By Alicia P.Q. Wittmeyer and Elias Groll
— Living in Latin America, it seems, can be hazardous to your health. A combination of drugs, organized crime and governments that are, at times, ill-equipped to handle the challenge has proved to be lethal, leaving a trail of violence through cities up and down the Americas, from Brazil to Honduras to Mexico, according to a Mexican think tank, the Citizens' Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice. According to its rankings, the 10 cities with the world's highest homicide rates are all in Latin America. Latin American municipalities make up 40 of the top 50 murder capitals, and it's not until No. 21 that a city outside Latin America makes an appearance. This comes with a caveat: The study only included cities for which statistics about homicides were available, which means cities facing bloody civil wars for which statistics are hard to come by — like Aleppo, Syria — won't be on the list.
Foreign Policy has put together a look at some of the violence that has become a daily feature of life in these cities. We've also included some cities outside Latin America that made the top 50 for a look at how the factors behind the violence differ in some cases — and in others, remain depressingly the same.
No. 1: San Pedro Sula, Honduras
When Colombia cracked down on its notorious drug trade in the late 1980s, the traffic moved north to Mexico. But since President Felipe Calderón declared war on the drug cartels in 2006, the next stop for traffickers has been Honduras. Almost 80 percent of the cocaine working its way up from South America to North America now stops in Honduras, bringing an onslaught of drug- and gang-related violence with it. Honduras' homicide rate is currently the world's highest — and, as written about in the November 2012 issue of Foreign Policy, San Pedro Sula's homicide rate is the highest in Honduras, at 159 murders per 100,000 inhabitants in 2011. By comparison, Detroit's murder rate is a paltry 48 per 100,000 residents. Located in northwestern Honduras, San Pedro Sula is the country's main industrial center and second-largest city, after the capital. But lately, the city's economic role has been largely overshadowed by violence. Examples of gruesome massacres abound, including one in a park last year that took the lives of four people, including a 22-year-old primary-school teacher.
No. 2: Ciudad Juárez, Mexico
This border town — a departure point for illegal drugs bound for the United States — has been a perennial contender on lists of the world's most dangerous cities. Juárez earned its grim reputation as a result of a turf war between the Juárez and Sinaloa drug cartels that killed more than 6,000 people between 2008 and 2010, corrupted members of the police force and the government, and turned the city into a ghost town. This year, there have been signs that the violence is abating: While a single month during the drug war's peak could produce a body count of more than 300 people, the first seven months of this year witnessed just 580 homicides, according to The Washington Post. Observers attribute the decline in bloodshed not to effective policing, but to the Sinaloa cartel's triumph in the battle for control of the city. Still, with a rate of 148 homicides per 100,000 residents, Juárez is violent enough to secure the second spot on the murder capitals list.
No. 3: Maceió, Brazil
Brazilian officials have sought to turn this former sugar-mill town and port city into a tourist destination based on its long, sandy coastline. Their efforts, however, have been hampered by a homicide rate of 135 murders per 100,000 residents. The authorities in Maceió — the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Alagoas — blame the rising violence (murder rates have soared 180 percent over the past 10 years) on the growing presence of crack cocaine in the favelas around the city. Perhaps to keep tourist money flowing, officials also claim that most victims are drug users who are killed for failing to pay up on debts.
No. 4: Acapulco, Mexico — once renowned for its beaches, high-rise hotels, and a nightclub scene that drew the likes of Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor — has not escaped the drug-related violence that has engulfed the rest of Mexico, and it is now the country's second-most violent city, with 128 murders per 100,000 inhabitants. Fighting for control of the southern state of Guerrero has led to shootouts on what were once the main drags in Acapulco's resort area, while severed heads have been found in prominent locations around the city. Unsurprisingly, foreign tourism has suffered; the head of Guerrero's travel agency association estimated in November 2010 that U.S. and Canadian tourism had fallen 40 to 50 percent in the span of a year. "We have to defend Acapulco to defend Mexico," said Miguel Angel Hernandez, a police chief, in 2011. "Acapulco is Mexico. It's a brand that sells."
No. 5: Distrito Central, Honduras — made up of the Honduran capital Tegucigalpa and its twin city Comayaguela — has been engulfed by much of the same violent dynamics — drugs, gangs, inequality — as San Pedro Sula in the north. Death has become so commonplace here that the mayor this year began offering a free-of-charge burial service to the poor after he got tired of seeing so many bodies tied up in garbage bags. While gangs, corruption and poverty have long been present in Honduras, it's the country's new role as a major artery in the south-north drug-smuggling ecosystem that has escalated violence to a new level. A coup d'état in 2009 left political chaos in its wake, which has only empowered drug traffickers; that same year, the country's top anti-drug official was shot to death in his car in Tegucigalpa. Distrito Central now has 100 murders for every 100,000 residents.
No. 6: Caracas Venezuela
The so-called malandros — gangs of young men who spar over turf and the right to push drugs — have made the Venezuelan capital a virtual war zone. In 2011, Caracas witnessed 3,164 homicides — a staggering figure just shy of the total number of coalition fatalities in Afghanistan during the entire 10-year conflict in that country. Venezuelan officials have been accused of fudging murder statistics, and the actual number of homicides is likely much higher than the reported figure. To make matters worse, up to 90 percent of murders in Venezuela go unsolved. It's no surprise, then, that the rampant violence proved to be the primary issue in the Venezuelan presidential campaign with Henrique Capriles Radonski blasting President Hugo Chávez for failing to stem the bloodshed. (Since Chávez's election in 1998, the murder rate in Venezuela has doubled.) Experts say that easy access to guns, a culture of violence among young men, and a lack of police and prosecutors have combined to create a perfect storm of lawlessness and a homicide rate of 99 murders per every 100,000 residents.
