Un espacio para ideas y soluciones en seguridad ciudadana y justicia en América Latina y el Caribe

Why are more developed countries in Latin America also so violent?

By Chris Sabatini

AQ logoThe development community has long assumed a relationship between levels of socioeconomic development and security. When we look at the broader concept of social inclusion, that relationship also holds true. Richer countries tend to also be more socially inclusive — and less violent.

But in Latin America, there are some inconsistencies between countries that may have a relatively high level of socioeconomic development, but still suffer from persistent levels of violence.

In our Americas Quarterly Social Inclusion Index we measured social inclusion broadly, meaning countries scored well on the index if they had higher rates of economic growth, lower levels of poverty, greater access to education and formal employment and respect for basic political, civil and human rights. These are associated with lower levels of violence, measured in murders per 100,000.  However, when we look at this broader range of variables of social inclusion and compare them in the aggregate and individually to violence, what we find is that a better predictor of violence is not just development but a broader network of rights, attitudes and opportunities.

Those countries that scored the highest levels of social inclusion, measured by GDP growth, lowest levels of poverty, as well as access to education and formal employment, and political, civil and human rights (Uruguay, Chile and the United States) also have the lowest levels of violence, as measured by murders per 100,000.   And those with the highest rates of violence are also those with the lowest rates of social inclusion in the region: Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador.  No surprise there.

Violence against women2

March against violence against women (Flickr)

But within the index is where the different variables of social inclusion really matter.  When we look across the region, the rates of violence in countries like Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, Panama and even Costa Rica are also closely tied — in fact more closely than overall rates of social inclusion — to specific measures of social inclusion, particularly respect for women’s rights (except Costa Rica) and LGBT rights.

For example, El Salvador and Panama, which score well overall on social inclusion, have some of the lowest scores for LGBT rights, and they have rates of violence that match their neighbors who scored much lower on the overall ranking of social inclusion. The same is true for Brazil in women’s rights, where its rates of violence don’t match its relatively good placement on the aggregate score of social inclusion, but do match those of those colleagues with similar rates of violence when you look at women’s rights.

The relationship between murder rates and respect for LGBT and women’s rights is not to imply causality.  Insecurity and crime are deeply embedded in a range of factors including economic opportunity and social development as well as rights.

But it does indicate that violence in its most extreme (represented in the case of the AQ Social Inclusion Index in which Brazil to Honduras rank the 10th and the 16th most violent countries in murder rates per 100,000 UN Office on Drugs and Crime) may be deeply ingrained in intra-social violence.  In other words, addressing insecurity and violence may require  more than cracking down on crime or even ensuring economic growth or opportunities (a long-term proposition, to be sure) but should also include addressing issues of domestic violence and inter-social rights–and most important, how governments ensure the rights of its citizens.

How do you do that? In the area of women’s rights, it involves establishing a range of laws that protect women against domestic and sexual violence as well as ensuring that governments provide information on rates of violence–which many in the region do not.  In the area of LGBT rights, the AQ Social Inclusion Index looks at a range of factors as well, that include laws that penalize discrimination by sexual orientation in the workplace and criminalize same-sex relationships (including marriage).

Ensuring a legal and social environment that respects those basic rights are important not just in and of themselves but for the larger regional goal of reducing violence.  And quite frankly, they start as easy, basic legal fixes (providing information on domestic or sexual violence or outlawing discrimination based on sexual orientation) that will not only help to build more inclusive societies but, by building more tolerant societies, reduce one of the principal drags on economic growth in many countries today: insecurity.

Christopher Sabatini is Editor-in-Chief of Americas Quarterly

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