San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

UNICEF: Latin America's armed violence is 'epidemic'

Latin America’s problem with armed violence has reached “epidemic proportions,” according to the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF).

Nils Kastberg, UNICEF’s regional director for Latin America and the Caribbean, said this region has earned the “poor reputation” for having the highest rate of violence, accounting for 42 percent of the world’s homicides.

This situation has worsened with “the easy access to small arms and a growing gap between the richest and poorest segments of society,” Kastberg said in a statement from the regional office in Panama City.

“Unfortunately children and teenagers are objects of violence and the Caribbean tops the list, worldwide, in terms of the murder rate and has the highest rate of homicide among adolescents ages 15 to 17,” he said.

Boys are six times more likely than girls to fall victim to armed violence, according to UNICEF. Violence is the No. 1 cause of death among males in the 15-24 age bracket in the Caribbean and in certain Latin American countries, Kastberg said.

He cited Guatemala as a danger zone, where 418 youths were killed in 2005, 322 of them by gunfire. In Haiti, he said, child kidnapping has increased “exponentially” in recent months, with 50 cases so far in 2008 alone.

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