Missing Links

The Hidden Pandemic

How crime is quietly becoming a global killer.

In the past five years, the bird flu epidemic claimed 186 victims worldwide. In the same period, another less-recognized but growing menace maimed or killed millions of people and produced massive economic losses. Like others, this dangerous pandemic ignores national borders and erupts in different places at different times. Inexplicably, it has surged in Boston and abated in Bogotá. Experts disagree about its precise causes and what explains its sudden eruptions. Unlike bird flu, it is not caused by a virus transmitted from one species to another; it is exclusively created and spread by people. I am talking about street crime.

The world is experiencing a crime pandemic. Crime rates are on the rise almost everywhere, and these statistics typically are distinct from the death and mayhem that comes with terrorism, civil war, or major conflict. The data reflect the booming number of civilians assaulted, robbed, or murdered by other civilians who live in the same city, often in the same neighborhood. Frequently, the victims are as poor as the criminals.

Crime has increased steadily for all the countries the United Nations measures, according to a 2003 U.N. report. Even in the United States, where crime rates famously declined since the mid-1990s, violent crime has risen sharply in the past two years. In 2005, violent crime had its largest annual increase in 15 years. The Police Executive Research Forum, a U.S. law enforcement association, reports that homicides increased in 71 percent of the American cities that were surveyed, robberies increased in 80 percent of them, and aggravated assaults with guns increased in 67 percent between 2004 and 2006. In Boston, murder rates are at an 11-year high. Crime is also a major problem in Britain; the European Union (EU) calls it a "high crime country."

Of course, the United States and Europe are still relative paradises compared to other countries. In many, the situation has gotten so bad that frustrated citizens in Johannesburg, Mexico City, and even Milan have staged massive marches to protest the inability of their governments to protect them. And they are right. The streets of many cities have become more dangerous than war zones. Postcard-perfect Rio de Janeiro, for example, has become more dangerous than the bullet-riddled Gaza Strip. According to the Washington Post, 729 Palestinian and Israeli minors died as a result of violence and terrorism between 2002 and 2006. Yet in that same period, 1,857 minors were murdered in Rio.

And Brazil is not even at the top of the list. The world’s most murderous region is the Caribbean, followed by South and West Africa, and then South America. But the trend is global. Russia’s homicide rate is roughly 20 times higher than Western Europe’s. Rising crime rates are also reported throughout Asia.

In the poorest countries, the consequences of high crime rates are crippling. Crime increases the costs of doing business and makes countries less competitive. High crime rates can also scare away investors. "We were making good money in Colombia in the mid-90s," the CEO of one multinational corporation told me. "But I decided that there was not enough money in the world to compensate for the despair that I felt during the many sleepless nights I spent worrying about my kidnapped colleagues there. We paid the ransom, got them back … and left the country." The World Bank reckons that Latin America’s economic growth could be 8 percent higher if its crime rates dropped.

But the main reason to reduce crime rates is not to spur economic growth or attract foreign investors. The paramount purpose is to give citizens the right to walk their streets — or stay home — without fearing for their lives, a basic human expectation that millions around the world are increasingly losing.

Unfortunately, while the consequences of high crime rates are clear, their causes are far less so. Consider, for example, the notion that crime is the inevitable consequence of poverty. This idea is as common as it is wrong. There is no correlation between poverty and crime. Some poor countries have high crime rates; others don’t. Russia is far richer than Costa Rica, but its crime rates are substantially higher than those of Costa Rica. Some have suggested that crime rates may be explained by the strength of religious institutions, measured by church attendance and involvement in religious activities. Again, the statistical evidence isn’t there. Countries with high church attendance rates, such as Guatemala or the Philippines, for example, can also be plagued by murder.

So what drives up crime rates? Researchers can agree upon little beyond the general notion that crime soars in places where there is a combination of a high percentage of young males, ample drugs, and easy access to guns. Economic inequality and urbanization also accelerate crime rates (but experts disagree by how much). And, once criminal behavior takes root in a neighborhood or city, it takes a long time and an immense effort to reclaim the streets.

It is easy to dismiss growing crime rates as either a local problem or one that has been with us since time immemorial. But that would be a major mistake. Because, though we may have recently lost ground, the problem has the potential to be a far greater global nightmare. Consider China and India. They have growing populations of young males, growing levels of economic inequality, and rapid urbanization. And, though drugs and guns are still relatively hard to come by, they’re becoming easier to obtain every day. If these two nations become more like other poor countries in this regard, too, their crime rates could soar to unimagined levels. Suffice it to say, the crime pandemic would never be hidden from anyone again.

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