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JDI Latin America and Caribbean Unit


Supporting research on crime and citizen security, and the professional development of policing in the LAC region.


Why government effectiveness and corruption may contribute to the high levels of homicide in Latin America

By José Luis Hernández-Ramírez and Catalina I Mellado Neely, on 5 August 2021

In this post the PhD students Catalina Mellado and José Luis Hernández elaborate a critic to the article of Chainey, Croci & Rodriguez-Forero (2021) related with a potential relation between Homicides and effectivienes of Latin America Governments to provide services and avoid the corruption.


  • Research linking homicide rates and social/economic structural variables show inconsistent (and limited) explanatory power in Latin America
  • Ineffectiveness of governments generates conditions where criminals can operate easily and prosper
  • Poor control of corruption seems related with an increase of homicides levels in Latin America
  • Further research should explore how the functioning of government institutions can affect crime in the region

In their recent article, Chainey, Croci & Rodriguez-Forero (2021) discuss how the high levels of violent crime in the Latin American (LatAm) region are influenced by the ineffectiveness of government institutions. They argue that the ineffectiveness of government institutions, further undermined by corruption, affect society’s perception of government legitimacy, and how in turn it has an effect on violent crime. The authors, claim that traditional approaches that consider that crime and violence are symptoms of early stages of a country’s development are not sufficient for explaining the persistently high homicide rates in LatAm, and do not fully grasp the particular characteristics of the region.

A large body of research examines the link between variations in homicide trends in LatAm with economic and socio structural variables (i.e., inequality, poverty, unemployment, GDP per capita, among others) (Bergman, 2018; Oberwittler, 2019; Vilalta, 2021). However, on review, these studies have not been conclusive in explaining the high levels of homicides in the region. Furthermore, increases in homicides have been observed, on most LatAm countries, with improvements in economic and social development.

In this article, Chainey et al. (2021), review this issue, seeking explanation to these trends addressing the question: What is the effect of government effectiveness and corruption on the high levels of homicides in the LatAm region? To answer this, they draw from research that has begun to examine the influence that government institutions can have on crime levels within a country and perform a cross-sectional statistical analysis that explores variations in homicide in relation to indicators of government effectiveness and corruption.

As part of their novel approach and based on their findings, Chainey et al suggest some theoretical principles that explain how the levels of homicide are related to the effectiveness of governments. The authors state that when government institutions don’t allocate efficiently and effectively resources towards citizen security, they fail to prevent crime and create a void in which criminal activity can thrive.

The failure to deliver sufficient resources for preventing crime in LatAm countries includes the lack of justice and protection of fundamental rights, as well as the poor provision of public security and capacity to generate professional police agencies. This has created areas within LatAm countries where the presence of the government (at local and federal level) is weak or non-existent, which in turn can create an environment that allows criminal activities to develop.

Chainey et al. describe the failure in provide services as an institutional organizational theoretical concept relating to citizen security, and in particular with homicide. They state that “the appropriate use of power and the adequate allocation of public resources in society provide a fundamental basis for the provision of citizen security. When governments fail to allocate sufficient resources to the public institutions responsible for social control and physical infrastructure, and fail to invest in the formation, development, maintenance, and functionality of these public entities, their effectiveness in providing citizen security is hindered. In a public service provision system where corruption is present, particularly in relation to law enforcement and the judicial system, this can lead to high levels of a perceived lack of justice and the legitimization of violence. … [How] institutions operate and how effective they are in the provision of citizen security can influence the homicide levels that are observed”. According to Arias (2016), this can also even create parallel polities, where the voids left by governments are filled by criminal groups that take on the role of the government and supply basic services.

The reasoning that the authors present is innovative in explaining the relationship between the level of homicides and government effectiveness because their findings show the particular significant influence of this factor in LatAm. This contrasts with most research to date because this influence of the effectiveness of government institutions has been included in few studies for examining the high levels of violence in the LatAm region.

Authors point out that their statistical cross-sectional analysis was modest, but that it does offer valuable new insights that can be built upon. This includes improving the statistical analysis by increasing the sample of data that are examined by analysing the evolution of homicide levels over time and its relationship with government effectiveness and homicide.

Within this theoretical framework, and through empirical analysis, the paper concludes by stating that in the LatAm region, where government effectiveness is low and corruption is high, homicide rates are high. It further concludes that to better understand how the levels of homicides in the region are influenced by government effectiveness and corruption, future research should also examine the relationship between homicide and the rule of law, impunity and government legitimacy, corruption.

