The state of police violence in the Americas
Katherine Aguirre and Robert Muggah
Violent death is unnervingly routine in Latin America and the Caribbean. While risks vary from place to place, the region's 33 countries clock-up some of the highest murder rates in the world. About 70 percent of the population fear being victimized by crime “some” or “all” of the time. Little wonder, then, Latin Americans also experience among the highest levels of police violence on the planet. But just how serious a problem is excessive use of force by officers? The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation sheds some light on the scale of the problem, tallying approximately 9,000 police killings in 2019 alone, about two percent of all homicides globally. Tellingly, over a quarter of these occurred in the Americas. Yet due to the lack of standardized data and the low priority accorded to the issue, unpacking the causes and consequences for this affliction is surprisingly tricky.
Memorial for Rio street children killed by police in 1992.
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As grim a problem as it is, police violence is still poorly documented—around the world generally, but especially in Latin America and the Caribbean. Notwithstanding growing public opprobrium over police brutality and discriminatory policing across the Americas, most governments are reluctant to set-up centralized monitoring systems. Police unions and associations are loath to allow their members to be censured or held accountable for misdeeds flagged in the line of duty. Instead, public authorities have left the task to the media and non-governmental organizations to count the dead, a recourse that only encourages partisan pushback. Even when health and criminal justice data on police killings is tallied, gaping holes and severe underreporting remain. Data capture and classification problems are widely recognized by international organizations including UN rapporteurs on extrajudicial killing.
Lethal violence statistics featured in the Homicide Monitor—a data visualization tracking international murder rates—confirms that Latin America and Caribbean countries are indeed suffering from a disproportionately high burden of lethal force by police compared to other parts of the world. Notwithstanding norms and standards urging restraint, countries like Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico report some of the highest levels of police killings on the planet. In some countries, police violence is not recorded in official crime statistics unless charges are brought. If charges eventually do result in prosecution, these events may be classified as an alternative subset of homicide (but not as police killings). What this means is that the problem is chronically under-reported.
Generating comparative statistics on police killings is challenging for at least two reasons. First, criminal justice systems suffer from ambiguous reporting categories for homicide, especially police-related killings. In Latin America and the Caribbean, the latter are often labeled as confrontations with public forces. In Guatemala, despite suffering from high rates of violence, just 23 of the 2,577 homicides reported in 2020 were classified as “retaliation against state institutions” (or police-related killings). Notwithstanding its reputation for heavy-handed responses to gangs, only 200 of El Salvador’s 1,322 murders in 2019 were connected to confrontations with the police. The second difficulty in mapping police violence is that crime statistics are often very different from population health figures. The Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has tabulated “executions and police conflict" but their figures are systematically lower than those reported by criminal justice systems.
So how do Latin America and Caribbean countries rank when it comes to police-related violence?
At the top of the charts is Brazil, the regional, and arguably global leader in police killings. See Table 1 for comparison. The numbers have grown steadily worse since 2000. Notwithstanding daily stories in the media involving the flagrant killing of poor, pregnant and prepubescent residents, the high burden of police violence is routinely contested by the country’s own health and criminal justice institutions. According to national public health statistics, police-related deaths grew from just 73 reported killings in 2000, a significant undercount, to 1,470 in 2019. As expected, criminal justice datasets revealed a much higher toll, from some 2,212 in 2012 to at least 6,416 in 2020. Even these sky-high tolls may underestimate the “true” scale of the problem according to groups such as the Brazilian Public Security Forum and Human Rights Watch.
Colombia stands out for persistently high levels of police-related killings over the past two decades, especially during the country’s internal armed conflict (1964-2016), although the numbers have since declined. Prior to the signing of a peace agreement in 2016, the country reported between 100 and 550 incidents of police use of lethal force per year. According to available public health data, the peak occurred in 2007, when at least 533 people reportedly died at the hands of police. Yet since the peace accord, case numbers have dropped to under 100, falling to 10 in 2019. Human rights organizations insist the numbers are likely considerably higher, not least in the wake of nation-wide protests in 2021.
