquire, the better they manage them, the less socially vulnerable they are. Violence, however, severely curbs the poor’s ability to accumulate assets.

Putting aside basic levels of police, judicial and health spending, a high incidence of violence induces the population and policy-makers to divert resources from other, presumably more productive purposes, such as education.

It is estimated that countries in Latin America currently devote between 0.3 per cent and 5 percent of GDP only to treating the health of violence and spend up to 9 per cent of GDP on judicial and police services.

Only a few economic studies conducted throughout the region during the last two decades have analyzed crime and violence in terms of expected benefits vs. expected punishment (or cost for the offenders).

Yet empirical observation had already shown that violence responds to changes in expected punishment. The higher return of criminal vs. legal activities and the lower the probability of apprehension and incarceration, the higher the individual’s propensity to commit a crime. Thus, violence should be a policy sensitive variable but, on the other hand, violence has an impact on policy-making, since violence raises the difficulties of collecting government revenue and distorts public spending.

Crime and violence have significant “multiplier” effects on major Latin American economies by depressing savings, investments, earnings, productivity, labor market participation, tourism, and ultimately growth.

The total economic cost of violence is staggering but perhaps the worst effect it has had on our nations is the reduced quality of life for all and an ever diminishing participation of the population in democratic processes.

A Latin American 20th century’s intellectual tradition, stemming from Marxist views on “the laws of History,” still argue that violence in Latin America can have an important function in terms of catalyzing political and social changes.

While this may be the case—and I very much doubt it—it remains certain that violence only becomes necessary as a way of initiating political and social change when efficient institutional channels for peaceful democratic participation are nonexistent.

Democracy, especially the kind of “illiberal democracy” that currently expands throughout the Andean and Central American regions, is intimately bound up with the question of violence because, if only in theory, it should offer protection from arbitrary abuse.

A high incidence of violence, however, challenges the state’s monopoly of force and its responsibility to protect its citizens. Among the structural factors that contribute to the legitimization of violence are a country’s level of impunity and corruption, racism, perceived lack of justice, and its links to social exclusion.

In Latin America, the promise of reduced state violence has not always materialized and in many places democratization has been accompanied by an increase in the use of force by the police and the military.

Impunity and malfeasant judiciaries block individual rights. Collective insecurity subject democracy to new demands and hamper economic development.

Though lack of education, unemployment, unruly urbanization and inefficient criminal justice systems are considered the main risk factors for criminal and violent behavior, it is inequality, rather than the overall levels of development, the primary cause of crime and violence in our region.

This mere fact has important implications for the type of economic growth that still needs to occur.


Gaviria Alejandro and Carlos Eduardo Vélez, (2001), “Who Bears the Burden of Crime in Colombia”, Fedesarrollo, Bogotá, pp. 25.


*Ibsen Martinez is a columnist, journalist, and award-winning playwright from Caracas, Venezuela. His writings have appeared in El Nuevo Herald, Miami, Letras Libres, Madrid, and El Pais in Madrid. Since 1995, he has written a weekly column for El Nacional.

For more articles by Ibsen Martinez, see the Archive.