It was the beginning of just another day in one of the world’s most murderous places.
Cristian Sabino was sitting on a plastic chair by this beach resort’s central market when a gunman walked up and shot him five times. As the 22-year-old dropped to the ground, the assailant fired a final bullet to the head and walked away.
Six more people would be killed that day in Acapulco, including a cabdriver who was hacked to pieces. Death is so much part of the landscape that once police cordoned off the area around Mr. Sabino’s body, some patrons at a nearby rotisserie chicken restaurant stayed to finish their meals.
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.
There were more than 900 murders in Acapulco last year. Violence is so pervasive in this city, once a premier Mexican tourist destination, that criminology has become a thriving new profession. Photo/Video: Jake Nicol/The Wall Street Journal
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.
Violent deaths by firearms in 2016
(per 100,000 people)
and Middle East
Note: Deaths resulted from Forces of nature, conflict and terrorism, and executions and police conflict are not included in the calculations.
Source: Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, University of Washington
Crime slows development and spurs migration to the U.S. Violence costs Latin America 3% of annual economic output, on average, twice the level of developed countries, according to a 2016 study by the Inter-American Development Bank. The price tag for crime, which the bank put at between $115 billion and $261 billion, is comparable to the total regional spending on infrastructure, or the income of the poorest third of Latin Americans.
In recent years, growing numbers of families from Central America, including women and children, have fled to the U.S. because of horrific violence. Gangs such as MS-13 and Barrio 18 enforce a reign of terror, dictating even where people can go to school or get medical care. El Salvador’s murder rate of 83 per 100,000 people in 2016—the world’s highest—was nearly 17 times that of the U.S.
A new study by Vanderbilt University shows that the strongest factor in predicting whether someone emigrates from Honduras and El Salvador isn’t age, gender or economic situation, but whether they had been victimized by crime multiple times in the past year. A World Bank study found that nearly a quarter of children in one Honduran municipality suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder due to violence.
At the Acapulco morgue, bodies pile up faster than workers can process them. The morning after Mr. Sabino’s murder, there were already three new victims lying on gurneys awaiting autopsy. A few feet away, 356 bodies that remain unclaimed or unidentified were stuffed into five refrigeration units. The smell of death hung in the air.
A resident of Acapulco’s Primero de Mayo neighborhood eats breakfast while Mexican soldiers and police guard a severed head left on the street.
“We never catch up,” says Ben Yehuda Martínez, the top forensic official for the state of Guerrero, where Acapulco is located. “While we’re trying to clear the first set of bodies, another set of bodies arrives.”
Just this week, Mr. Martínez’s counterpart in the state of Jalisco was fired after it emerged that two trailer trucks filled with more than 150 cadavers each were roaming Mexico’s second-largest city of Guadalajara for days because the local morgue was too full. Officials admitted the trucks contained corpses after neighbors complained of the smell and dripping blood.
Mr. Martínez, 60, has seen it all. His very first case as a young forensic specialist in the nearby city of Iguala was the 1997 autopsy of two doctors who had botched a plastic surgery operation, accidentally killing drug lord Amado Carrillo Fuentes. Their bodies, encased in cement, were found on the side of the Mexico City-to-Acapulco highway. Mr. Martínez’s verdict: They were both asphyxiated with a tourniquet.
Mr. Martínez says he hasn’t ever become used to seeing children killed. “Before, criminals never killed kids. But now I do autopsies on 7- or 8-year-olds,” he says. He teaches chemistry and biology at a local college. “I’ve had the shock of having to autopsy quite a few of my former students.”
Up to 10% of the cadavers that arrive are never claimed. No one files a police report or bothers to pick up the body. Other times, there is no way to identify a corpse: “We sometimes get only a leg or a head to work with,” he says.
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.
Mexican soldiers and police guard a severed head which was left as a message between rival drug cartels.
At current murder rates, if you live in Acapulco (or Caracas, Venezuela, or San Salvador) for 70 years, there is a roughly 1-in-10 chance you will get murdered.
Between 2000 and 2017, roughly 2.5 million people were murdered in Latin America and the Caribbean, as if Chicago were wiped out. That compares with about 900,000 killed in the armed conflicts of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan combined, according to U.N. figures and estimates by groups like Iraq Body Count.
During that same period, all the world’s terrorist attacks killed 243,000 people, according to the University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database.
“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. A vital Twitter feed in Rio de Janeiro is “Onde Tem Tiroteo,” or “Where’s the Shootout?” which tells motorists which parts of the city to avoid. Some recent entries: “A grenade was thrown on the pedestrian bridge near Zuzu Angel Tunnel.” “Shots on 2nd Street in Rocinha, police base under shooting attack.”
