Latin American cities are deadly places goes the common wisdom of visitors and residents alike. Indeed, many big and small cities across the region have eye-popping rates of crime, from theft to rape to murder. Mexico conjures up visions of heads hanging from overpasses, Brazil’s image still evokes the worst moments of Cidade de Deus, and let’s not even get started with Colombia. Some of this stands to reason. In fact, 40 of the world’s 50 most murderous cities are in Latin America. But rounding out the top 50 are some unexpected places, including five American cities (the other five are in South Africa and Iraq).
Crime, of course, isn’t all about murder and the small day-to-day crimes are the ones that affect most people’s lives. Still, with underreporting, corrupt police, and difficult legal proceedings, arguably the most reliable number when counting criminality in any place is homicide.
When measured by intentional murders alone (per 100,000 residents, a more reliable estimate that adjusts for the population of the city), it turns out that many major Latin American cities do not turn out much higher rates than places in the U.S. In some places widely feared by foreigners for their criminality, particularly places like Mexico City and São Paulo, murder rates hover far below major North American cities that travelers wouldn’t think twice before visiting. Mexicans and Latin American observers of late have commented with brio that now Washington, DC has a higher murder rate than the Mexico City metropolis – a sobering figure for the U.S. capital city.
Certainly, comparing crime between the U.S. and most of Latin America is comparing apples and oranges at best, perhaps apples and guavas would be a better metaphor. Police in the U.S. report and solve crimes at levels unseen in the region, while U.S. criminal and civil penalties for damages are much higher and most cops can’t be paid off. Also, your chances of being involved in violence are almost directly linked with the types of activities you get yourself involved in. Sipping cocktails in Ipanema and joining a drug gang in Morro do Alemão make for two different risk profiles.
Despite the continuing violence against tourists in certain cities, where even in Bogotá a U.S. DEA agent couldn’t prevent himself from being killed by a rogue taxi thief, most Latin American cities can be very safe places to visit with the proper precautions. So before you postpone that next trip down south because the State Department has you terrified, it’s worth making a quick comparison between the so-called tranquil, law-abiding metropolises in the U.S. and the perceived lawlessness of big cities in Latin America.
Could São Paulo be safer than Indianapolis? Mexico City safer than Boston? Buenos Aires running neck and neck with New York City? The numbers might surprise you.