Chile beats a path on the murder rate

By Jonathan Power

Chile has moved to the left. With Michelle Bachelet’s overwhelming victory in the presidential poll she now has the freedom to legislate as she wants. Poverty reduction, income re-distribution and education are the sharp end of her political program.

But of all Latin American presidents she is perhaps the most fortunate. Despite his draconian suppression of human rights, the dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, who ruled in the 1970s and 80s, not only engineered high economic growth he also kept deep poverty at bay.

The culmination over years of good economic government and attention to the poor is that Chile’s murder rate is the lowest (along with Uruguay) in what is the most violent of all the continents. Despite the disturbance of the student protests last year over the bad state of education, it has a calm culture and a rule of law.

So much of Latin America over the last four decades has seen the military or incompetent caudillos in power. The suppression of human rights and growing economic equality were the norm. The continent became the most violent on the planet. Only South Africa can match its murder rate- also a country with an extremely bad distribution of income.

According to a report by the United Nations Development Program, “throughout the last decade the region has suffered an epidemic of violence.”

Between 2000 and 2010 the murder rate grew by 11%. In most other regions of the world it fell or stabilized- by as much as 50% in most of the world. In South Africa the drop has been significant. But in that period, across Latin America, more than one million have died a violent death.

In Calcutta, with a population of 4.5 million, the murder rate (and that of rapes) is, by a large percentage, the smallest of any large city in India. This goes to show that a stable culture with a socially concerned and active local government is everything- Bengali family and societal life, despite the poverty, is exceedingly close. In Moslem Arab countries, along with Scandinavia, a tight social structure results in the world’s lowest murder rates. The forbidding or tough control of alcohol also has much to do with it. Latin America has little of this.

In Latin America, robberies have tripled and in a typical day 460 women suffer sexual violence. (These latter two figures are less easy to be certain about than murders.) Many prisons are dominated by criminal gangs which make sure that when prisoners are released they are of a mind to commit worse crimes than when they went in. In the north of the continent drug gangs wreck immense havoc. In Mexico they make some towns practically ungovernable.

Grim as it is, progress is being made in some countries. In Colombia, thanks to successful negotiations with the guerrillas of FARC, the banning of wearing guns in public and the suppression of the drug gangs, the murder rate has fallen by half. Guatemala that not so long ago was plagued by government-backed death squads (tolerated by the US which continued its close links with the army) that eliminated Indians, liberals and leftists has now started to get on top of the problem.

Yet bad as it is within countries the situation can vary within the country depending on where you are. Not so long ago I was in El Salvador. To the south in the countryside crime was low. But when I thought of driving to my next stop, Guatemala, I was warned not to, as the murder and robbery rate in a country that has had the second highest murder rate in the world was horrific on that road.

Half of the Latin American people believe that security has deteriorated. 65% have stopped going out at night. 13% have felt the need to move to another place – that’s 75 million people.

The Inter-American Development Bank has analysed the cost in terms of a reduction in GNP of crime in five countries. It ranged from 3% in Chile and Uruguay to 10% in Honduras. (The latter has the highest murder rate in the world.)

Poverty, a bad distribution of income and high alcohol consumption are probably the main reasons for high levels of crime, despite improving rates of economic growth. Other influences are high levels of unemployment, the increasing breakup of families, the growing access to guns, the use of drugs and weak and often corrupt police, judges and prosecutors.

It is possible to bring down crime rates? Chile and New York show how to do it, albeit in different ways. In New York it has been 15 years of the police adopting a policy of “zero tolerance” of anti-social behaviour. In Chile a sustained attack on poverty. It can be done. If other parts of the world and Chile can do it so can all Latin America.

Copyright: Jonathan Power 2013

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