January 20, 2012

Most violent city in the world award goes to ...

Security, Justice and Peace murder map
The international news has been reporting on crime and violence in Honduras frequently lately. When I started my series on Crime in Honduras in October with "Crime is out of control in Honduras", I had no idea that the 'stuff' was going to hit the fan in the international media, I just felt that people had a right to know and that if a problem doesn't get recognized and addressed, it never gets fixed. Sweeping the crime situation under the rug might bring a few more tourists and volunteers to Honduras, but it doesn't help all of the Hondurans who live (or die) with it every day.

For those who don't keep up with Honduras news, first there was the flawed UN study reporting Honduras to be the most dangerous country in the world in 2010, with a murder rate per 100,000 population of 82.1 compared to a current worldwide average of 6.9. (See the previously linked article for the discussion of the flaws and a link to the report.) Then the effect of narcotrafficking on Central American countries received and is still receiving a lot of coverage. Last week, a Mexican organization named Seguridad, Justicia y Paz (Security, Justice, and Peace - SJP) declared San Pedro Sula, Honduras, with a murder rate of 158.9, to be the most violent city in the world [in Spanish] surpassing Juarez, Mexico, for that dubious distinction. Distrito Central (Tegucigalpa) was ranked 5th with a rate of 99.7.

There are tons of complaints coming from Honduran police officials and politicians about that latest study, some justified and some not.

First, Honduran officials are using as an excuse the country's inability to develop accurate statistics. This is one of those TIH (This is Honduras) responses that I don't even know how to address. If the murder rate goes down this year, I promise you they will be relying on those same "bad" statistics for comparison to show what a good job they've done. By the way, I am extremely concerned that officials are fudging the current murder reports to show that Operación Relampago is effective. President Lobo's and police officials' continued claims that crime has been reduced by 60% or 50% or 80% or "practically to zero" are belied every day by the newspaper and TV news accounts of murders.

Honduras crime sceneSecond, yes, we know that Honduras' crime statistics are not accurate, but the homicide statistics are the most accurate of all crimes because there are bodies as evidence, 95% of them with bullet holes or knife or machete wounds, so there isn't much chance that they should have been recorded as natural or accidental deaths. Also, in the case of murders, unlike most crimes, there is usually independent verification from the morgue, grieving families, and news media, which often sends reporters out to take photos.

Third, the only way that Honduras' murder figures are inaccurate is that they are understated, not overstated. I state this as a fact and explained why in the linked article. I don't think you will find anyone in Honduras who would try to argue it, unless they work for the police department or are the president. In a 2003 Wikileaks cable titled "Truth is scarier than fiction", the US Ambassador expounded on the many ways that Honduran murder statistics are understated. Even more damning, the Ambassador lamented that the year-to-date figures showed a 50% increase in homicides, but the final 'massaged' 2003 figures showed a 39% decrease. I have personally been told of murders in which the police either never came, or came and merely told the family to take the victim's body home, completing no paperwork. This is especially true in outlying areas in much of the country where the police don't even have a vehicle to transport bodies, but it also happens in La Ceiba.

Fourth, officials say that bodies are brought to the San Pedro morgue from all over the country and are implying that they are all recorded as San Pedro homicides, unjustly increasing the San Pedro statistics. That may happen occasionally, but logically, that argument just doesn't fly. Honduras only has three morgues, in Tegucigalpa, San Pedro, and La Ceiba. If all homicides were recorded in the city of examination, we wouldn't see the high homicide rates in all of the other states and cities that we do. This is another TIH argument, as one would think that the police paperwork would show where the murder occurred or at least where the body was found. While this argument may make San Pedro's statistics a little more palatable, a murder is a murder, and it should have been counted somewhere else in the country.

On the other hand....

But, one argument being made by Honduran officials is that the study used (they say) 600,000 as the population of San Pedro Sula when (they say) the actual population is around 1.3 million. Worldwide homicides statistics are commonly compared on a per capita basis (rate of murders per 100,000 population). I found the SJP study [downloadable here in Spanish] and was able to confirm that this statement is not true and is an attempt to confuse the Honduras public with falsehoods. The SJP study used the same 2010 San Pedro population figure used by Honduras' own Observatorio de la Violencia, 719,447. While that does result in some overstatement of the homicide rate, since they are using the 2011 homicide number (sort of, see below) with the 2010 population number, it is not understated by 700,000 as officials shamelessly claim.

