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Charting violence: Latin America

Nobel Peace Prize winner and former Costa Rican president Oscar Arias recently spoke with Humanosphere about the extremely high rates of violence in countries like El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras which he attributed to lack of economic opportunity coupled with the trade in illegal drugs (which are not unrelated, of course).

As a region, Latin America has made tremendous progress in improving life expectancy and growing its economy. However, many countries in this region are paying a huge cost for violence, especially when it comes to young men. To see how violence in Latin American countries compares to other countries around the world, Katie Leach-Kemon at the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation’s (IHME) used the online Global Burden of Disease data visualization tools.  

Deaths males 15-49

This figure, which you can access at IHME’s website online, shows the different causes that lead to early deaths in Central America, the Caribbean, countries with ongoing conflict like Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The figure shows trends for men ages 15 – 49 and accounts for differences in population size.

El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, and Honduras stand out as the countries with the highest rates of years of life lost from intentional injuries, which include lives cut short by homicide and suicide. By far, homicides are the driving factor behind these trends. El Salvador, Guatemala, Venezuela, Colombia, and Honduras have even higher rates of homicide than Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. To see detailed breakdowns of homicide (interpersonal violence) and suicide (self-harm), visit the IHME website.

We spoke to Professor Rafael Lozano, IHME’s Director of Latin American and Caribbean Initiatives, about the different factors behind these high rates of violent death. Like Arias, Lozano also pointed to young people’s inability to find jobs and their need to make a living luring them into the drug trade despite the high risk involved:

“There are many causes for the high rates of violence,” Lozano said. “The drug trade is a factor, of course, but I would say the lack of opportunity and easy access to guns are also major contributors.”

As an example, the square pie chart below shows the sheer magnitude of violent gun deaths among men ages 15-49 in El Salvador. In this group, nearly 40% of premature deaths were caused by gun violence in 2010 (marked “V Gun”). The live tool can be accessed here.

Violence IHME

Violence is also a problem among women in certain Latin America and Caribbean countries, as shown in the figure below. While rates of intentional injuries are much smaller among women ages 15 – 49 compared to men of the same age group, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Jamaica, have higher rates than women in other countries shown in the figure largely due to homicides. Here is a link to a detailed breakdown of rates of premature death from homicides and suicide in those countries.



A report released by WHO this week estimated that 38% of murders of women are perpetrated by intimate partners. The report also highlighted links between intimate partner violence, mental health, drug abuse, HIV, and other sexually transmitted diseases. In countries like Honduras, IHME found that intimate partner violence was the main risk factor for years lived with disability among women ages 15 – 49, as shown in the figure below, primarily due to the depression it causes. Here is the link to the figure online.




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