This article highlights the complex and multidimensional character of homicides. Although variables such as social inequality have an important role to play in explaining variations in homicide levels. institutional factors also appear to influence the high homicides levels that are present in the LatAm region.


The article of Chainey, Croci & Rodriguez-Forero could be consulted at: https://www.mdpi.com/2076-0760/10/5/172 

For more information about the Authors check their personal webs:

Spencer Chainey

Gonzalo Croci

Laura Rodríguez-Forero

Call for papers: Special Issue on Geographic Crime Analysis

By Patricio R Estévez-Soto, on 17 September 2020

call for papers flyer

We are now accepting submissions for a Special Issue on Geographic Crime Analysis in the open access International Journal of Geo-Information (IF: 2.239).

Crime has an inherent geographic quality. For a crime to occur, it has to happen at some place, at some time. Analyzing the geography of crime is vital for developing our understanding of crime.

This Special Issue will provide contemporary research on geographic crime analysis. We are seeking contributions that advance existing techniques or introduces new techniques for better understanding the geography of crime. Papers should be original research manuscripts that meet with the journal’s research articles requirements. Topics the Special Issue on Geographic Crime Analysis we anticipate will include are:

  • Crime concentration and hot spot analysis
  • Spatial-temporal analysis
  • Repeat and near-repeat victimization
  • Risky facilities
  • Persistent, emerging and dispersed spatial patterns of crime
  • Geographic offender profiling (for criminal investigations)
  • Spatial regression analysis
  • Mapping and analyzing risk (including forecasting and prediction)
  • Crime harm mapping
  • Impact evaluation techniques
  • Simulation of crime patterns (and testing “what if“ scenarios)

Papers submitted for consideration must identify which of these topics the paper addresses by listing one (or more) of these topics in the key words associated with the manuscript.

The Special Issue is guest edited by Dr Spencer Chainey, Dr Matt Ashby, Dr Patricio Estévez-Soto, Ms. Sophie Curtis-Ham, and Mr. José Luis Hernandez.

For instructions on how submit a paper, visit the Special Issue’s webpage.

The Relationship between Firearm Proliferation and Violence in Latin America

By Diego Sanjurjo, on 22 July 2020

The vast majority of Latin American countries share a similar trend of rising crime and violence. Most forms of violent crime have intensified, with property crime being the most notorious. Nonetheless, homicides are easier to account for. Murders experienced an 11 percent increase in the region between 2000 and 2010, resulting in more than 2.5 million killings since the turn of the century. Furthermore, homicides have arguably turned into a Latin American singularity, because it is the only region in the world in which murder rates increased during the first decades of the twenty-first century. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the region surpassed Africa for the first time and became the region with the highest number of murders globally, both in absolute numbers as in relation to its population.

Guns are fundamental in these dynamics and their use as murder weapons supposes a particularity of the Latin American homicide epidemic. Firearms were used to commit around 50 percent of all homicides worldwide between 2010 and 2015[i], but their impact in Latin America is even more pronounced. In Brazil and in Central America, for instance, gun homicides correspond to at least 70% of the total. Their use in non-lethal forms of crime has drastically increased as well in recent decades, while national reports show that rising insecurity and mistrust in state authorities appear to be linked to increase popular disposition to acquire them as instruments of self-defense. Hence, self-protection and criminal predatory behaviour fuel a rising demand for guns in a region that already possesses important surpluses dating back to the civil wars and military dictatorships of the 20th century.

As a result, the best and latest available estimates indicate that there are approximately 71 million small arms[ii] in Latin America. Among these, 14 percent belong to state security forces and paramilitary forces. The remaining 86 percent likely belong to civilians, resulting in a relatively low average country distribution of 9.87 civil guns per every 100 residents. Among independent countries and territories, national estimates of firearm ownership vary considerably, ranging between 2 firearms per every 100 inhabitants in Bolivia, Peru and Cuba, to 34.7 in Uruguay[iii]. Despite being on opposite ends of the gun-ownership spectrum, these countries present relatively low levels of violence. It is an indication that the relationship between civilian gun ownership and firearm homicides is not linear (Figure 01), and the correlation between gun proliferation and crime is usually low. This is not a distinctive feature of the region. The United States’ estimated gun ownership rate is 12 times higher than Latin America’s average, but its firearm homicide rate is 7 times lower.

Figure 01: Estimates of civilian guns (2017) and violent deaths by guns (2016).

Source: Own elaboration using estimations by Karp (2018) and Small Arms Survey (n.d.).

