EXCLUSIVE: The evolving threats of crime and violence in Latin America

Latin America (LATAM) police

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The world is in turmoil and Latin America is no exception, write Michael Gips, CPP, CSyP, Principal of Global Insights in Professional Security and Randy Spivey, CEO at the Center for Personal Protection and Safety.

In December, the President of Peru, Pedro Castillo, was impeached and arrested when he attempted to dissolve Congress, install an emergency government and draft a new constitution. Castillo’s ousting followed weeks of protest in the streets of Lima and throughout the country and set the stage for counterinsurgency and violence by Castillo loyalists.

Meanwhile, the Brazilian public recently voted out hardline right-winger Jair Bolsonaro and reinstated Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, a leftist, to the presidency. Bolsonaro supporters surrounded army bases and called for a coup.

In Mexico, the grip of the cartels has been well documented. Sinaloa, Jalisco New Generation Cartel, Beltrán-Leyva Organization, Los Zetas and several others clash over territories, bribe public officials, assassinate opponents and intimidate the populace. Cartel violence can capture innocent bystanders in its crosshairs, yet some Mexican authorities claim the threat is overblown.

Quality of life continues to crater in Venezuela, as the government of Nicolas Maduro – whose legitimacy has been in dispute since 2019 – has driven many of its professionals to flee its borders. Not only is street crime widespread, but military and intelligence forces have also carried out rampant extrajudicial killings.

To this compendium of ills, add the after-effects of COVID, high inflation, rising unemployment, widespread corruption, economic fallout from the war in Ukraine and fraught relations with the large and diverse indigenous communities.

As a result, four Latin American countries appear on the list of ten world nations with the highest crime rates: Brazil (ninth), El Salvador (eighth), Honduras (fifth) and Venezuela (first).

Forty-two of the top 50 most violent cities in the world are in Latin America. That includes all of the top ten: five in Mexico (including Tijuana at number one), three in Venezuela and two in Brazil.

One of the authors attended the ASIS LatAm conference in October 2022 to participate in conversations and presentations on current security issues and trends in Latin America. This article highlights the key takeaways on physical security – most notably crime and violence.

Workplace violence: is it a concern?

A recent survey by the International Labour Organization ranks the Americas as having the highest prevalence globally of workplace violence and harassment – sitting at 34.3%.

Unfortunately, the report does not break down the data by country, so it’s unclear the extent to which that number is driven by high rates in the US. Most published reports identify workplace harassment as more of a concern than workplace violence in Latin America, such as a January 2021 release by the Wilson Center finding that more than 50% of women in the workplace in Brazil reported being harassed.

However, the post-pandemic era may see an elevated risk of workplace incidents. ASIS LatAm conference presenter Humberto Santibañez, CEO of Besafe in Santiago, Chile warned of increasing mental health issues in the Latin American labor force which can lead to violence.

General crime and security threats

The same threats tend to recur in Latin American countries. Among those issues, according to Christian Bernard, Security Consultant and President of ASIS Peru, are drug trafficking/cartel activity, gang violence, political violence, corruption and street crime.

These threats are engendered by regional phenomena that have mired the region in an endemic political, economic and social crisis: economic instability/inflation, poverty, distrust of institutions, human rights violations, inadequate legal frameworks, populism, authoritarianism and disinformation among them.

Regional threats and challenges

Below we gather insights from presenters at the ASIS LatAm conference and combine them with our take on trends and developments as we highlight various regions and specific countries. The result is a broad picture of threats to life safety and well-being.


In a panel discussion, four security leaders discussed crime and security challenges throughout the region. Dr Mario Arroyo of the Instituto Iberoamericano de Liderazgo en Seguridad (Iberian-American Institute of Security Leadership) outlined the environment in Mexico.

He divided the landscape into four types of threats: traditional, catastrophic, unknown and irregular. Traditional threats include armed groups, local gangs, corruption and poverty. Examples of catastrophic threats are financial and energy crises, pandemics, ecological disasters and the rapid decline of tourism. Unknown threats include climate change and migration while transnational organized crime and cyberattacks comprise irregular threats.

