Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Why San Salvador is the region's murder capital -- and why the statistics matter (March 2, 2016)

The Mexican think tank Seguridad, Justicia y Paz annually makes a media splash when it releases its ranking of the region's most homicidal cities. This year Caracas "won" the 2015 ranking, with a rate of 119.87 intentional homicide per 100 thousand inhabitants. While San Pedro Sula (111.03) moved into second place, by achieving a significant decline in the number of homicides. (See Jan. 28's briefs.)

But the data has been widely contested (in a certain wonky policy circle anyway). Several experts have made the case that San Salvador is actually the murder capital of the Americas. 

"Salvadoran cities have seen more blood spilled than most conflict zones. They are also hemorrhaging people, many of whom are fleeing to Mexico and the United States," writes Igarapé Institute's Robert Muggah in a Los Angeles Times op-ed today.

Accurate data helps show what policy steps could lessen the bloodshed. "More than 48 percent of all homicide victims in 2015 were Salvadoran males between 15 and 29 years old. More than half of the country's homicides occurred in just four areas: San Salvador, La Libertad, Soyapango and Usulutan. The country's cities are increasingly uninhabitable."

Ultimately, the only way to reduce rampant gang violence is to end the war on drugs, he argues. (See yesterday's post.)

Back to the homicide methodology debate, Muggah notes that the contested list of dangerous cities is provoking a much-needed debate about the problem of homicidal violence in Latin America and the Caribbean, including in Venezuela. Along with Renata Giannini and Katherine Aguirre in a Global Post piece he emphasizes the importance of reliable statistics to guide policy.

"A good way to start is by ensuring transparency about the scale of the violence problem, including in relation to homicide figures. High quality and reliable data are the cornerstone of effective policy. The Homicide Monitor data visualization, for example, is one of many examples of how to disseminate such information to those who need it most. These kinds of platforms, when combined with enlightened leadership, can literally make the difference between life and death."

"The measurement of lethal violence - whether homicide or conflict death - is an imperfect science. Nevertheless, careful measurement is essential to generate a true accounting of the burden of violence around the world. It is a political and moral imperative. El Salvador is suffering from a major crisis that is tantamount to outright warfare. Guatemala, Honduras, and Venezuela are not far behind. An accurate measurement of the problem is the first step to doing something about it," they wrote last month in Open Democracy. (See Feb. 17's briefs.) 

The homicide stats debate has centered on issues in obtaining data from Venezuela, where there are no officially released numbers. Last month last month David Smilde at Venezuelan Politics and Human Rights analyzed new data published by the Venezuelan Attorney General, and how it contradicts other estimates.

Last month, at El Faro (republished in English at InSight Crime), journalist Roberto Valencia argued against the widely cited index. Valencia reviews the methodology used to calculate the city homicide rates that create a ranking -- which this year put Caracas at the lead -- and posits that the oversimplifications distort reality. He argues that instead San Salvador is the world's most violent city. "If you take into account how the tourism industry and foreign investment will be impacted, as the result of being labeled the world's most violent city, we cannot complain. In some ways, the shortcuts taken by the Mexican NGO in their methodology actually helped San Salvador out. We came out looking ok." (See Feb. 2's briefs.)