Table 1: Comparative Homicide, Police Killings, and Percentage of Police Killings in Relation to Homicides, 2019
*TT is Trinidad and Tobago
Source: Homicide Monitor, Igarapé Institute.
Central American countries—especially Northern Triangle states such as El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—are believed to have high rates of police violence, though data is exceedingly patchy. Publicly available statistics from El Salvador show) that 218 people were killed by police in 2015 and 201 cases in 2019. Yet independent human rights organizations, investigative journalists and research groups struggle to provide reliable data on such fatalities in the country. As with Guatemala—a known homicide hotspot but with few officially acknowledged police killings—under-reporting of violent crimes is likely a regional problem.
Mexico has seen homicides triple since 2000, and a steady rise in police-related killings. The country registered 33,648 homicides in 2020, a record. Police are involved in a significant number of killings, and are also experiencing high rates of violent death on and off duty (542 in 2020). That said, the publicly available numbers are likely significantly under-counted: the country's public health records reported just 3 police killings in 2000 and a high of 115 in 2013, with a decline to 72 in 2019. Still, there is no publicly available data on police killings from the criminal justice system.
Despite a prolonged government data blackout and the uneven quality of available numbers, Venezuela unquestionably is also profoundly affected by police violence. Public crime statistics provided by theObservatorio Venezolano de Violencia (Venezuelan Violence Observatory) indicate a surge in lethality: from 2,685 police killings (in 2009) to as many as 7,523 killings (2018). While the numbers declined after that, the 4,231 people who reportedly died at the hands of police in 2020 represented a staggering 36 percent of all reported homicides in the country that year. Independent research groups such as the Venezuelan Violence Observatory contend that numbers could be even higher.
By way of comparison, the United States registers more police killings than all OECD countries combined. Estimates range between 1,000 and 1,100 people were killed by cops in 2020. This compares to roughly 1,000 in 2019 and 2018, and almost 990 in 2017. While half of the people shot and killed by US police are white, black Americans are murdered disproportionately as they account for just 13 percent of the population but 24 percent of victims. As elsewhere, over 95 percent of the victims are male and at least half are between 20 and 40 years old. There is no state-supported centralized repository of data, leaving media outlets such as The Guardian, New York Times, and Washington Post as well as independent research projects to crunch the numbers. Less than 1.7 percent of cases between 2013-2020 resulted in officers being charged with a crime.
If relying on health data (Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation data by 2019), the US (1,149), Brazil (1,092), Colombia (238) and Venezuela (175) experience the world’s highest absolute numbers of police killings. Another way to measure the severity of police violence in the Americas is by assessing the proportion of all homicides committed by officers. Again, the US is in the lead: six percent of all reported homicides were connected to police. But the next group of countries is more surprising. Trinidad and Tobago, with a much smaller homicide burden (316), registered five percent of total fatalities as police-related (17). Likewise, some three percent (19) of all reported murders in Canada are connected to police. Brazil, Chile and Venezuela report two per cent. Belize, Puerto Rico and Jamaica, with comparatively high murder rates, report no police-related killings.
Perhaps what is most troubling about lethal law enforcement in Latin America is that it is a hemispheric blind spot. Protecting citizens is the primary obligation of police and a fundamental feature of responsible statehood. Police violence also fundamentally undermines trust in law enforcement, and governments more generally. While the data on police killings suffers from discrepancies, it is abundantly clear that many Latin America and Caribbean police forces are failing to meet their basic responsibilities, and so putting citizens and themselves in harm’s way. The region’s governments could start by better reporting on excessive use of force and making such records open to public scrutiny, a first step to accountability. Keeping accurate crime data and taking action to investigate and discipline misbehavior would not just reduce the trust gap, but also improve the quality of policing in some of the world's most violent countries.
 Fernando G. Cafferata and Carlos Scartascini, “Combating Crime in Latin America and the Caribbean.” Washington, DC: lnter-American Development Bank. June 2021, https://publications.iadb.org/publications/english/document/Combating-Crime-in-Latin-America-and-the-Caribbean-What-Public-Policies-Do-Citizens-Want.pdf.
