When reporting on tragic trends in Latin America, don't leave out Catholics and Pentecostals


The headline drew me instantly: “Latin America is the murder capital of the world.”

Appearing in the Wall Street Journal (which, being behind a paywall, is not accessible to non-subscribers so I’ll cut and paste what I can), the piece said the entire continent is in a crisis mode because of the non-stop murders that happen nearly everywhere.

With only a few exceptions (Chile, Costa Rica, Cuba), it’s become a horrible place to live and a risky place to visit. The question, of course, is how religion fits into this picture, in terms of the history of the region, as well as life there right now.

The piece begins with a description of how Acapulco, once the vacation spot for the rich and famous, has become a a sharpshooter’s gallery.

Acapulco’s days as a tourist resort with a touch of Hollywood glamour seem long ago. In a city of 800,000, 953 people were violently killed last year, more than in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Portugal and the Netherlands put together.

It’s not just Mexico. There is a murder crisis across much of Latin America and the Caribbean, which today is the world’s most violent region. Every day, more than 400 people are murdered there, a yearly tally of about 145,000 dead.

With just 8% of the world’s population, Latin America accounts for roughly a third of global murders. It is also the only region where lethal violence has grown steadily since 2000, according to United Nations figures.

Nearly one in every four murders around the world takes place in just four countries: Brazil, Venezuela, Mexico and Colombia. Last year, a record 63,808 people were murdered in Brazil. Mexico also set a record at 31,174, with murders so far this year up another 20%.

The 2016 tally in China, according to the U.N.: 8,634. For the entire European Union: 5,351. The United States: 17,250.

I guess there are SOME advantages in China being a police state. It does keep the murders down, although God only knows what really goes on in prisons and prison camps in that country where people disappear and never return.

In this story, everyone gets to die, starting with elementary school-aged kids to surgeons who botched a plastic surgery operation on a drug lord. The latter were found encased in cement.

Latin America accounts for 43 of the 50 most murderous cities, including the entire top 10, according to the Igarapé Institute, a Brazilian think tank that focuses on violence. South Africa and the U.S. — where St. Louis ranks No. 19 — are the only countries outside Latin America that crack the top 50.

Since the turn of the century, 2.5 million Latin Americans have died violently; 10 times the amount of people worldwide who’ve died of terrorist attacks.

“Large swaths of Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Mexico and Venezuela are experiencing a war in all but name,” says Robert Muggah, head of the Igarapé Institute.

The vast majority of victims and perpetrators are young men, killed mostly by gunshot… Shockingly, 1,379 babies under one year of age died violently in Brazil between 2000 and 2015, according to government statistics. Nearly 30,000 victims in Brazil were over 60 years old.

It goes on and on, giving one much sympathy for those hapless people living in such places who decide to emigrate north to the United States. Then the story moves to why Latin America is so awful. I will summarize the reasons.

One is demographics: Too many young people, including jobless young men, and not enough work. A lot of people don’t make it through high school. The region outdoes the United States in the sheer numbers of guns available to people. And:

Latin America was colonized violently and had bloody wars of independence. It has the world’s biggest gap between rich and poor, fueling resentment. Large parts of the economy are “informal,” street markets and family-run businesses that operate outside government control and pay no taxes, creating a culture of skirting the law. It has powerful groups of organized crime like Mexican drug cartels, and weak states riddled with corruption.

Now this is interesting in that Latin America was also colonized by Catholic missionaries and religious orders starting in 1492. Spanish conquests were tied to Catholic evangelism and Spain was one of the few empires to tie its national church into its foreign ventures. (The Anglican Church, for instance, didn’t have a similar role in the British colonization of North America). French Catholics employed Catholicism as an arm of the government in colonizing Quebec but there wasn’t the same massacre of local populations as there was in Latin America.

Why no mention of the role of the church in blessing whatever the Spaniards and Portuguese did in Bolivia, Mexico and Peru in terms of mining billions of dollars worth of gold and silver with the help of Indian slave labor? All this is explained in a National Catholic Reporter piece that also blames the United States for sending armies into some of these countries to protect its business interests.

Speaking of which, Latin America is run on black market economies that are parallel or even more powerful than the official businesses. Running the former are powerful mafias that help supply drugs to the world’s largest drug market: The United States.

So here you have a place with the world’s most crowded prisons, corrupt governments and inefficient police and religion has nothing to do with it?

The story did quote one priest — but no, the fact that much of the continent is Catholic didn’t make its way into the story. One in five Latinos are Protestant and most of those are Pentecostal, according to the Pew Research Center. One could argue that Latin American Pentecostalism has spread faster in one century than Roman Catholicism has in 400 years.

It strains credibility to believe the sweeping success of Pentecostalism has had no effect, one way or the other, in Latin America’s crime wave.

The violence in Acapulco has created a dystopia where social norms have broken down. Growing numbers of children drop out of school. Fewer go to church. Many hit men and teens worship La Santa Muerte, the cult of death represented by a grim reaper. A less toxic version is St. Jude, the patron saint of lost causes.

One factor is a culture of corruption that makes any real enterprise impossible. In Latin America, corruption is simply the local currency.

Latin America wasn’t always the most murderous region in the world. In the 1950s, Singapore and Caracas had very similar murder rates, between 6 to 10 per 100,000 residents, according to Manuel Eisner, who studies historical levels of violence at the Violence Research Centre in Cambridge, U.K.

At the time, Singapore suffered from gangs, prostitution, drug trafficking and corruption. But after independence in 1962, authoritarian Lee Kwan Yew enforced rule of law, boosted education, and created a culture of working hard and achievement, and ensured social integration. “It wasn’t all coercion—there was a caring element,” says Mr. Eisner.

Nowadays, Singapore’s murder rate is 0.4 per 100,000 residents. In Caracas, the government doesn’t bother to count.

So culture is the issue here and culture can be changed. Is there a culture that avoids responsibility and hard work vs a culture that respects law, order and honesty? And are there certain faiths that prop up the former and others that encourage the latter? And is there something about the Spanish and Portuguese conquests in the 16th century that has marked Latin America forever?

Are there cultural differences between English-speaking countries and Spanish-speaking countries in terms of corruption, the economy and stable government, especially if the latter have histories of being controlled by dictators backed by the Catholic Church? (I’m not picking on the Catholics, as I’ve seen similar trends in corrupt Russian-speaking countries where the Orthodox are the state church).

The reporter doing the story didn’t ignore all culture questions, but to leave out the Catholic Church (and the Pentecostals) is a huge religion “ghost,” meaning an obvious religious element that’s completely ignored by the writer.

It’s a shame. This Pew Forum discussion comes out and says the most violent Latin American countries show the highest levels of religious commitment. So the link is truly there in plain sight. Too bad the Journal missed it.

FIRST IMAGE: A typical image of La Santa Muerte.

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