The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Latin America’s murder rate is skyrocketing. The United States should help.

Soldiers stand guard near the bodies of a man and a woman gunned down by unknown assailants, according to local media, at a crime scene in Acapulco, Mexico, on Saturday. (Javier Verdin/Reuters)

BAD AS gun violence is in the United States, there is a region of the world where your chances of being murdered with a firearm are 4.2 times greater. We refer to the area between the Rio Grande and Tierra del Fuego, where the number of gun deaths per 100,000 people reached 16.21 in 2016, vs. 3.85 in this country. There are 400 homicides, from all methods and weapons, in Latin America and the Caribbean each day, according to the Wall Street Journal. With just 8 percent of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for about a third of all murders. We’re talking about criminal violence, not political strife; and it is especially intense in countries such as El Salvador, where the murder rate topped 80 per 100,000 in 2016, and Venezuela, where it may be even higher than that.

This is a crisis worthy of far more attention than it has received in the United States and beyond. Not only does rampant violence cause human suffering and economic disruption where it occurs, but it also has spillover effects, the most significant of which is migration. Americans are familiar by now with the way gang violence and murder are driving people, many of them children, northward out of El Salvador and other Central American countries. Much of the huge flow of people out of Venezuela to other Latin American countries, such as Colombia, Chile and Brazil, is also attributable to physical insecurity. This is flight due to fright.

At the root of Latin America’s crime problem are weak governmental institutions that fail to deliver consistent rule of law. Criminal gangs flourish in the vacuum of state authority. The absence of accountability for large-scale crime also enables the growth of smaller-scale personal feuds and domestic violence. Police solve no more than a fifth of all homicides in the region, the Journal reports. And out-of-control crime ultimately erodes public faith in democratic institutions, as the rise of right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro, a leading candidate in Brazil’s Oct. 7 presidential election, demonstrates.

Though awful, Latin America’s murder epidemic is hardly incurable. To the contrary, Guatemala’s homicide rate, though still unacceptably high at almost 30 per 100,000 in 2016, had declined from its peak of 45 in 2009. Perhaps the most dramatic progress has been recorded in Colombia, once the most notoriously violent epicenter of drug and kidnapping gangs on the planet. The murder rate there fell from 70 per 100,000 in 1995 to 26.5 in 2015. Colombia’s pacification came about through a concerted national effort to defeat guerrillas and drug cartels, assisted with military, financial and intelligence support from the United States, as well as programs aimed at bolstering courts and other civilian institutions. Though far from perfect, Colombia today is in a far safer and more prosperous state than its next-door neighbor, Venezuela, which used to received refugees from Colombia — not send them there.

Faced with interrelated security and migration crises in its hemisphere, it’s in the United States’ interest to extend smart security assistance. Demonizing those who flee and building walls to keep them out are worse than useless.

Read more:

Brendan O’Boyle: We know how to reduce homicides in Latin America. Where’s the political will?

The Post’s View: Two troubling elections threaten the health of Latin American democracies

Radley Balko: What if we treated violent crime the way we treat Ebola?

The Post’s View: The right way to respond to the migrant influx

Ted Galen Carpenter: The child migrant crisis is just the latest disastrous consequence of America’s drug war