A History of Violence, The International Terrain of Murder

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Going back to my post yesterday about the US murder rate, I wanted to go back and consider the regional and international terrain. As we’ve discussed before, there really is no such thing as a US murder rate. The US has always had a few geographically distinct murder rates. Murder in New England for instance is not that much more common than it is in Western Europe, whether today or 25 years ago. But the South has always had dramatically higher murder rates than the rest of the country. And even with the South, Louisiana has long had a murder rate wildly higher than even the rest of region. But even for all that, we tend to look at the US murder rate and compare it to Europe. But that obscures what is in many ways a much truer, historically meaningful and telling comparison: high murder rates as a phenomenon of the Americas.

Here’s a World Bank data set on global and country murder rates. Needless to say, some countries have better records than others. A few seem to seldom report the data at all. But that’s one helpful thing about murder as an indicator: it’s a very concrete thing. Robbery, assault, rape and various other crimes get reported or not reported based on various cultural norms, fear of reprisals and so forth. But with murder, there’s a body or someone disappears. It requires an explanation. But going down the list, when you scan looking for countries that report murder rates per 100,000 inhabitants that are seriously into the double digits they are overwhelmingly countries in the Americas.

The most eye-popping examples are in the Caribbean and Central America. But even countries that are well outside these zones of rapacious, exploitative histories and current byways of drug-running, the numbers are still well above the global norm.

Let’s consider some examples (all 2012 numbers).

The Bahamas – 30

Belize – 45

Bolivia – 12

Brazil – 27

Colombia – 31

Dominican Republic – 22

Ecuador – 12

El Salvador – 41

Guatemala – 35

Honduras – 91

Jamaica – 39

Mexico – 22

Puerto Rico – 26

St Kitts and Nevis – 33

St Lucia – 22

St Vincent and the Grenadines – 26

Trinidad and Tobago – 28

Venezuela – 54

Even countries that one might imagine are well outside the Caribbean (not just the Islands but Mexico, Colombia etc) murder zone still have rates way above the global norm. So for instance, Argentina is 7, Chile is 3. The US is 5. Most countries in Europe are at 1.

And just to give some additional context, the list I assembled above, what it includes and doesn’t include, wasn’t one I put together looking by region. I went down the list and picked countries that were well over 10 per 100,000 residents. And just on my cursory look, that standard gave me those countries, all in the Americas. The only exceptions that jumped out at me were South Africa (31) and Tuvalu (20). [I went back after writing the first draft of this post and reordered all the countries by murder rate for 2012. The first seven were in the Americas. Number 8 was South Africa. After that it was all from the Americas until Number 18, Tuvalu. And then Namibia at number 20. So again, out of the top 20, all but three are in the Americas. And even past 20, the ones that come after are still dominated by countries in Western Hemisphere.]

So what is this about?

The high numbers for Colombia, Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean Islands suggests some role for the international drug trade. And I’m sure this plays some role. But what is important to remember is that what we call the drug trade is part of a centuries long pattern of smuggling and illicit commerce across the Caribbean. So yes, the drug trade almost certainly plays a role. But the drug trade is just a recent permutation of a centuries long pattern. After all, what do you think those pirates in the Caribbean were doing?

But the other part of the equation is that these were all in critical ways engineered societies based on various kinds of forced labor and violence. Forced labor is not always slavery of course, though it was critical in the Caribbean from the early 17th century through the middle 19th century. But there was also the encomienda system on the Spanish mainland. And after that was abolished, the system of what amounted to share-cropping across vast stretches of Latin America was one that was defined and organized around exploitation and through violence.


Spanish sugar plantations run on encomienda labor. Theodore de Bry, 1596

These are quite simply societies permeated by histories of violence. But more than just that, they are societies where very often the police are not people you go to when you need protection, justice or other things which we think (or hope) you go to the police for. The police are people you want to keep your distance from. They are sometimes little more than the armed force of the landlords or the powerful. And when you can’t go to the police, you tend to seek private vengeance, which is to say that in highly exploitative and violent society, the ‘oppressed’ are most often themselves trained to violence. When you can’t go to the police, when the police are not there to serve and protect but to control, disputes tend to get settled through private violence – which again, generates high rates of assault and murder.

I grant that I’m speaking outside my area of expertise and at an extremely high level of generality – but not entirely outside my knowledge area. When I was doing my PhD in the 90s, my main area was 17th Century North America, particularly New England. But my secondary field was Colonial Latin America. And I made this choice because the premise of my research was that colonization in English North America and the Spanish Americas was not as different as we imagine. Despite how we now see the ‘Puritan’ settlers of New England today, the original drives were very much to find a docile and controllable supply of labor to generate great wealth. That’s what early colonization was about.

A few top New Englanders even had the idea of triggering a war with the Indians of Southern New England (basically the Narragansetts and Wampanoags of what is now Rhode Island and southeastern Massachusetts) in which they could be justly enslaved and then traded for African slaves in the Caribbean.

This brings us back to the US crime rate and particularly the Southern murder rate. Why has the South always had a much higher murder rate than the rest of the country? The answer seems obvious: slavery. The role of violence and labor is much, much more similar to the Greater Caribbean than any other part of the United States. And when we look at the relatively high rates of violent crime among African-Americans, though this is a highly fraught and complex question, the sort of alienation from police authority, which goes far, far back into our history, is in my mind almost certainly a central part of the story.

In any case, let’s circle all the way back to what are still the relatively high rates of violence and murder in the US versus Europe and some other parts of the world. Some of the mystery is simply that our frame of reference is wrong. The United States is part of the Americas and not just in the obvious geographical sense. While it is distinct in many ways, the US (and not just the South) had its fundamental origins as a settler society, which created basic patterns which are still with us today.

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