A first-of-its-kind study from the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) says that high crime rates in Latin America and the Caribbean have taken a “significant” socioeconomic toll on the region and “constitute a severe threat to economic development.” Additionally, the organization notes that the costs of crime “tend to be concentrated on the most vulnerable population groups, exacerbating their conditions of poverty and social marginalization.”
The IDB emphasized the preliminary nature of its conclusions, but also called its report “the first step toward a systematic and rigorous analysis of the costs of crime and violence in Latin America and the Caribbean.”
In addition to estimating the direct costs of crime such as “injury, damage, and loss,” the report takes into account “costs in anticipation of crime, such as public and private expenditure on security” and “costs in response to crime, such as the cost of the criminal justice system.” It also factors in “other indirect or intangible costs such as changes in behavior due to the fear of crime or the costs to families of victims.”
The analysis unsurprisingly concluded that “the costs of crime tend to be moderate in countries with lower levels of crime and violence, while those costs are higher in countries where victimization rates are higher.” At the same time, it pointed out that less-volatile countries actually tend to “spend more to address issues of crime…which implies less efficiency” in their public safety expenditures.
While the socioeconomic toll taken by criminal activity obviously differs from country to country based on local conditions, the IDB stresses the region-wide scope of the problem. At an event marking its release, the study’s editor, Laura Jaitman, said the direct costs of crime alone could amount to as much as three percent of Latin America’s gross domestic product – roughly the same amount the region spends on infrastructure.
Latin America and the Caribbean has replaced Africa the world’s most violent region and recent surveys have shown increasing perceptions of insecurity among the region’s citizens. In addition to persistently high homicide rates, the IDB study notes that “robbery rates in many LAC countries have dramatically increased” over the past decade and that, “on average 6 out of 10 robberies in the region are violent.” Assault, rape and other forms of sexual violence also remain prevalent.
While independent researchers and analysts have proposed various theories for persistently high levels of violent crime in Latin America, the IDB says the region’s governments have not made “a significant investment to learn more about this problem and about the effectiveness of the policies designed to tackle it.”
The authors heavily emphasize the need to improve data collection on all aspects of citizen security. “LAC systems of crime statistics are far away from the ideal system and the best practices of collecting and systematizing crime data,” they write. “It is essential to improve the availability and quality of reliable statistics as a prerequisite to better estimate the welfare costs of crime and violence in the region.”
There is some evidence from countries like Chile, Colombia and Uruguay that improved crime data collection programs can make efforts to improve public safety more efficient and effective. But in many cases, widespread underreporting of crimes and technological challenges related to resource constraints make the collection of accurate statistics difficult.
Moreover, no regional mechanisms exist for standardizing and systematizing crime data for cross-country comparisons. Some countries, like Argentina, publish crime data only on a delayed or sporadic basis. Others, like Cuba, Haiti and Venezuela, publish only limited statistical information that is difficult to access. And even countries with well-developed data collection systems face the challenge of crunching the numbers and drawing useful conclusions from their analyses – not to mention implementing reforms based on the findings.
According to the IDB, an ideal data collection system “must provide a combination of administrative statistics and survey-based indicators” in order to “allow cross-referencing of data on reported crimes, detentions, penal populations, and judicial processes, as well as data from victimization surveys.” Among its recommendations was the creation of a “user-oriented, effectively planned and managed, articulated and integrated, neutral and known” statistical system that aggregates accurate, up-to-date information from around the region.
The organization also highlighted the immediacy of the issue, noting that “an efficient system for the collection, processing, and dissemination of information on crime and criminal justice is a prerequisite for crime analysis and effective crime prevention…[T]he findings reported by these studies represent a call to urgently intervene in this area and to restore to those who have suffered the negative consequences identified the opportunities for well-being lost or, perhaps, not yet achieved.”