On top of that balances Mexico’s fraught yet codependent relationship with the US. Mexican border cities, led by Tijuana, are among the most dangerous in the country, serving as transit points for illegal immigrants, narcotics and smugglers. They also attract vast numbers of desperate would-be emigrants, who are easy prey for extortionists, rapists, robbers and thieves.

Central America

Many of those same factors and threats pertain to Central America as well, according to Servio Camey of Guatemala, who works as a regional Head of Security for a large Europe-based pharmaceutical company. Camey noted an increase in activity in the region among leftist groups and said that garden-variety crime is increasing as the COVID pandemic ebbs.

In early 2022, the Latin American countries with the highest rates of victimization from robbery and assault were in Central America: Guatemala and Nicaragua. The region also serves as a pass-through for migrants heading towards the US via Mexico, who bring attendant issues to its doorstep.

Venezuela, Columbia and Ecuador

The Latin American countries on the northern South American land mass are some of the most dangerous in the world, as explained by presenter Jose Echeverria Murillo of Andes Petroleum Ecuador. Poverty in Venezuela stands at an almost incomprehensible 94.5% and the country is riddled with social protests, corruption and powerful gangs.

Narcotrafficking and armed gangs persist in Colombia, though it’s a far cry from its status in the 1990s as the epicenter of violent crime stemming from the cocaine trade. In Ecuador, illegal weapons, extortion cases and murder for hire are on the rise.

The South American continent

Finally, Alvar Orellana McBride of Chile laid out the landscape of the remaining Latin nations in South America (excluding Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana). Since that presentation, a Brazilian Supreme Court justice has warned that the country risks losing control of the vast Amazon rainforest region to organized crime and drug traffickers.

Following Lula’s small victory over Bolsonaro, the latter’s diehard supporters staged roadblocks throughout Brazil and sought a military takeover. Supporters held hundreds of demonstrations in the month following his loss, an estimated 10% of which resulted in violence.

Inflation in food and fuel prices rocked Peru in 2022, leading to violent protests. The removal of President Castillo has created new fears of violence arising from political instability.

Corruption permeates the top levels of government in many Latin American nations, notably Argentina. On 6 December 2022, Argentina Vice President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison for embezzling $1 billion while in office, while the city of Rosario is awash in drug wars, violent robberies and frequent shootouts. In Buenos Aires, rampant muggings and robberies keep people home at night.

Managing the threat

So how can we, as security professionals, safely put our employees, contractors and family members to work in areas where unrest and crime are pervasive? The key is to empower individuals to become stakeholders in their own personal safety through education and training. Employers should also ensure that their people have access to safety and security resources.

While traditional workplace violence may not be a prominent concern in Latin America, educating individuals on the principles of situational awareness, recognizing suspicious activities and making themselves a “hard” versus “soft” target are critical. 

Likewise, although the prospect of an armed gunman becoming an active assailant in a workplace may not be of primary concern, equipping our people to be able to respond effectively to other types of extreme violence such as a kidnapping, carjacking, gang activity or civil unrest is just as important. 

Latin America is a stunning region containing the majestic Andes, Amazon rainforest, temples of Tikal and rich cultures of the Olmecs, Incas, Aztecs and Maya. It’s Chichen Itza and Machu Picchu, the tango and the rumba, Angel Falls and the Sonoran Desert, sancocho soup and pupusas, “pura vida” and magic realism. It is massive and diverse.

Like any place on Earth, there are risks and some no-go zones. Nevertheless, residents and visitors alike should be keen to do business in Latin America and enjoy its many delights after conducting appropriate risk assessments and taking prudent precautions.

About the authors

Michael Gips, CPP, CSyP is Principal of the consultancy Global Insights in Professional Security. A former senior executive at ASIS International, Michael was ranked #1 for thought leadership in security by IFSEC in 2022. He won an OSPA in 2021 for Outstanding Security Consultant.

Randy Spivey is the CEO and Founder of the Center for Personal Protection and Safety (CPPS). He is recognized as a leading expert in the field of preventing and responding to violence in the workplace, schools and houses of worship.

This article was originally published in the February edition of Security Journal Americas. To read your FREE digital edition, click here.

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