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Republics of Murder

RIO DE JANEIRO – Latin America is in the grip of a homicide epidemic. Although the region is home to just 8% of the world’s population, one in three of all homicides occur there; and one in four of all homicides occur in just four countries: Brazil, Mexico, Venezuela, and Colombia. Of the 25 most murderous cities in the world, a staggering 23 are in Latin America.

But data alone cannot describe the scale of this human tragedy. Latin Americans are living in a continent-wide war zone, and many of them are being denied the right to life – the most basic human right of all.

Some of the stories behind the statistics have been widely reported; others are known only to the victims’ families. Veteran Mexican journalist Javier Valdez Cárdenas, for example, had just filed a story about teachers being murdered, simply for doing their jobs, when he died last month in Culiacán, Mexico, after being shot a dozen times. Cárdenas is the sixth journalist to be murdered in Mexico in this year alone.

Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission has found that, since 2000, at least 125 journalists have been killed in that country. The killers of 33 of the 41 journalists murdered in connection with their work since 1992, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, have gone unpunished.

Homicide has become the great equalizer in Mexico and throughout Latin America. And the victims are not usually prominent citizens such as Cárdenas. Far more often, they are people like Gustavo, a 17-year-old store clerk who was killed on his way to work in Rio de Janeiro’s Complexo do Alemão favela, when he was hit by a stray bullet in a shootout between police and a local gang. According to a local newspaper, Gustavo’s mother now sits for hours by her door with her son’s dog, waiting for him to come home.

Indeed, despite such poignant personal stories and the sheer scale of the carnage, homicide is rarely a subject of public debate in the region, not least because most victims hail predominantly from the region’s invisible, neglected classes. They include Afro-Brazilians living in the favelas, poor young men in El Salvador, and migrant women in Mexico. Their murders are committed with impunity, and ignored by the media and local and national authorities.

As the homicide epidemic has become normalized, it has eroded people’s compassion and motivation to demand more from their governments. Latin Americans are simply standing by as the bodies pile up. The bitter irony is that politicians only make the problem worse. Competing with one another to prove who is tougher on crime, they have militarized the region’s police forces, and casualties have increased. In the Brazilian state of São Paulo, police now commit the majority of homicides.

Unfortunately, advocates of aggressive policing have no interest in breaking the cycle of violence, and they have dismissed evidence-based public policies that could transform lives throughout the region. For them, responding militarily is more expedient than investigating and addressing the underlying social problems that fuel crime in Latin American neighborhoods.

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We already have proven strategies for stemming the tide of violence, including gun and ammunition control, conflict mediation, “hot spot” policing, and drug-policy reform. But forcing governments to implement these policies will take political will and popular support. Sadly, many Latin Americans remain indifferent to the fate of the invisible classes that comprise a majority of murder victims.

Still, Latin American civil society is coming together to push back against political indifference and the culture of impunity. For example, the Open Society Foundations and 29 other organizations are participating in the “Instinto de Vida” campaign, which aims to reduce the region’s homicides by 50% over the next 10 years. Achieving that goal would mean more than 350,000 lives saved.

Because law enforcement alone cannot solve this problem, “Instinto de Vida” also includes Venezuelan professors, grassroots organizations in Brazil’s favelas, tech-savvy groups in Colombia, think tanks in Mexico, and faith-based organizations in Honduras. All of us involved in the campaign will work toward developing concrete solutions to the root causes of the homicide epidemic.

More broadly, we will make sure that what is happening in our communities is no longer ignored. It is time to end the silence that makes all of us complicit in our generation’s greatest tragedy. Pedro Abramovay is Director of the Latin America Program and regional director of Latin America and the Caribbean at the Open Society Foundations.

By Pedro Abramovay

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