Latin America has over the last decade experienced above-average economic growth coupled with a significant reduction in poverty — and, in some countries, a significant reduction in inequality. The region as a whole enjoys stronger, better integrated economies and more solid democracies than it did 20 years ago, and states have assumed major responsibility for social security.
But violence, crime, and insecurity remain major challenges.
The region suffers from an epidemic of violence, experienced to varying degrees — along with surging crime rates and consequently rising fear among citizens. From 2000-2010, homicide rates across the region rose by 11 percent while declining in most regions worldwide.
In countries with data for 1980-90, robberies have almost tripled over the last 25 years. What’s more, one in every 10 robberies involves violence, usually with firearms. One out of every 10 Latin Americans is a victim of domestic violence. On a typical day in Latin America, 460 people are victims of sexual violence, usually women.
This rising insecurity isn’t uniform. Break down the figures by country and two different Latin Americas emerge: one plagued by homicide and violence, and another with lower murder rates but surging property crimes. All of it has contributed to a general sense of insecurity.
At the same time, the domestic situation in each country is similar, with municipalities and states reporting indices comparable to those of European countries — as well as places where murder rates exceed those of countries at war.
A recent poll found that people in Latin America and the Caribbean are least likely in the world to personally feel safe in their communities, with slightly less than half of residents reporting in 2011 that they feel unsafe walking alone at night where they live.
We Latin Americans have lower rates of poverty and inequality, and democracies that are relatively stable, but higher insecurity. Why? This is one of the key issues the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) addresses in its forthcoming Human Development Report for Latin America, which focuses on citizen security.
• According to the report, countries in the region still suffer from insufficient capacity in justice and security. This is reflected in the alarmingly high rate of cases that go unpunished, crises in regional prison systems, and low levels of trust among citizens in judicial institutions and police.
As a result, privatization of the security sector is increasingly gaining ground — which serves to heighten inequalities and leaves unresolved challenges faced by governments as guarantors of citizen security.
• Second, the report finds regional growth more in quantitative than qualitative terms: The labor market remains fragile in certain fields, with many jobless youth and rapid urbanization, accompanied by a breakdown in the social fabric and added burdens on the already vulnerable middle class.
• Third, in some cases community ties have eroded, while insecurity exacted a heavy price, reducing the number of venues to promote cooperation, trust, and citizen participation. In some cases, this gives rise to initiatives verging on vigilantism.
• Fourth, surging threats to security seriously hinder the capabilities and freedoms of Latin Americans. Though organized crime is notorious as a catalyst for violence and crime at the local and transnational level, citizens’ daily lives are filled with street crime, gender-based violence, and violence among youth, all in a self-perpetuating cycle.
All of these highlight the complexity of problems underlying citizen insecurity, which will be further explored in UN-led consultations in Panama this month as part of global consultations on the role of conflict and fragility in development.
These problems require comprehensive public policy solutions and must involve all parties, beyond governments and the international community. The need to move forward with concrete, innovative action is urgent. The citizens of Latin America deserve better.
Heraldo Muñoz is U.N. Development Program director for Latin America and the Caribbean.