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.
Gabriela Victoria’s daughter Erica was kidnapped and murdered by long-time acquaintances from her Acapulco neighborhood.
Six-year-old Elias Victoria with a photo of his older sister Erica.
Mexico’s murder tally may be underreported because many victims are tossed into unmarked graves, burned or put through sugar-cane grinders. In Tijuana, Santiago Meza confessed to dissolving more than 300 people in acid for a local cartel, earning the nickname “Pozolero,” or soup maker. The state of Coahuila, once under the control of the hyperviolent Zetas drug cartel, holds some 103,000 bone fragments belonging to unidentified bodies.
The sheer number of the missing could outnumber better-known cases of “disappeared” in Latin America’s sometimes bloody history, including Argentina’s Dirty War against leftists in the late 1970s.
Mexico has become a nation of unmarked graves where a small army of grieving mothers financed by bake sales search for their missing children. Their technology: They hire construction workers to hammer steel rods 6 feet into the ground, and then sniff the ends. If it smells of death, then it’s probably an unmarked grave. The government gives little support.
“It’s an interminable search,” says Guadalupe Contreras, one such searcher. “Today you find 20. Tomorrow, they bury another 20 somewhere else.” This month, the state of Veracruz discovered a mass grave with 168 skulls.
While murder rates are falling in most of the world, in Latin America the number of murders has grown about 3.7% a year since 2000, three times faster than the population, according to the Igarapé Institute. The region’s murder rate, at about 24 per 100,000 right now, will hit 35 per 100,000 by 2030 if the trend isn’t reversed.
Crime affects everyday life. About half of respondents in Latin America said they stopped going out at night, while more than 1-in-10 said they had moved due to the fear of violence, according to a survey from the U.N. Considering Latin America’s population, that’s more than 62 million people who felt the need to change homes.
Once the party spot of choice for the wealthy and famous, Acapulco has descended into disrepair and despair.
How did it get this bad?
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.
Demographics play a role: Latin America has more young people than most other regions, making for too many young men chasing too few quality jobs. And it has weak educational systems. Only 27% of Brazilians aged 25 or older have completed high school, according to government figures.
Much of Latin America also urbanized rapidly without services such as schooling and policing, creating belts of excluded groups around cities. Migration may have made matters worse. The percentage of single-parent homes in Mexico and Central America has grown rapidly over the past 20 years.
Latin America is also awash in guns, most of them held illegally. Nearly 78% of murders in Central America between 2000 and 2015 were caused by guns, compared with a global average of 32%, according to the Igarapé Institute. (In the U.S., it is around 73%.)
Latin America’s share of global population and homicides
Source: Igarape Institute
These factors create vicious cycles. Laura Chioda, a researcher at the World Bank, found that as many as 40% of young people in Honduras suffer from some form of depression due to the violence. “Now, imagine them at school,” she asks. “Can you teach calculus to someone with that level of trauma?” Many drop out and join the informal economy, where they won’t have a salary, training or career prospects. “Once there, they find this parallel structure of crime that provides jobs, services and an identity,” she says.
Marcelo Bergman, a sociologist who runs the Latin America Violence Research Center in Buenos Aires, thinks the informal economy plays a role. He says much of rising income at a time of economic growth among the region’s poor since 2000 went to consumption in the informal economy, creating more demand for stolen car parts, knockoff clothing and pirated movies. That gave more power to the mafias that supply them.
Latin America’s powerful mafias come from two accidents of geography: One is sitting next to the world’s biggest market for illegal drugs, the U.S., and the other is being the only region in the world to grow the coca plant, the main ingredient in cocaine, which remains among the world’s most profitable drugs. Organized crime accounts for about two-thirds of Mexico’s murders, experts say.
Mexico’s Independence Day celebrations on the night of Sept. 15 were marred when gunmen dressed as mariachi singers entered the city’s fabled Garibaldi plaza and gunned down five people, allegedly in a dispute over local drug sales.
Organized crime doesn’t explain all the violence, however. In Colombia, for instance, it accounts for anywhere from a quarter to half of crimes, government officials estimate. Latin America also has high rates of interpersonal and family violence. Colombian officials say the most murderous day of every year in Colombia is Mother’s Day, when revelers get drunk. Next on the list: New Year’s and Christmas.
Mexican state police stop cars to search for firearms after cartel members fired on a taxi stop.
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. The nongovernmental Venezuelan Violence Observatory estimates the country’s murder rate is roughly 110 per 100,000—about 34,000 a year.