The influence of gun proliferation on violence and insecurity is more complex and difficult to predict than the regional literature usually suggests. Efforts to find evidence of causality are strongly contested and in-depth studies have not been carried out in the region. Ultimately, guns can be an effective instrument for personal defence against crime, as well as a lethal instrument to generate violence, commit crimes, and confront state security policies. However, their influence on regional violence presents distinctive particularities that go beyond such a linear relation. Guns do not suppose a problem in Latin America because of their sheer quantity, but due to their prominent incidence in crime and violence at an aggregate level. Indeed, lethal gun violence is not only disproportionally high, but national violent death rates also show a positive correlation with the percentage of violent deaths committed with firearms. In other words, countries in Latin America with high rates of violence also tend  to have high percentages of violent deaths committed with firearms (see Figure 02). This is the case in countries like Brazil, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica or Venezuela, for instance.

Figure 02: National violent death rates and percentage of violent deaths committed with firearms (2016)

Source: Own elaboration using data from Small Arms Survey (n.d.);

The relationship between gun availability and armed violence is not linear, and this phenomenon does not constitute evidence of causality between gun proliferation and homicides. However, it does suggest important correlations that cannot be ignored. The proliferation of small arms leads to different consequences in Argentina than in Guatemala. Even between territories, cities, and neighbourhoods, small arms trigger different processes. It is significantly more likely for a gun to be used to commit a homicide in Central America than in the Southern Cone of South America. Therefore, as important as the quantity of firearms and their capability to produce harms, it is also the circumstances that surround firearms that determine their lethality.

What this relationship suggests is that firearms seem to add fuel to the fire in violent places. If the presence of a gun during a fight between neighbors can make the difference between a broken nose and a murder, a similar dynamic occurs at the macro level, whereby easy access to firearms can contribute to extreme levels of violence. One way of looking at it is through an epidemiological approach and the variation of local risk factors. Accordingly, small arms represent one factor among many: social exclusion, weak institutional contexts, rapid and uncontrolled urbanization, a recent history of armed conflict, violent events in neighbouring countries, high percentages of young men who do not work nor study, the presence of organized criminal groups, and the expansion of illegal markets. A quick overview of the region suggests that all countries concentrate some of these factors to a certain extent. Most experience several risk factors, and some are severely affected by all of them.

Ultimately, such extended structural deficits make the proliferation of small arms especially pernicious in Latin America, as the easy access to guns triggers (and exponentially increases) what is already an explosive combination of risk factors. Under these circumstances, it seems reasonable to suggest that a more restricted access to firearms is an insufficient but rational policy step.

[i] Even though Latin America is the region with the highest proportion of gun homicides, the information on homicidal mechanisms in places such as Africa, Southern Asia, or Southeast Asia is very scarce, which may result in under-reporting (GDS 2015).

[ii] For the purposes of this post, I use the terms ‘small arms’, ‘firearms’ and ‘guns’ interchangeably and refer to the following items: revolvers and self-loading pistols; rifles and carbines; shotguns; sub-machine guns; and light and heavy machine guns.

[iii] The national firearm ownership rate informs us about the national firearm culture. Societies with the highest rates are those with (1) an important tradition of owning and using firearms, such as in Guyana, Paraguay, and Uruguay; or with (2) access to the powerful small arms market of the United States, such as in the cases of the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, Surinam, Mexico, and Panama.

Diego Sanjurjo holds a Ph.D. in political science from the Autonomous University of Madrid, he is currently the Coordinator of the Policing and Preventive Police Component of the Comprehensive Citizen Security Program of the Uruguayan Ministry of Interior. His main research areas include public policy and security, gun and drug policies. He is the author of “Gun Control Policies in Latin America” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020).

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the JDI LAC Unit.

Another Approach to Crime Reduction in Colombia

By Alberto Nieto and Herve Borrion, on 5 June 2020

Following concerns about the increasing number of crimes reported in Colombia, President Ivan Duque ordered last year the creation of a plan to reduce crime. In the past weeks, officials from the National Police (NP) have revealed the contours of this strategy that aims to reduce crime by improving the criminal investigation process. But, is it such a good idea? Colombia faces a daunting scenario. New accounts show that 1,136 people were robbed on average per day during the first semester of 2019. Violence is also a significant concern. During 2018, 25 people per every 100,000 inhabitants were killed, situating Colombia as the 9th country with the highest homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean. The strategy’s underpinning objective is to increase the effectiveness of NP and the Prosecution Service in dealing with crimes as soon as they are committed. Although not explicit, there is hope that this would produce a general deterrent effect, by sending a message to offenders about the risk involved in committing crime.