No. 7: Torreón, Mexico
A victim of Mexico's vicious drug war, the northern city of Torreón is now the scene of constant cartel-related killings as the country's drug lords battle for control of lucrative trafficking routes to Mexico's northern border. Last year, the city saw 88 homicides per every 100,000 residents. On a single Sunday afternoon in July, 10 people were killed in the city, five of whom were dismembered and two of whom were decapitated. And as the drug war has intensified, it has become increasingly difficult for normal citizens to escape the conflict.
No. 8: Chihuahua, Mexico
Situated about 150 miles from Mexico's border with Texas, the Mexican city of Chihuahua is a key transit point for cocaine heading toward the United States and, as a result, an important battleground for cartels interested in controlling drug-shipment routes. Violence in Chihuahua has become increasingly unhinged, reaching an average of 83 homicides per 100,000 residents. On April 15, for example, about 10 men dressed in tactical gear — complete with skull patches — stormed a bar and opened fire, killing 15 and wounding two, including two journalists, Francisco Javier Moya, the former news director at a radio station in Ciudad Juárez, and Hector Javier Salinas Aguirre, the owner of a news website. Nearly 50 journalists have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderón came to power in 2006, and cartels increasingly target journalists who dare to report on the drug war.
No. 9: Durango, Mexico
In 2011, the sheer scale of Mexico's drug war found perhaps its most gruesome expression in a series of mass graves unearthed by authorities in the northern city of Durango. Authorities came across one in the backyard of an upscale home and another on the lot of an abandoned auto shop. After the discovery of these so-called fosas, which contained 340 bodies in total, Durango residents began submitting DNA tests to determine whether relatives who had disappeared were among the victims. Discovery is one thing, but it is extremely unlikely that anyone will be brought to justice for these crimes. When asked about the investigation, a spokesman for the state prosecutor told a reporter, "Anybody who might have seen something will never talk out of fear." When pressed about who owned the land where the bodies were found, he asked the reporter, "Do you want me to wake up alive tomorrow?" In 2011, the homicide rate in Durango reached 80 murders per every 100,000 residents.
No. 10: Belém, Brazil
With cocaine streaming in from Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, Belém has become a natural transit point for South American traffickers. The drug enters the city through the dense forests of the northern Amazon region by airplane or through the Amazon's many tributaries by boat, after which it is then shipped to other Brazilian cities or across the Atlantic to Europe and North Africa. That makes Belém, where the homicide rate has hit 78 murders per every 100,000 residents, an attractive piece of real estate, and violence has increased there accordingly. The city also bears the downsides of Brazil's rising prosperity. As the country has grown richer, its inhabitants have consumed more and more cocaine. The Financial Times has called this rise in cocaine consumption — Brazilians now snort or smoke some 18 percent of the global supply — the "most worrying side-effect of the country's recent consumer boom."
Beyond Latin America: New Orleans, Kingston, Jamaica, and Mosul, Iraq
No. 21: New Orleans, United States
New Orleans has made massive strides in rebuilding since the devastation of Hurricane Katrina in 2005, but the murder rate — 58 homicides per 100,000 residents — stubbornly remains the highest in the United States. Although the city suffers from the same poverty and easy gun access that afflict many of the world's murder capitals, it isn't known for the kinds of organized gangs that have sent the homicide rates of many other cities skyrocketing. A 2011 federal government report concluded that murders in New Orleans mainly stem from personal disagreements that spiral out of control, or, as Police Superintendent Ronal Serpas called it, "uncommon endings to very common fights." A flummoxed city administration has sought to stop the killing by deploying "interrupters" to cool tensions on the streets after shootings and prevent more retaliatory violence. When it comes to murder, however, New Orleans remains unlike any other city in the United States.
No. 33: Kingston, Jamaica
At No. 33, Kingston has the highest homicide rate in the Caribbean. Gangs have been entrenched in Kingston for decades, particularly in inner-city neighborhoods such as West Kingston and Grants Pen. But the violence has received renewed attention in recent years as a result of the government's more confrontational attitude toward the country's gangs. A manhunt for one notorious gang leader, Christopher Coke, drew worldwide attention in 2010 when it resulted in more than 70 deaths in the Tivoli Gardens area, where Coke had established his stronghold. The government claims that its new approach is working and that a crackdown last year brought down murder rates in some areas of Kingston by 60 percent. Others say the initiative has only resulted in more extrajudicial killings. Meanwhile, the U.S. State Department continues to warn travelers headed for Kingston and other Jamaican cities that "While the vast majority of crimes occur in impoverished areas, random acts of violence, such as gunfire, may occur anywhere." Kingston has a murder rate of 47 per 100,000 residents.
No. 44: Mosul, Iraq
Mosul — the city with the highest homicide rate in the Middle East — is home to volatile sectarian tensions between Kurds and Sunnis fighting for control over the city. One of al Qaida's last urban holdouts, Mosul, which anchors a region home to vast oil reserves, has been the scene of ongoing terrorist attacks and has remained one of Iraq's most restive cities following the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Militants have continued to carry out attacks against the Shiite-led government, and the Iraqi Army has had a tense relationship with Mosul's residents, who complain of mistreatment at its hands. The fractious relationship has left security forces struggling at times to control the city's restive rebels, who in April 2011 killed five Iraqi soldiers along with three other people in a suicide attack. In the same year, the homicide rate hit 35 killings per every 100,000 residents.