News Briefs
  • Venezuela's Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the opposition-controlled National Assembly has no right to investigate judges appointed at the last minute by their outgoing predecessors, reports the Miami Herald. (See Jan. 4's post.) The opposition claims to have proof that some magistrates were forced to quit in order to enable the lame-duck congress to stack the court with loyalists. But the Supreme Court yesterday ruled that the probe would constitute a violation of separation of powers. The ruling came just hours before lawmakers planned to debate the issue, notes the Associated Press. It means another likely clash between the opposition-controlled National Assembly and President Nicolas Maduro's administration.
  • A wave of crime in Venezuela's countryside is exacerbating chronic food shortages and driving down food production, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • A Brazilian court ordered the release of a Facebook executive about 24 hours after he was arrested in response to the company not providing access to WhatsApp messages linked to an organized-crime and drug-trafficking investigation, reports the Wall Street Journal. (See yesterday's briefs and Dec. 17's)
  • Haitian victims of a cholera epidemic are pursuing a legal case against the United Nations in the U.S. court system. Yesterday lawyers for the plaintiffs were permitted to argue before a federal appeals panel why they believe the United Nations is not entitled to immunity, reports the New York Times. Victims say they will pursue the case, in which they accuse U.N. peacekeepers of negligently bringing cholera to the country following their deployment after a disastrous 2010 earthquake, to the Supreme Court if necessary.
  • Almost all countries in the Americas have criminal defamation laws that can be used against journalists to suppress freedom of expression according to a new report by the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Two-thirds of the countries in North, Central and South America routinely use such laws to silence dissent and keep information from their citizens, the report said.
  • In Haiti a new electoral council will have to determine whether a much delayed run-off vote to elect the country's next president can be held by an April deadline, according to the provisional President Jocelerme Privert. "The electoral council will establish a calendar and a budget. It is only then that we will know whether they need additional time or not," he said in an interview with Reuters.
  • The Mexican government will be focusing diplomatic efforts in the U.S. towards reminding Americans of the benefits of a close bilateral relationship, an attempt to counter the effects of the Republican primary in which several candidates advocate building a wall between the two countries, reports the Wall Street Journal. Mexico plans to use its extensive network of U.S. consulates to highlight the benefits of U.S.-Mexican relations to the U.S. economy and the American people, reports Reuters. (See Monday's briefs.) Should Donald Trump become the next U.S. president (!) "Mexico might be forced to play some offense, i.e., impose costs on Trump for harassing Mexico and Mexicans," argues El Daily Post's Alejandro Hope. He looks at some options such as sanctions and tariffs designed to hit Trump supporting states, using the U.S. legal system to sue over civil rights issues, organize resistance in the Mexican-American community, and using international arenas to isolate the U.S. for a policy that is unlikely to be popular with Latin America and Europe.
  • On the subject of benefits of closeness, a new high rise in Tijuana aims to offer a wide range of relatively low-cost medical services for Americans, in a facility just yards from a San Diego border crossing, reports the Los Angeles Times.
  • The new rector of the public Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (Unam), Enrique Luis Graue Wiechers is committed to keeping the university cost-free because of its role in promoting social mobility. The Guardian has an interview with him on the subject of higher education and inequality. 
  • Al Jazeera has an in-depth look at the role of community health-workers in Guatemala's precarious health-care system, which is endangered by lack of funding.
  • Labor activists in Brazil say there's a serious risk of worker exploitation ahead of the Olympics, and point to the suspension of the so-called "dirty list" of companies caught using slave labour, combined with an extremely conservative congress and rising unemployment, reports the Guardian.
  • Argentina's Kirchner-led governments made justice for human rights violations committed during the country's 1976-1983 dictatorship a cornerstone of their administrations. Now human rights organizations worry that history will be rewritten, as Mauricio Macri's new government gives space to groups who seek justice for those killed by left-wing guerrillas during that period, reports VICE. It would mean a major shift in official human rights policy. Most human rights organizations (and the legal system) argue against equating state-sponsored human rights violations with those of other groups.
  • Following a historic ruling in Guatemala against former military officers who sexually enslaved a group of indigenous women in the 1980s, the victims are seeking $3 million in damages reports Reuters. (See yesterday's briefs.)
  • A new satellite mapping system uses an algorithm to analyze weekly updates of satellite images and sends automatic notifications about new logging activity, reports Reuters. The new information promises to be a game changer for Peruvian organizations tracking illegal logging.
  • Cuba announced its first case of Zika, one of the last countries in the Western Hemisphere which had remained free of the virus until now. A Venezuelan post-doctoral student came down with symptoms of the disease a few days after arriving to the country, and remains in quarantine, reports the Associated Press.
  • The Rolling Stones will give a free concert in Cuba on March 25, just after U.S. President Barack Obama's visit. It will be the first performance by a British rock group in the country's history, reports the Miami Herald.

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