In October 2011, the Geneva Declaration on Armed Violence and Development released a report studying annual violent death rates around the world from 2004 through 2009, and ranked the most violent countries based on the average rates. The study found that a quarter of all violent deaths happen in just 14 countries. Here are the top 10 countries on the list, with background on what contributes to each nation's high murder rate.
1. El Salvador
The most densely populated country in Central America is rife with gangs, some controlling entire regions and armed with military-caliber weapons. The concentration of gangs in this region has spiked with Mexico's war on drug cartels and the 1990s deportation of thousands of Salvadoran gang members from the United States. The U.S. State Department reports that extortion tactics have included grenade attacks on public transportation and businesses, indiscriminately killing residents including children. Its rate of 65 homicides per 100,000 people makes its crime rate three times higher than Mexico; even with the conflict in Iraq, in the years between 2004 and 2009 more people were killed per capita in El Salvador.
In 2004, when the study begins tracking its most current numbers, Iraq's homicide rate was 10 times that of New York City. This began after the Iraq War and overthrow of Saddam Hussein, and the ensuing sectarian conflict that raged in key regions of the country. The pullout of U.S. forces from key cities in 2009 led to a dramatic increase in crimes there, blamed largely on gangs composed of former insurgents. With the wholesale withdrawal of foreign troops and the full assumption of security duties, Iraqi authorities have been stretched too thin when it comes to fighting crime. Kidnappings and executions remain a significant threat.
This island nation once held the top spot for most homicides, a rate that is gradually slipping with increased enforcement and prevention activities. Still, understaffing and police corruption remain problematic in reining in the murder rate, and the problems of poor economic conditions and drugs continue to fuel the deadly cycle. Violent crime is particularly centered in the impoverished areas of Kingston and Montego Bay. Gang wars, however, mean that random gunfire can and does break out anywhere. Police officers are frequently among the victims. Violent crime is also encouraged by many citizens against gays.
Here's a snapshot of the violent crime problem in this Central American country: Since 1995, 98 American citizens have been killed there, according to the U.S. State Department, but only 28 of the cases have been solved. The country is increasingly suffering from the problem of drug cartels being pushed lower into Latin America, and gang violence is a major contributor to the crime rate. Northern coastal areas that had drawn tourists are increasingly used as drug smuggling routes. Crime also increased in the wake of the 2009 coup in which President Manuel Zelaya was ousted. Poverty and poor law enforcement are also named as key factors in the spiraling crime rate. In 2009, 77 were killed per 100,000 people.
This South American nation was inseparable from the 1980s war on drugs, with key cartels and the FARC Marxist rebels both operating in the territory. And while Colombia, which has waged a years-long crackdown on the cartels, is safer than it has been in a quarter century (in 2010, murders were down 34 percent as compared to the previous seven years), left-wing guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary groups still do battle on this turf. Some former paramilitaries have switched to the drug trade. The country is also considered one of the deadliest in the world for union leaders.
The capital Caracas has one of the highest murder rates per capita in the world, as armed gangs often operate with impunity in the urban areas and the poor surrounding suburbs are rarely patrolled by police. Gangs take advantage of the lack of police presence to carry out crimes in broad daylight. Deteriorating economic conditions have been neglected by the government. Human rights groups have flagged extrajudicial killings of political opponents by security agents of Hugo Chavez's government. This government also stopped publishing data on murder rates years ago. But a leaked report in 2010 put the national murder rate at 75 per 100,000 people - it was 49 four years before - and the Caracas homicide rate at 220 per 100,000 people. If the murder rate had stayed the same as the year before Chavez took power, some 70,000 victims would be alive today.
In 2009, Guatemala City saw an average of 25 murders per week. In the first seven months of 2011, that average was 42 slayings per week. Poor law enforcement and weak rule of law have led to problems in crime prevention, police response and bringing guilty parties to justice. Gangs armed with increasingly sophisticated weapons have been growing in both urban and rural areas. Gangs are involved in the dangerous industries of drug and human smuggling, and former military officers once involved in the country's dark recent past of death squads now lend their talents to criminal enterprises.
8. South Africa
The country with the highest reported rape rate in the world also has one of the top murder rates, including many killings of police officers who have been engaged in a concerted effort to push back against the violence. Criminal gangs and vigilante violence are blamed for many of the killings, which have actually begun to decrease in recent years. Murder was down by 6.5 percent for 2010/2011, according to government statistics. United Nations reports have pegged the crime problem as not atypical of a developing country - in this case, post-apartheid development.
9. Sri Lanka
The Tamil Tiger rebels were defeated by Sri Lanka security forces in 2009 after 26 years of civil conflict, and since then security has improved in the country (as NGOs work to find and disarm unexploded land mines and ordnance). There is still ongoing violent crime, particularly criminal activity in the northern part of the nation.
This African nation is landlocked by South Africa and has a high crime rate influenced by poverty and high unemployment, large numbers of armed gangs, and a high rate of HIV/AIDS that has contributed to social upheaval. Both Lesotho and South Africa have documented cases of "medicine murder," where victims are killed in order to harvest their body parts.