 Global Health Data Exchange (GHDx), “Deaths, and Daily-Adjusted Life Years (Global, Both Sexes, All Causes), 2019.” Seattle, WA: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation (2020). Global Burden of Disease (GBD), http://ghdx.healthdata.org/gbd-results-tool
 “Global Study on Homicide.” Vienna: United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNDOC). 2019, https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/global-study-on-homicide.html.
 Homicide Monitor. Rio de Janeiro: Igarapé Institute. 2021, https://homicide.igarape.org.br/.
 “Basic Principles on the Use of Force and Firearms by Law Enforcement Officials. Adopted by the Eighth United Nations Congress on the Prevention of Crime and the Treatment of Offenders, Havana, Cuba, 27 August to 7 September 1990.” Geneva: United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights (UHCHR).1990, https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/useofforceandfirearms.aspx.
 Robert Muggah, “How did Rio's police become known as the most violent in the world?” The Guardian. 3 August 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/global-development-professionals-network/2016/aug/03/rio-police-violent-killing-olympics-torture.
 “Murders, killings by police rose in Brazil last year, report shows.” Reuters. 15 July 2021,https://www.reuters.com/world/americas/murders-killings-by-police-rose-brazil-last-year-report-shows-2021-07-15/.
 César Muñoz, “From Rio, a Cautionary Tale on Police Violence.” Human Rights Watch. 15 August 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/08/15/rio-cautionary-tale-police-violence
 “Colombia: Egregious Police Abuses Against Protesters.” Human Rights Watch. 9 June 2021, https://www.hrw.org/news/2021/06/09/colombia-egregious-police-abuses-against-protesters .
 Op.cit., GHDx at Note 3.
 “Homicidios Homologados 2015.” San Salvador, El Salvador: Ministerio de Justicia y Seguridad Pública. Dirección de Información y Análisis. Available for download at: https://www.seguridad.gob.sv/dia/estadisticas-homologadas/repositorio-de-los-homicidios-desagregados-por-las-variables-homologadas/.
 “Weekly InSight: Why Homicides Are Down in Honduras.” InSight Crime. 16 November 2021, https://insightcrime.org/news/analysis/weekly-insight-why-homicides-are-down-honduras/.
 “Los Indicatores para Medir la Fuerza Letal.” Monitor Fuerza Letal. No date, https://www.monitorfuerzaletal.com/indicadores.
 “Mexico’s homicide rate stayed high in 2020 despite pandemic.” Associated Press. 20 January 2021, https://apnews.com/article/homicide-coronavirus-pandemic-latin-america-mexico-a90c2a172f39ab2546de465c73a60543.
 “Informe Anual de Violencia 2020 – Entre las epidemias de la Violencia y del Covid-19.” Observatorio Venezolano de Violencia. 29 December 2021, https://observatoriodeviolencia.org.ve/news/informe-anual-de-violencia-2020-entre-las-epidemias-de-la-violencia-y-del-covid-19/.
 “Number of people shot to death by the police in the United States from 2017 to 2021, by race.” Statista. 6 September 2021, https://www.statista.com/statistics/585152/people-shot-to-death-by-us-police-by-race/
 “The Counted: People killed by police in the US. (2015/2016).” The Guardian. Accessed 10 September 2021, https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/series/counted-us-police-killings.
 “Police Brutality, Misconduct and Shootings.” New York Times. Multiple dates. Accessed 10 September 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/topic/subject/police-brutality-misconduct-and-shootings.
 “Faqtal Force: 933 people have been shot and killed by police in the past year.” Washington Post. Multiple dates. Accessed 10 Septemebr 2021, https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/investigations/police-shootings-database/.
 “Police Violence Map.” Mapping Police Violence. Multiple dates. Accessed 10 September 2021, https://mappingpoliceviolence.org/.
 Op. Cit., GHDx at Note 3.