Improving part of the criminal justice system might seem like a good idea. However, this is not as straightforward because the criminal justice system is a complex system with multiple agents (e.g., citizens, law enforcement agencies, judges, prosecutors, public defendants, prisons, social workers), multiple functions and processes, as well as forward and feedback loops. In this case, it is questionable whether improving the criminal investigation process is really an effective and efficient way to reduce crime.

With the new plan, we can expect more cases to be pushed to the next stage of the criminal justice system: courts and prisons. The logic would be that a higher number of offenders will be rehabilitated or deterred. In practice, however, those cases are unlikely to be processed effectively, and the sought effect may not materialise. Indeed, there are already more than 36,000 individuals in pretrial detention (33% of prison population), and prisons have an overcrowding rate of 55%, making Colombia the 5th country with the highest occupation level in South America and 50th worldwide.

Considering how congested the criminal justice system is, reducing the number of criminal opportunities would probably be a more promising strategy. Recent studies suggest that the crime drop observed in most developed countries in the West can be attributed to improved security measures used to increase the perceived risks of getting caught, reduce the rewards for the offenders, or increase the effort needed to commit an offence. These means are the tenets of the situational prevention approach to reduce crime.

For law enforcement agencies to take a leading role in the prevention of crimes requires a real shift in strategy, mindset, and incentives. One of the most successful approaches, problem-oriented policing introduced by Herman Goldstein in 1979, puts a premium on an in-depth understanding of the problems which law enforcement agencies need to address. POP, as this strategy is also known, has tried to change the standard, reactive policing model that deals with crime events individually, similar to the one envisioned by the NP’s new plan. This approach focuses on identifying recurrent crime and disorder problems and understanding and tackling the underlying causes to prevent them.

Police forces’ commitment and interest in POP has fluctuated since its introduction, but it is regaining interest. The challenge remains in how well law enforcement agencies define the problems and understanding the social, ecological, and ethical considerations of the interventions intended to reduce crime, as discussed in this article published in the British Journal of Criminology.

The opportunity for countries like Colombia to adopt POP seems to be remote. Delivering process outcomes —i.e., the number of people arrested and sentenced—continues to prevail in how public opinion holds accountable law enforcement agencies, and law enforcement agencies might use these outcomes to regain confidence in people when the number of crime reports increases. The difficulty in quantifying the number of crimes that can be prevented, therefore, reduces the importance of a preventive approach to crime.

There is merit in trying to improve the investigative process, and therefore in NP’s new plan. However, significant crime reduction should not be expected from it, for as long as prevention continues to be a second-order approach and law enforcement agencies solely rely on the criminal justice system to produce general deterrent effects. For this, partnerships between law enforcement agencies and other actors of society will need to be established to address recurrent crime problems. Complex system theory might come in handy to start shaping a new understanding of criminal opportunities and testing alternative strategies to improve security.

Alberto Nieto is a PhD candidate in the Department of Security and Crime Science. His research focuses on the evolution of co-offending networks.

Dr Hervé Borrion is Associate Professor at the Department of Security and Crime Science.

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the JDI LAC Unit.

Crime and Covid-19: Effect of changes in routine activities in Mexico City

By Patricio R Estévez-Soto, on 27 May 2020

The Covid-19 pandemic has thus far infected 5.6 million people and caused an excess of 350 thousand deaths worldwide. Latin America and the Caribbean are particularly likely to be affected by this crisis. On the one hand, the World Health Organisation said that the Americas have become the new centre of the pandemic, as cases and deaths have surged in the region, overtaking daily infections in Europe and the United States. In addition, the pandemic is also likely to wreak havoc in the economy and stability of LAC countries. The United Nations’ Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) estimates that the pandemic “will cause the greatest economic contraction ever” in Latin America and the Caribbean, causing unemployment to rise to 38 million in the LAC region, and poverty to increase by 4.5 percentage points. It is estimated that the pandemic will drive 30 million people into poverty across the LAC region.

The devastating effects of the pandemic across the economy and society are likely to have long term consequences on crime and security across the LAC region. While there has been some discussion on the potential effects of covid-19 on criminal governance, illicit markets, and the strength of organised crime, there has thus far been little discussion of the short term effects on crime patterns.

One of the most visible effects of the pandemic on daily life has been a drastic and sudden reduction in personal mobility across the world. As reducing person-to-person contact is one of the most effective means to slow the transmission of the disease, by April 3rd, around 3.9 billion people─around half of the world’s population─had been under covid-19 related lockdowns. Though Mexico was slow to enact covid-19 lockdowns, and even allowed massive concerts in Mexico City to go ahead during the early days of the pandemic, the government issued a nationwide lockdown in March 23. While in Mexico City many people have continued to work in public places defying the lockdown, data released by the city’s mobility secretary suggests a substantial decline in overall mobility. For example, the tweet embedded below shows the reduction in mobility by comparing trips between bike-sharing stations in early March vs late April. Data on the volume of vehicular traffic suggests a similar decline consistent with the covid-19 lockdown.

