San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Costa Rica looks to gun control as homicides hit 'epidemic' levels across Latin America

In most of Latin America homicide rates have exceeded 10 per 100,000 inhabitants, a rate that the World Health Organization considers “epidemic,” according to a new report released Tuesday by the United Nations Development Program for Latin America.

The report came out one day before police leaders from 27 different countries across the Americas, including the United States, gathered in San José for the American Community of Police’s (AMERIPOL) annual meeting to share ideas on how to curb violence and organized crime in the Western Hemisphere.

Latin America was the only region in the world during the last decade from 2000-2010 that saw an increase in its homicide rate, which is up by 12 percent. Criminal violence claimed more than 1 million lives during that period in the region, according to the report.

Despite the persistently high rates across Latin America and the Caribbean, the report noted retreating numbers in several countries. Guatemala, El Salvador and Colombia were all highlighted for their “substantial” drops in recent years.

Costa Rica was as highlighted as well, and despite already enjoying one of the region’s lowest homicide rates, the country saw a nearly 15 percent drop from 2011 to 2012. Costa Rican Public Security Minister Mario Zamora, who attended the event on Wednesday, trumpeted the country’s falling homicide rate and asserted that 2013 was on track to continue the downward trend.

Zamora told The Tico Times that gun control has been a key to the country’s success in curbing killings as other Central American nations continue to struggle with some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

“When people don’t have firearms, they resolve their problems with words or, at worst fights, but when they have firearms, unfortunately, they use them to resolve personal conflicts, between friends, family members, and above all in the case of criminal organizations. The moral is that the only way to contain homicides is to control the [weapons], which leads to the majority of homicides,” the minister said.

Zamora added that the Public Security Ministry recently destroyed more than 20,000 illegal firearms housed at the National Armory, and seized 3,000 such weapons during this year.

According to a 2012 Organization of American States report on citizen security, 78 percent of homicides in Central America are committed with a firearm.

The UNDP report blasted so-called “iron fist” policies in the region that have lead to a militarization of many conflicts and swelled already crowded prisons.

Executive Secretary of AMERIPOL and General Commissioner of the Mexican Federal Police Enrique Francisco Galindo followed the same line of thought when explaining how Mexico has reoriented its approach to violent crime.

Galindo told The Tico Times that police prevention, and a focus on the territories and crimes that generate the most homicides was key to the Federal Police’s approach to curbing killings and organized crime.

“In the last 11 months, we have successfully arrested more than 600 organized crime members. This speaks to intelligence gathering work to confront violence. Today, intelligence has been the best experience for Mexico applied in key operations along with nonviolent police operations to achieve this number of arrests,” Galindo said.

Many speakers at the AMERIPOL event addressed law enforcement’s role as a force to improve governability and strengthen civil society. Zamora, however, paused when reflecting on democracy and violence in Latin America.

“Sadly, as we see more democracy there is also a rising level of killings in the region. It seems counterintuitive when democracies in the region are getting stronger, civil society plays an ever-greater role, [but] sadly we’re seeing a rise in violence in the form of homicides,” the minister observed.

Zamora added: “One would hope that with more democracy, with the more opportunities there are, [there would be] fewer opportunities for organized crime, and fewer opportunities for violence. It’s an apparent contradiction that leads us to reflect back on what’s happening in Latin America and ask ourselves, why?”  

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