Not all of Latin America has this problem. Chile’s murder rate of 3.6 per 100,000 sits well below the U.S. The state of Yucatán in Mexico has a similarly low murder rate. Even within cities, crime is concentrated: Half of all crime in Bogotá, Colombia, takes place in just 2% of the city. That makes good policing crucial to lowering violence.
But with some exceptions such as Chile, and increasingly Colombia, Latin America has largely failed to build strong legal institutions. Less than 20% of homicides in the region are solved. In Mexico, the figure is below 10%. Mexico’s Attorney General’s Office, the country’s version of the FBI, investigated more than 600 murder cases linked to organized crime in the past eight years. It won a guilty verdict in just two. That kind of impunity literally means that you can get away with murder.
When impunity is high, people take justice into their own hands. In mid-May, locals in the town of Miravalle in southern Mexico grabbed three men accused of holding up an elderly woman and burned them alive. No arrests were made in the case, state officials say.
A 10-year study of murder cases in the Brazilian city of Belo Horizonte found that police investigations lasted an average of 500 days, the average trial lasted 10 years and in a quarter of the cases the statute of limitations ran out—allowing the suspect to go free. Some 7% of suspects were slain before their sentence was handed out, in many cases by families of victims tired of waiting for justice.
Latin American prisons, the most overcrowded in the world, breed violence. Wardens have little control. The murder rate in Latin American prisons is 16 per 100,000—by far the world’s highest, according to U.N. figures. In two of the most chaotic prison systems—in Venezuela and Brazil—hundreds of prisoners die in gang fights each year and warlord inmates run vast drug-trafficking outfits that, on the outside, control swaths of territory.
The prison system is so weak that Colombia’s Pablo Escobar was allowed to build his own jail in the early 1990s, and Mexican kingpin Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman escaped twice from a maximum-security prison.
The spread of democracy in the 1990s across the region has had a perverse effect. Authoritarian states have an easier time controlling organized crime and violence. Many parts of Latin America got democracy before the rule of law; parts of Asia got the rule of law without democracy. Cuba, the hemisphere’s lone communist state, has a homicide rate estimated at about 4 per 100,000 residents.
Democracy in places such as Mexico disrupted existing arrangements between governments and organized crime that allowed for a pax mafiosa, says Eduardo Guerrero, a Mexican violence researcher. State governors would allow drug gangs to ferry narcotics to the U.S. in exchange for money and a promise to keep violence in check, not sell drugs near schools and reinvest some of the profits locally. The marketplace for votes upset those arrangements.
“None of these governors had bothered to build capable police forces because they relied on these arrangements,” he says. “But when the arrangements broke apart, they didn’t have any way to control the violence.”
In many ways, Acapulco is a perfect metaphor for Latin America’s broader failures. It is a place of stunning beauty spoiled by the same factors that fuel violence across the region: inequality, rapid and unplanned urbanization, lack of good institutions from education to police, deeply rooted corruption and an anything-goes attitude to the law.
Elizabeth Taylor, Frank Sinatra and John Wayne were regulars here during the resort’s heyday in the 1940s and 1950s. Two American presidents—John F. Kennedy and Bill Clinton—made it their honeymoon destination. Later on, for more daring tourists, Acapulco was the place they could do what they couldn’t back home. Marijuana and cocaine were easily available at discos and from taxi drivers, and prostitution thrived, with brothels sitting just a block from the main strip.
“Acapulco was a place where tourists were allowed to do anything. So it’s not that surprising that locals also began to view the place as a city where there were no rules,” says Elisabet Sabartes, a Spanish journalist who is writing a book on the city’s violence. During the four years she has lived there, five acquaintances have been murdered.
A mural depicting a more prosperous time in Acapulco at a now-empty beach.
As the drug war escalated, the tourist-dependent economy of Acapulco quickly declined and many large construction projects were left unfinished or abandoned.
Despite opium fields in the nearby mountains, violence here only took off in 2006, when the drug gang that controlled Guerrero split into two rival groups. It got worse in 2011, when Mexican marines killed kingpin Arturo Beltran Leyva, prompting further splits. Nowadays, more than two dozen rival gangs fight for control of the city’s criminal market.
Many no longer have the clout to carry out big drug deals, so they turn to other activities such as extortion. Practically every business in Acapulco pays. Father Jesus Mendoza, a priest, says some of his colleagues get extorted, and gangs have stolen church bells from some parishes to sell for the copper. The effect on business has been predictably bad. No new hotel has been built in more than a decade.
“The only thriving businesses around here are funeral homes,” says Laura Caballero, the head of a shopkeeper association. She closed her eight shops along the city’s main beachfront avenue three years ago due to monthly extortion demands that reached $800 per store. She says several fellow shopkeepers who refused to pay were killed.
