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When I started working in Central America 24 years ago, I was drawn by the drama of the Cold War and political violence.

Over the years I watched as violence in other parts of the world - the Balkans, Africa and the Middle East - exploded. Sadly, while those other regions saw temporary spikes in murder and mayhem, the bloodshed won't let up in this hemisphere.

It may surprise readers to learn that Latin America has the highest murder rates in the world for people ages 15 to 24, according to a new study by a Brazilian research group. The five worst murder rates for people under 25 were all from Latin America: El Salvador, Colombia, Venezuela, Guatemala and Brazil.

The study found that the probability of a young person being murdered in Latin America is two times higher than in Africa, and three times higher than in North America. (The report does not include Iraq or Afghanistan, due to a lack of accurate data.)

"It's unbelievable, and it implies a serious crisis among our youths," said the study's author, Julio Waiselfisz, a researcher with the Instituto Sangari, a Brazilian educational foundation.

Ever since the Central American wars of the 1980s ended, Latin America has been relatively at peace, with the exception of Colombia. But these murder statistics indicate a new kind of war has gripped this hemisphere. It's not about political ideology this time, so much as lawlessness bred out of social abandonment. Despite democratic progress on paper, underlying issues of poverty and the rule of law have not been addressed.

Much of the current bloodshed can be attributed to the gang culture in Central America. In El Salvador, the youth murder rate is 92.3 per 100,000 people. (Just for comparison, the United States' murder rate is 12.9.)

Rising drug trafficking and consumption, especially in places like northern Mexico and Brazil, are playing a part. In Mexico, where drug killings have become a national crisis, traffickers take advantage of lax U.S. gun purchasing laws to smuggle weapons across the border.

Homicides in Venezuela have soared nationally from fewer than 6,000 in 1999, when President Hugo Chavez took office, to 13,156 last year. Within these national numbers are even more shocking figures for some cities. Among the worst in recent years has been Caracas, where the government has stopped publishing homicide statistics. Private research organizations put the murder rate in Caracas at about 130 per 100,000.

Rio de Janeiro in Brazil also faces a tremendous challenge from the influence of drug gangs in the favelas, or slums. As many as one-fifth of youths in the drug gangs of Rio de Janeiro are killed within two years of joining a gang, usually by police, according to a new study by Observatorio de Favelas, an independent research group operating in the city's poorest communities.

"Part of the problem is that we have a serious youth crisis which is being dealt with as a criminal issue. It needs to be looked at differently," said Waiselfisz.

What his report makes clear is that new social policies - education and jobs - are urgently needed to bring down the body count. Otherwise, the region will remain perpetually at war - with itself.

David Adams can be reached at


Youth murder rates

1. El Salvador: 92.3 *

2. Colombia: 73.4

3. Venezuela: 64.2

4. Guatemala: 55.4

5. Brazil: 51.6

15. South Africa: 16.6

70. Greece: 0.5

76. Japan: 0.3

* per 100,000 population

Sources: Ritla, Instituto Sangari