I have a copy of the last Honduras census, 2001, and the population of the municipalidad of San Pedro was 515,000. The 719,000 figure represents an estimated increase of about 3% per year for San Pedro Sula. Estimated growth of 3% per year might be low, but again, not to the extent that officials are claiming. I then found that the Observatorio de la Violencia (OV) uses the Honduran government's Institute of Statistics [in Spanish] population estimates so it is a little crazy for Honduran officials to claim the numbers are off by more than a half million.

Another argument could be made that the SJP article cites numerous cases which show that the Mexican data is purposely understated by officials — but then again, so is Honduras' data. Like the UN report, the SJP did not always compare the same year data. In some cases, data was from 2010 due to unavailability of 2011 statistics.

I then looked at SJP's methodology for Honduras and it is not good. They used sketchy newspaper report figures, not the actual OV report, to calculate some of the data and apparently failed to notice that those reports were only through December 15, not the entire year — but that would only make the real figures higher, especially since the last four years data shows that December is always the highest murder month of the year with significant increases over the prior 11 months. For other Honduran statistics, they used the OV January-June report to project total 2011 murders. [Both links in Spanish]

So, yes, there are flaws in the SJP report, but the resulting errors go both ways and I'm not sure that Honduras would come out looking any better in the ranking if all these errors were accounted for. Labeling San Pedro Sula the most violent city in the world is misleading when it is not even the most violent city in Honduras on a per capita basis.

The Observatoria de la Violencia has apparently not released the complete 2011 crime statistics yet. If anyone has access to the actual final report, please send it to me.

More from the SJP report

A big point to consider is that the SJP study only included cities with a population of 300,000 or more, which means that Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula were the only Honduras cities included. La Ceiba, Atlántida, with a population of under 200,000 had the highest murder rate at 158.2 per 100,000 in 2010 and a reported increase of 18% in 2011, but the city isn't large enough to be included in that study.

It now appears that Copán Ruinas might have surpassed La Ceiba, based on the partial year (50 weeks) data. Proceso Digital reported [in Spanish] the highest city murder rates through December 15, 2011, as Copán Ruinas (178.9 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants); La Ceiba (167.4), Tocoa (159.4), San Pedro Sula (158.9); Jutiapa (158.1), and La Lima (153.2), compared to a country-wide average of 81.8.

In the "Other Jurisdictions" section, the SJP report includes the Honduran departamentos (states) of Cortés, which ranked 1st with a rate of 122.0; Yoro, ranked second (110.1); Francisco Morazán, ranked 8th (86.4); and Olancho, ranked 15th (70.7). For the latter two states, the data was projected from the January-June 2011 statistics, which is merely a guess and would not take into account the effect, if any, from Operación Relampago. None of these rates come close to Atlántida, but with an estimated population of a little over 400,000, it didn't make the cut-off of 500,000 to be included in the study. According to the OV, the 2010 rate in Atlántida was 138.1 and increased in 2011.

Deny, deny, deny

Almost as disturbing as the number of violent deaths in Honduras are the attempts at covering up or downplaying the violence by Honduran officials. President Lobo has claimed several times in press conferences that he had no idea crime was so bad or that there was so much police involvement in criminal activities. He can't have not known, but what he didn't know was that the international media would begin paying so much attention requiring damage control on his part. Incompetent and corrupt officials count on the fact that Honduras generally does not get any international media attention, so there's no explaining to do. Some of the pueblo may believe their president when he tells them that the media is lying or incompetent or just plain being "unfair to Honduras", all of which he has done, but too many have been touched by violence personally and aren't apt to trust their government anyway.

CNN's Narco Wars Special

CNN has a special report on Narco Wars focusing on Honduras and Guatemala which will be aired at 8 pm ET (7 pm Honduran time) on Sunday night. A background article and video trailer is here. Watch it with me so we can talk about it.

Related articles in the media [all in English]:

Honduras: home to the most violent city in the hemisphere?

Crime booms as Central Americans fear police switched sides

Honduran president says US to send personnel to help combat violent crime

In a press conference yesterday, President Lobo stressed, as he has since October, that Hondurans are in charge, that they welcome anyone's help but Hondurans will remain in charge. Honduras has also been getting guidance from Colombia, Israel, and others, but its all pretty hush-hush about the details.

Honduras Will Allow Drug-Related Extraditions To US

How does this work? Is this only if the US already has an arrest warrant out for the person and how would they have jurisdiction for a warrant if the person is operating in Central America? Just curious about how much effect this would actually have in Honduras and would appreciate any info. Note also that Honduras has had an extradition treaty with the US since 1909, but it only applied to foreigners, not Honduran citizens, who were protected by article 102 of the constitution.
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