It is very likely that such drastic reductions in mobility could have substantive effects in the incidence of crime during the lockdown. This is because the patterns of crime we typically observe in a city don’t happen in a vacuum. Instead, they are a function of a city’s routine activities and rhythms of daily life (work, school, leisure, etc.), as these determine the rate at which criminal opportunities occur (i.e., how often  a motivated offender and a suitable target converge in the absence of a capable guardian). As Lawrence Cohen and Marcus Felson identified in their seminal paper, when changes in routine activities affect the rate at which such criminal opportunities occur, it is likely that the incidence of crime will change. In the case of the covid-19 lockdown, this would suggest that crimes that take place in public (such as street robbery) would likely see reductions (because there are fewer people on the streets), while crimes that take place in private (such as domestic violence) may increase (as people are under lockdown, victims of domestic violence are more likely to be trapped with their abusers).

An early study conducted by my colleague, Matt Ashby, examined the effect of covid-19 on crime trends in 16 large cities in the United States. Matt’s study used a type of time series modelling technique called seasonal auto-regressive integrated moving average (SARIMA) to forecast the amount of crime that would be expected during the early months of 2020 and compared those forecasts with the trends actually observed since the pandemic in the US began. The study found:

no significant changes in the frequency of serious assaults either in public or in residences (contrary to concerns among practitioners and policy makers), reductions in residential burglary in some (but not all) cities, little change in non-residential burglary (except in Minneapolis), decreases in thefts from vehicles in some cities, and diverging patterns of thefts of vehicles. It is noteworthy, however, that in no case were the patterns the same across all the cities under study (Ashby 2020, p 15).

The somewhat modest effects of the pandemic on crime in these US cities could be explained by several factors. First, the study was conducted very early in the course of the pandemic, so it is possible that the full effects of the lockdowns could not be observed yet. It is quite possible that the effects of the pandemic on crime may take longer to become evident. On the other hand, crime in the US (and in the western world in general) has seen a consistent crime drop over the last few decades, mostly due to the improvement of security. Thus, it is possible that small reductions may be lost in the noise expected in longitudinal crime patterns. As an example of the later point, consider that the lower bound of the confidence intervals around the SARIMA forecasts for some cities are at or near 0, meaning that even if a week had no crime during the pandemic, this would be within the expected range of variation. Lastly, as the study examined city-wide temporal patterns of crime, it did not explicitly took into account how much routine activities actually changed during the pandemic, nor how they may have changed within specific cities.

To address some of these shortcomings, I’ve started a research project to examine the effect of the covid-19-related changes in routine activities on crime patterns in Mexico City. Mexico City represents an excellent opportunity to study the effect of covid-19 lockdowns on crime, as the city has an excellent open data initiative that regularly publishes incident-level crime data, as well as a data on urban mobility that can be reliably used to estimate changes in routine activities. Furthermore, there are few studies on crime patterns from an environmental criminology perspective outside of the English-speaking world, thus the study could advance the field by examining the relationship between routine activities and crime in a new setting.

Details of the study can be found in the project website at the Open Science Foundation. In a nutshell, I will first identify a suitable proxy measure to estimate the amount of activity outside homes (such as public transit passenger numbers, mobility apps trip queries, or amount of air pollution) before and after the social distancing restrictions imposed due to the Covid-19 epidemic. Then, I will examine if spatio-temporal crime patterns are associated with those of the proxy measures of routine activities. I plan on conducting city-wide analyses similar to those that Matt carried out, though I will also look at how crime patterns within the city may have changed in response to changes in mobility. For example, it may be particularly telling if crime decreases near public transit stations are correlated with changes in the amount of passengers that are using those stations.

At this moment, the project is still in the planning phase. Data collection will begin by mid summer as data for May and June are published. It is expected that a first draft of the study will be completed by the end of the summer. For more information on this study, visit the project website or chat with me on twitter.

Ashby, M. P. J. (2020). Initial evidence on the relationship between the coronavirus pandemic and crime in the United States. Crime Science, 9(1), 6. https://doi.org/10.1186/s40163-020-00117-6

Dr Patricio R Estévez-Soto is a Teaching Fellow for Latin America and the Caribbean at the UCL Jill Dando Institute of Security and Crime Science.

The views expressed in this blog post are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of UCL, the Department of Security and Crime Science or the JDI LAC Unit.