Origins of gun homicide and violence in Latin America

When I did my analysis of private gun ownership and the incidence of homicides and suicides there were a few things that surprised me. One of them was, that the highest rates of gun homicide where almost exclusively found in countries of the Americas.

Comparing the rates of gun homicide per 100,000 people by region confirmed this observation. Based on the available data (comparable data is not published for all countries in the world) there is no country in Europe, Asia and Oceania with a rate higher than 2 per 100,000 people. In Africa there are a few exceptions (I found only 4) to this but for the majority of countries it is below 2 as well.
Looking at the numbers of the Americas the opposite is true. Only a few exceptions have a rate lower than 2 and for the majority of countries the rate runs in the double-digit range.

Why is there so much lethal gun violence in the Americas? Why is that part of the world so different in that aspect?

Nord und Südamerika
Source: Gunpolicy.org, Rate of gun homicide: the Americas

Europa
Source: Gunpolicy.org, Rate of gun homicide: Europe

Asien, Ozeanien und Australien
Source: Gunpolicy.org, Rate of gun homicide: Asia and Oceania

Afrika
Source: Gunpolicy.org, Rate of gun homicide: Africa

Reasons for violence in Latin America
While digging around in search for answers to those questions I found a very interesting article published in the International Journal of Epidemiology titled “Understanding the uneven distribution of the incidence of homicide in Latin America“. Which is a good question as well as there are some countries in Latin America like Chile or Argentina with very low homicide rates. Thus the reason behind the violence can’t be just the mentality or genes of the Latin-American population. There must be other factors why the homicide rates differ so much.

For the article the authors collected information from public databases on homicide rates, incidence of violence in certain parts of the population, urban population, poverty levels, inequality in societies and other characteristics.

To better understand violence the authors use a sociological model of violence which distinguishes between originating, promoting and facilitating factors for violence. The originating level refers to the causes of violence that are mainly societal and cultural. The promoting factors refer to the material conditions in which people live. The facilitating factors contribute to the increased occurrence or lethality of violence.
In their analysis they found the following factors:

Originating factors for violence:

  • Very high levels of social inequality
  • High rates of poverty and high proportions of urban population
  • High youth unemployment
  • Loss of traditional mechanisms of social control, i.e. families, religious beliefs
  • Many urban areas with cohabitation of wealth and extreme poverty
  • No social support for families where both or the single-parent have to work
  • Democratisation of expectations: everybody desires the same material goods

Promoting factors:

  • In urban areas with high population density and poor social and transport infrastructure social control by gangs happens easily
  • Existance of a culture of masculinity e.g. importance of earning respect or confrontation when challenged by others
  • Drug market
  • Inefficient judicial system where it’s unlikely for offenders to be punished

Facilitating factors:

  • Social norms that promote alcohol consumption
  • Trends like the carrying of firearms

I believe, among all those factors social inequality can explain a lot of the different rates of homicide in Latin America but also world wide.

Social inequality
A good way to illustrate the level of inequality present in Latin American countries is the Gini coefficient for income. The Gini coefficient is a number between 0 and 1, where 0 corresponds with perfect equality (where everyone has the same income) and 1 corresponds with perfect inequality (where one person has all the income). The higher the Gini coefficient is, the more inequal a society is. Below you can see that Latin America has some of the highest Gini coefficients of the world.

Gini coefficient for income
Source: Wikipedia: Gini Coefficient World

Looking up the Homicide Rates for the countries with the highest Gini coefficients, I found that almost all of those countries have a very high Homicide rate.

CountryGini-CoefficientHomicide Rate per 100.000
Chile0,573,7
Kolumbien0,5833,4
Paraguay0,5811,5
Südafrika0,5833,8
Brasilien0,5922,7
Guatemala0,6041,5
Swasiland0,6141,0
Zentralafrikanische Republik0,6129,3
Sierra Leone0,6314,9
Botswana0,6314,5
Lesotho0,6333,6
Namibia0,7127,4

The article named all the important factors which cause and promote violence. And I think, it explains quite well the high incidence of homicide in Latin America. Probably many of the mentioned factors play an important role in other developing, fast growing countries in Africa and Asia.
It seems likely that social inequality could also be the reason behind the observation that the US has the highest rate of homicide of all first world countries.

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