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The world’s 10 deadliest cities

San Pedro Sula ... the graffiti reads, ''Hopefully, this will not happen to you.''San Pedro Sula … the graffiti reads, ”Hopefully, this will not happen to you.” Photo: Reuters

“Living in Latin America, it seems, can be hazardous to your health. A combination of drugs, organised 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 (New Orleans) 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.

No. 1: San Pedro Sula, Honduras

Ciudad Juarez ... a bullet casing at the scene of a shooting where three girls, aged 12, 14 and 15, were killed.Ciudad Juarez … a bullet casing at the scene of a shooting where three girls, aged 12, 14 and 15, were killed. Photo: Reuters

When Colombia cracked down on its notorious drug trade in the late 1980s, the traffic moved north to Mexico. But since President Felipe Calderon declared war on the drug cartels in 2006, the next stop for traffickers has been Honduras. Almost 80 per cent 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 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 centre 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.

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No. 2: Ciudad Juarez, 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. Juarez earned its grim reputation as a result of a turf war between the Juarez and Sinaloa drug cartels that killed more than 6000 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, Juarez is violent enough to secure the second spot on the murder capitals list.

Acapulco ... soldiers stand outside a house where gunmen killed an elderly woman and two of her grandchildren, aged 2 and 6.Acapulco … soldiers stand outside a house where gunmen killed an elderly woman and two of her grandchildren, aged 2 and 6. Photo: AP

No. 3: Maceio, 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 Maceio – the capital of the northern Brazilian state of Alagoas – blame the rising violence (murder rates have soared 180 per cent 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 US and Canadian tourism had fallen 40 to 50 per cent 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’etat 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 3164 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 per cent 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 Chavez for failing to stem the bloodshed. (Since Chavez’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: Torreon, Mexico

A victim of Mexico’s vicious drug war, the northern city of Torreon 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 250 kilometres 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. Nearly 50 journalists have been killed in Mexico since President Felipe Calderon 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: Belem, Brazil

With cocaine streaming in from Bolivia, Colombia and Peru, Belem 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 aeroplane 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 Belem, 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 per cent of the global supply – the “most worrying side-effect of the country’s recent consumer boom”.

Foreign Policy

Source : Sydney Morning Herald

Honduras murders: Where life is cheap and funerals are free

By Linda Pressly BBC Radio 4, Crossing Continents

Ramon Varela's family and friends lowering the coffin into the ground

Honduras has the world’s highest homicide rate. Many victims are poor, which led one politician campaigning for election to make an unusual vote-winning promise – free funerals for anyone unable to give a loved-one a dignified burial. It worked.

Early one Saturday morning the phone rings at the People’s Funeral Service on a noisy main street in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

On the phone is one of the workers from the city’s mortuary. A family needs help. Another young man was gunned down in the street the previous day, and his relatives do not have the cash to give him a decent funeral.

At the back of the building there is a stack of new coffins, some beige, some grey.

Ricardo Alvarez

“I found that people were being buried in plastic garbage bags”

Ricardo Alvarez Mayor of Tegucigalpa

Within hours, a black pick-up truck with Funeraria del Pueblo painted in orange on its sides is on its way to the mortuary, with an empty coffin on board.

The vehicle is also carrying a stand for the coffin, curtains and candles, and coffee and bread for mourners at the wake.

This will be held in the family’s local church, before 26-year-old Ramon Orlando Varela is buried in a plot also provided by the People’s Funeral Service.

It is a comprehensive service offered free of charge to the poor of the city by the office of the mayor of Tegucigalpa, Ricardo Alvarez.

“When I was campaigning to be mayor, nearly seven years ago, I found that people were being buried in plastic garbage bags,” he remembers.

“I said, ‘That cannot happen in my country, in my city.’ So I’ve been running the funeral service for the last six years, and this is my seventh year.”

Bar chart showing murder rates in selected countries

Tragically, this is a service that is needed now more than ever in Honduras.

Ramon Orlando Varela Ramon Orlando Varela had just dropped his children off at school when he was shot

The National Commission for Human Rights has calculated that there is a violent death every 74 minutes in this small nation of about eight million people.

Last year Honduras recorded the highest murder rate in the world, with 86 people killed for every 100,000 inhabitants, up from 82 in 2010.

In the UK the rate is just over one, in Mexico, 18.

The majority of those who die a violent death in Honduras – like Ramon – are killed with a gun.

But the reasons for the explosion of killings – almost a doubling of the murder rate since 2005 – are complex.

Graph showing murder rates in Central America

Corruption, gangs and guns have been around for decades.

In 2009, the coup against the government of President Manuel Zelaya brought a wave of political killings. And now Hondurans must contend with the presence of Mexican drug cartels that have pushed south and gained a foothold.

Why so many murders?

Six dead in a Honduran shooting
  • The 2009 coup brought a wave of political killings
  • Mexican drugs cartels now operate in Honduras
  • It’s estimated that 79% of all cocaine flights from South America to the US stop in Honduras
  • There is one gun in Honduras for every 10 people, according to the UN
  • Police corruption allows violent crime to go unpunished
  • Two-thirds of Hondurans live in poverty

No-one is safe. And activists, journalists and lawyers all continue to be the targets of assassins.

But it is not just victims of violence who are helped by the People’s Funeral Service.

Miguel Antonio Bueso Redondo arrives early one morning.

“My wife gave birth to twins by Caesarean section,” he says.

“We thought everything was fine, but then one of the babies was bleeding… The baby died.

“I didn’t have any money for a coffin… One of the nurses at the hospital told me about this service, and did all the paperwork for me. That’s why I’m here.”

After completing the formalities, Miguel Antonio leaves carrying a small white coffin on his shoulder.

The People’s Funeral Service is open every day, 24 hours a day. Calls come in day and night from the city’s mortuary, the hospital and from people who have heard about it from friends and relatives.

Eighteen staff work shifts, and there are two funeral homes. Both are equipped with everything families need for a wake which usually lasts 12-14 hours.

In the poor barrio of Los Laureles in the north of Tegucigalpa, the workers from the People’s Funeral Service carry Ramon’s coffin into the simple, wooden Evangelical church. Then they serve coffee to the many mourners who have gathered.

For Erica Fuentes, the mother of Ramon’s two daughters, the People’s Funeral Service has relieved her of a lot of stress – a private funeral service would cost around $1,000 (£620).

She was with Ramon when he was killed, and is struggling to come to terms with his death.

The hearse carrying Ramon's coffin

“We were coming back from dropping the girls at school when it happened,” she says. “I think Ramon was shot because of a mistake. At the time we were very close together, arm in arm, so maybe God helped me and saved me.”

The next day, the pick-up truck returns to Los Laureles to take Ramon’s body to the cemetery for the burial service.

Yoni Alexander Osorio Hernandez, one of the staff from the People’s Funeral Service, makes sure everything runs smoothly for the final journey.

“We also hurt for the families – especially because there is so much violence in our country.

“Most of the families who come to La Funeraria del Pueblo are very poor indeed.

“This is a service based on solidarity – solidarity with those families at a very difficult time for them

 

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