The police have been incapable of stopping the violence. In 2014, most members of Acapulco’s police force were given a battery of tests to see if they were honest, including psychological profiles and lie-detector tests. Some 700 out of 1,100 failed.
When the Acapulco mayor at the time tried to fire the cops who failed, the entire police force walked off the job for 11 months. He backtracked. During the walkout, crime actually fell slightly. Scores of police who failed the test are still on the job, say security experts and former policemen.
In 2014, Mexico was outraged when local police in Iguala, another city in the same state, handed over 43 college kids to a drug gang, who are believed to have incinerated the teens. Most experts think the students accidentally commandeered a passenger bus that had heroin on it heading for the U.S., and police, in the pay of a local drug gang, thought the kids belonged to a rival cartel.
Acapulco’s police chief, Max Sedano, failed his recent lie-detector test, according to a local opposition-party congressman, Ricardo Mejia. Mr. Sedano, who remains in his post, told local journalists he didn’t know if he failed the test. The tests, usually done by federal officials, are confidential, and by law only the municipalities can fire their own officials. Mr. Sedano declined to be interviewed for this article.
“It’s not right that the police here aren’t in charge. The cartels are in charge,” says a 17-year veteran of Acapulco’s police force who quit in disgust last year.
Lesly Mariana Reyes sits on her mother Penelope’s childhood bed on a visit to see her grandmother. Penelope disappeared without a trace after a shift at her work as a manager of a local bank.
Fliers and family pictures of Penelope Elizabeth Reyes.
There is a saying in Acapulco: If you want to be an old cop, look the other way.
In the hours after Mr. Sabino was murdered in Acapulco’s market recently, a local detective turned up, wearing a crocodile-skin belt and dark glasses. He asked no questions of witnesses. After the body was picked up by a forensic team, the detective left.
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. Mr. Sabino’s body had a tattoo of St. Jude, according to the autopsy report.
Perhaps the most notorious crime in Acapulco in recent years was the kidnap and murder of at least 10 teenagers by a gang of students who attended a local university. The gang targeted acquaintances, including classmates and friends from high school. One gang member had his own girlfriend abducted and killed. Members of the gang, after collecting ransom money and still killing their hostages, would even go to their victims’ funerals and mourn with the parents.
“What kinds of people do these things?” asked Elsa Ceballos, whose 19-year-old son was strangled by the kidnap gang.
At an Acapulco criminology college called Centro Forense, nearly every student in a ballistics class raises their hand when asked if they have been affected by violence. Conin Pascual’s father was killed. Luis Rodríguez’s cousin, a cabdriver, was hacked to pieces.
Carlos Kevin, 19, saw his first dead bodies at age 13, when he arrived at his middle school and there were two mangled bodies on the street.
“There are no cops in our neighborhoods and when there is a killing, they don’t want to investigate,” said Anitxa Gutierrez, who was 14 when a shootout left bullet holes in her family’s living room.
Santiago García, an eighth-grade teacher, says he tries to teach the students values in a society where social norms are breaking down. He also teaches them boxing so they can manage their anger.
Santiago García teaches his students boxing to give them an outlet for their frustrations.
“In the past, when kids got a failing grade, parents would ask how they could help. Now, I’ve had parents threaten to kill me or hire a hit man if I don’t pass their children,” he says.
Mr. García says between 30 and 40 kids didn’t return for this school year, in large part because their parents were threatened, a family member had already been killed, or the kids were being forced by gangs to sell drugs at the school. In many cases, the families simply left Acapulco.
Across the street from Mr. García’s middle school stands a pink house that was used by a gang to hold hostages. One day, during school hours, it was raided by marines, who pulled out several human remains. On another recent morning, a sixth-grader entered school crying, saying he had just found his uncle’s dead body outside the school gates.
“We ask the kids, where do you see yourselves in 20 years, and some say, ‘Carrying an AK-47!’ ” says Mr. García. Locals share videos of killings posted by local gangs. One recent video showed a teen being sliced open and his beating heart taken out.
Javier Morlett is an Acapulco native who knows the city better than anyone. His father was mayor in the 1960s and Mr. Morlett ran both the city’s airport and port at various stages in his career. In 2012, his 21-year-old daughter, who was studying at Mexico’s leading public university in Mexico City, was abducted. After an agonizing two-year search, he found her remains. The crime was never solved.
“I don’t think we can solve this,” he says of the violence. “This place was paradise, but we’ve turned it into an inferno.”
Historically an area where wealthy Americans would have their yachts repaired, Playa Manzanillo has now become known for the bodies that wash up on its shores, victims of Mexico’s drug violence.
Write to David Luhnow at firstname.lastname@example.org