Murder and Mayhem in Latin America

A list of the most dangerous cities in the world is out and the results are surprising. A number of U.S. cities made the hit parade and 40 of the top 50 are in Latin America. My favorite town in which to run a business, Panama City, Panama beat out Baltimore to take the 46th spot, while my favorite city to visit, Medellin, Colombia, shot its way to number 14. Honorable mention in Colombia goes to the metropolis with the prettiest women (in my humble experience), Barranquilla at number 42.

According to a study by a Mexican research group, the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice, the top 20 most violent cities in the world are all in Latin America.

Mosul, Iraq comes in at #44, so there are 43 more hazardous places to live than the most hazardous city in war-torn Iraq. Of course, the study includes murders that government agencies categorize as crimes, and does not take account the 100,000+ civilian deaths over the years by U.S. forces and drone attacks, or the 244 civilians killed in November of 2012 (source:

Soapboxing aside, what can we, as experienced international travelers and entrepreneurs, learn from this study? I say, not much. If you did not already know you needed to be cautious and understand your surroundings while abroad, you have no business wandering outside of your comfort zone. Stay in Podunk Iowa and drink moonshine with your buddies out of the back of your 1983 Ford pickup and leave the adventures to those with sense.

For the rest of us, here is what you need to know. I will limit my comments to Panama and Colombia as I’ve had many years’ experience in each. Parts of Mexico are a different animal because the drug war often spills over in to the more respected areas…though; it is surprising that a major tourist destination like Acapulco is at number 4 on the list.

First, a high murder rate does not correlate directly to a high risk of danger to travelers or residents. The vast majority of killings are gang related, in high risk areas you have no business visiting, and done by persons targeting a rival or someone else known to them. Collateral damage outside of these high risk zones, or random killings in tourist areas, is extraordinarily rare.

For example, no visitor to Panama City should be in the part of town known as El Chorrillo after dark, just like no gringo better be caught alone in Comuna 13, Medellin, Colombia.

The same is true of just about any good sized U.S. city. Even in my hometown, San Diego, CA, voted the 7th safest medium sized city in the U.S., there are plenty of areas in the County a white dude should not be hanging out late at night or caught acting the fool.

However, countries like Panama and Colombia take great care to protect their tourists above all else. Why? The answer is simple, bad publicity is bad for business! Therefore, an American in the controlled areas of Panama City and Medellin is safer than in almost any region of the U.S. Take the district known as Casco Viejo in Panama City as an example. In the tourist area, there are military, police, and Federal agents on every corner, ready to take care of any issue which may arise. Locals know they will be dealt with most harshly and give travelers a wide birth.

Of course, if you’re a lost and drunk idiot who decides to wonder around looking for trouble, you can find it by staggering 8 to 10 blocks west of Casco Viejo and ending up in El Chorrillo. I would estimate your chances of making it through that mistake at night unscathed to be about nil. If you keep your wits about you and respect your surroundings, you are just as safe in Panama City and Casco Viejo as you would be in any city in the good ole U.S. of A.

Second, you can purchase or rent safety in Panama and Medellin on the cheap, which is not possible in the United States. In my experience, the monthly cost of an apartment in a good area, with an armed security guard, is $1,000 to $1,500 in both of these cities, and you can add a trusted driver for $800 or less. Try doing that in New York, Chicago, Baltimore, or Los Angeles…it’s impossible.

When you assess your risks, ways to mitigate those risks, and quality of life, remember that your money goes much farther in Panama and Colombia, and thus the options available to you are greater. Plus, having a knowledgeable driver will open up the entire city to you. I learned a heck of a lot from my driver in Panama.

So, what I’m trying to say is this: claiming that some cities are more dangerous than others, and then using that opinion as an excuse to stay home is uninformed. It is based on a number of fallacies, such as a belief that all people are created equal (a common American misconception), that we all face the same risks, that violent crimes occur at random and for no reason, and that there is nothing we can do to mitigate risks while abroad.

In fact, I would argue that Panama and Medellin are safer for the traveler because of their higher murder rates, not more dangerous. It is because the risk exists that the government spends its resources to create designated safe zones. In these areas, the tourist is king and will always be protected.

Here’s the complete list:

City Country Homicides Inhabitants Murder Rate
50 Johannesburg South Africa 1,186 3,888,180 30.50
49 Durban South Africa 1,186 3,888,180 30.54
48 Baltimore United States 195 620,961 31.40
47 Cuernavaca Mexico 198 630,174 31.42
46 Panama Panama 543 1,713,070 31.70
45 Belo Horizonte Brazil 1,680 4,883,721 34.40
44 Mosul Iraq 636 1,800,000 35.33
43 St. Louis United States 113 319,294 35.39
42 Barranquilla Colombia 424 1,182,493 35.86
41 Port Elizabeth South Africa 381 1,050,930 36.25
40 Goiania Brazil 484 1,302,001 37.17
39 Curitiba Brazil 720 1,890,272 38.09
38 Monterrey Mexico 1,680 4,160,339 40.38
37 Fortaleza Brazil 1,514 3,529,138 42.90
36 Macapa Brazil 225 499,116 45.08
35 Pereira Colombia 177 383,623 46.14
34 Cape Town South Africa 1,614 3,497,097 46.15
33 Kingston Jamaica 550 1,169,808 47.02
32 Recife Brazil 1,793 3,717,640 48.23
31 Cuiaba Brazil 1,793 3,717,640 48.32
30 Detroit United States 346 713,777 48.47
29 Joao Pessoa Brazil 583 1,198,675 48.64
28 Nuevo Laredo Mexico 191 389,674 49.02
27 Sao Luis Brazil 516 1,014,837 50.85
26 Manaus Brazil 1,079 2,106,866 51.21
25 San Juan United States 225 427,789 52.60
24 Barquisimeto Venezuela 621 1,120,718 55.41
23 Cucuta Colombia 335 597,385 56.08
22 Salvador Brazil 2,037 3,574,804 56.98
21 New Orleans United States 199 343,829 57.88
20 San Salvador El Salvador 1,343 2,290,790 58.63
19 Ciudad Guayana Venezuela 554 940,477 58.91
18 Veracruz Mexico 418 697,414 59.94
17 Vitoria Brazil 1,143 1,685,384 67.82
16 Tepic Mexico 299 439,362 68.05
15 Mazatlan Mexico 307 445,343 68.94
14 Medellin Colombia 1,624 2,309,446 70.32
13 Culiacan Mexico 649 871,620 74.46
12 Guatemala Guatemala 2,248 3,014,060 74.58
11 Cali Colombia 1,720 2,207,994 77.90
10 Belem Brazil 1,639 2,100,319 78.04
9 Durango Mexico 474 593,389 79.88
8 Chihuahua Mexico 690 831,693 82.96
7 Torreon Mexico 990 1,128,152 87.75
6 Caracas Venezuela 3,164 3,205,463 98.71
5 Distrito Central Honduras 1,123 1,126,534 99.69
4 Acapulco Mexico 1,029 804,412 127.92
3 Maceio Brazil 1,564 1,156,278 135.26
2 Juarez Mexico 1,974 1,335,890 147.77
1 San Pedro Sula Honduras 1,143 719,447 158.87
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