Organized Crime Blamed for Half of Latin America’s Homicides

By Dario Migliorini  |  Jan 9th, 2024
This article by By Dario Migliorini originally appeared on and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.

Organized crime is responsible for at least half of the homicides in Latin America and the Caribbean, home to the world’s highest regional homicide rate, according to a new study.

The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) recently published its 4th Global Study on Homicide, which included a section examining how organized crime drives violence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The UNODC concluded the region had the highest proportion of homicides related to organized crime worldwide. It also found that eight out of 10 countries with the highest homicide rates in the world were located in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The average homicide rates, according to statistics from 2021, were 9.3 per 100,000 for South America, 16.9 per 100,000 for Central America, and 12.7 per 100,000 for the Caribbean.

SEE ALSO: Homicide rate in Latin America.

The international anti-crime body found much of the violence is caused by clashing criminal groups with easy access to firearms. It also concluded that harsh government crackdowns have yielded mixed results when it comes to curbing bloodshed.

Criminal Competition Fuels Violence

The study highlighted a correlation between the presence of multiple criminal groups and rapid surges of homicidal violence. The complex networks of drug trafficking organizations, street gangs, and militias that operate across the continent create a volatile situation in which violence can quickly escalate when rival groups compete with each other.

This is particularly evident in areas where the criminal ecosystem is fragmented. In Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago, the many gangs present in the countries have been fighting for control of illegal economies, causing persistently high homicide rates.

Another relevant factor cited by the report is the expansion of the international drug trade and the changes in criminal geography and competition that it has generated.

The record levels of cocaine production in Peru, Bolivia, and Colombia have fueled violence between local and international criminal groups in nearby Ecuador, where homicides increased by 94.7% from 2021 to 2022, according to the UNODC. (InSight Crime’s 2022 homicide roundup reported a year-on-year rise of 86.3%.)

Costa Rica is also experiencing a rise in homicides, reaching a rate of 12.8 per 100,000 in 2022, according to the UNODC. (InSight Crime’s 2022 homicide roundup reported the homicide rate as 12.2 per 100,000.) Most of the violence is related to fighting between drug gangs, in particular for the control of Moín port in Limón province, a key hub for cocaine transport to Europe.

SEE ALSO: Costa Rica’s Homicide Rate

On the other hand, the consolidation of criminal activities into the hands of fewer or a single criminal organization has been associated with a reduction of violence. Similar examples were previously observed in certain states of Mexico.

Illegal Arms Flows Leave Trail of Blood

The report identified the proliferation of firearms as a key factor contributing to high levels of lethal violence in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Countries in the region reported the highest proportion of homicides involving the use of firearms, ranging from 65% in Central America, 67% in the Caribbean, and 70% in South America for the year 2021, compared with 62% in North America, 12% in Europe, and 15% in Asia.

Weapons are often imported legally or illegally from the United States and Europe, and weak controls in supply and destination markets result in easier access to guns for criminal organizations.

Lax gun control laws in the United States have facilitated the flow of arms in Haiti, where gang violence is spiraling out of control. The homicide rate in the country has climbed to 18 per 100,000 in 2022, an increase of more than 35% compared to the previous year, according to the UNODC.

Several Caribbean nations such as St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Turks and Caicos Islands, St. Lucia, and the Bahamas have experienced record levels of homicides in 2022, mainly due to competition over drug trafficking routes and the availability of guns illegally imported from the United States.

States of Emergency Do Not Guarantee Success

States of emergencies in several countries in Latin America have been associated with different outcomes, resulting both in reductions and increases in lethal violence, according to the study.

The brutal, prolonged, and controversial state of emergency in El Salvador has successfully reduced the homicide rate, which dropped from 17.2 per 100,00 in 2021 to 7.8 per 100,000 in 2022, according to the UNODC. (InSight Crime’s 2021 homicide roundup reported the homicide rate as 17.6 per 100,000.)

But in neighboring Honduras, President Xiomara Castro’s similar security measures have not succeeded in reducing violence and extortion in the country.

Likewise, in Jamaica, repeated states of emergency have been associated with accusations of police brutality but no sustained reductions in violence, with the homicide rate rising to 53.3 per 100,000 in 2022 from 47.3 in 2020, according to the UNODC. (InSight Crime’s 2022 and 2020 homicide roundups reported the homicide rate as 52.9 per 100,000 and 46.5 per 100,000, respectively.)

Also in Ecuador, measures included in the 2022 state of emergency, such as the transfer of gang leaders from one prison to another, have fueled massacres in several penitentiaries that resulted from clashes between rival gangs.

This article by By Dario Migliorini originally appeared on and is being published by under a Creative Commons 3.0 license.