Columns

The homicide epidemic in the Western Hemisphere

Basil
Wilson

Sunday, July 14, 2019

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The Western Hemisphere has the dubious distinction of being the most violent region on the planet. The Asian region and Western Europe have much lower violent and homicide rates compared to the Western Hemisphere. This disparity may have much to do with civilisations that preceded the advent of capitalism. Countries like China and Japan possessed cultural norms in which life was valued. Homicide rates in those countries seldom ever exceed more than two per 100,000.

In places like western Europe where capitalism has its origins, the rise of welfare capitalism and more inclusive societies seems to have curbed the acquisitive and rapacious appetite and fostered a social order in which life is valued. For example, in the European Union, capital punishment has been abolished and violent crime rates are way below what is extant in the Western Hemisphere.

Why are violent crime rates in the Western Hemisphere so much higher than other hemispheres? Yet even within the ranks of the Western Hemisphere there is widespread variegation. The more developed countries like the United States and Canada have seen a marked reduction in homicide rates, beginning in the 1990s.

Those homicide rates were never as odious as some of the countries where homicide rates continue at epidemic proportions. The United States experienced a surge in violent crime in the 1970s and that rise did not ebb until the last decade of the 20th century, where rates of nine per 100,000 were effectively reduced to roughly five per 100,000 in the 21st century. Similar reductions were experienced in Canada.

In this interlude the city that was extraordinary in violent and homicide crime reduction was New York City, an area since 1965 that has been burgeoning with immigrants. What is telling about the New York City experience is how shifts in the economy such as the collapse of labour-intensive manufacturing precipitated high rates of unemployment and housing squalor. Occurring concomitantly with that economic crisis was the rise in single-parent families and the exponential increase in drug markets and the profitable underground economy servicing the insatiable appetite of crack and heroin addicts.

By the 1990s the New York City economy turned around and new law enforcement practices re-established the rule of law in the streets and in the courts. In New York City there were 2,262 murders committed in 1990 and by last year, 2018, there were less than 300 murders. The New York Police Department had expanded its ranks in the late 1980s and by the 1990s had emerged as an effective anti-crime fighting force, devoid of large-scale corruption.

What is notoriously known as the Northern Triangle in Central America, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, at the turn of the 21st century led the pack in homicide rates per 100,000. The anomaly in Central America is Nicaragua, where economic conditions are similar to the prevailing conditions in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala. The Reagan Administration waged a war in the 1980s against the left-leaning Sandinistas, but Ortega and the rebel movement survived the military encroachment from the 'Contras'. Cultural and historical forces in Nicaragua before and after the revolution seemed to have kept their civil society and social order more firmly intact. We have not seen the disorder and collapse of the rule of law in Nicaragua as we have witnessed with thousands of desperate citizens from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala flocking to the United States border, seeking asylum from wretched conditions back home. Nonetheless, Nicaragua in 2018 experienced a political crisis in which the Government was responsible for over 400 deaths and over 500 missing.

Although the epidemic of violent crime in the Northern Triangle is still at high proportions, there has been some improvement in homicide rates in recent years. In Guatemala the research entity, Insight Crime, reports that in 2018 the homicide rate was 22.4 per 100,000. In the previous year that rate had hovered around the 30 per 100,000, Honduras had made some progress and its homicide rate had declined to 40 per 100,000 and in El Salvador it was 51 per 100,000. That reduction, though promising, was still at epidemic proportions and had not stopped the exodus of citizens seeking security and economic salvation for themselves and the children desperately seeking asylum in affluent United States.

El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala were overrun with transnational gangs engaged in internecine warfare in the quest to accumulate wealth from the struggle to control drug runnings aimed at the lucrative United States market.

In all three states the criminal justice system is porous, and corruption in the police force, the justice system and among the political elite remains rampant. The Government in El Salvador was successful in establishing a truce among the murderous gangs of MS13 and MS18, which was a factor in the decline in the murder rate, but such a truce was not lasting.

The three countries have also resorted to extrajudicial killings and mass incarceration, but the overcrowded prison system became fertile ground for recruiting for the gang underworld.

What is somewhat shocking about homicide rates in the Western Hemisphere is the rise of Venezuela as the country with the highest homicide rate, in the world, at the staggering number of 81.4 per 100,000. But in a country where, under Hugo Chavez, there was little respect for democracy, and where there was a strong advocacy for socialism, the corruption in the armed forces and its link to drug smuggling, and the failure to deal with violent crime in Caracas are some of the reasons why Venezuela leads the world in homicides per 100,000.

The two Caribbean countries that feature prominently in the homicide epidemic are Jamaica and Trinidad and Tobago. The homicide rate for 2018 vis-a-vis Jamaica per 100,000 was 47, and for Trinidad and Tobago it was 37.5. Both Trinidad and Tobago and Jamaica have institutionalised democracies, but guns, gangs and a culture of violence have made those Caribbean islands unable to disentangle themselves from the throes of high homicide rates in countries where the value of life has diminished as the society marches towards more acute levels of material acquisition.

In the case of Jamaica, the Holness Administration has proclaimed limited states of emergency and experimented with zones of special operations, but the widespread nature of violent crime has stretched the capacity of the coercive apparatus of the central government. Jamaica has failed to find an effective instrument to reduce its staggering homicide rate.

The homicide epidemic in Central America and in the Caribbean has been immensely challenging to bring under control. What is evident is that an effective anti-crime, corrupt-free police force is a prerequisite for containing and driving down violent crime. But the haemorrhaging in inner-city communities requires not just law enforcement, but sophisticated street cadres who can foster peace buttressed by government programmes for youth caught up in the mire of reprisal killings. Nurturing and the bolstering of community wholesomeness are critical to reducing Jamaica's chronic epidemic of homicides.

There are generalisations that can be made about the homicide epidemic in the Western Hemisphere, but each country has its unique particularities which have to be studied and the interventions carefully planned and sustained. The Western Hemisphere needs to comprehend the nature of the homicide epidemic and tackle the contempt for life as a health crisis. There are countries inside and outside the hemisphere that can serve as models for conquering the epidemic of cripplingly high homicide rates.

Professor Basil “Bagga” Wilson, a Kingston College graduate and Manning Cup football star, is retired provost of John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York, and executive director of the King Research Institute at Munroe College, also in New York.


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