"If the level of violence in some Latin American cities were measured by the standards used by the World Health Organization, it would be considered an epidemic."
That is how José Miguel Insulza, the secretary-general of the Organization of American States, describes the rampant violence in Latin America.
A region that has a long history of armed conflicts and struggles for social justice is now being taken over by thugs, drug dealers, leftist rebels, right- wing paramilitaries, gangs and common criminals. Insulza said in a recent speech that of the 10 countries in which most crimes are committed, more than half are Latin American.
The discovery of 72 bodies at a ranch in the state of Tamaulipas, Mexico, is a grim reminder of the ongoing violence in that country as a result of the drug war. The bodies were found after the sole survivor of a deadly attack on immigrants was able to escape and reported the incident to marines at a nearby checkpoint. The navy raided the area, had a shootout with the alleged assailants and found the bodies of 58 men and 14 women in a structure, some piled on top of each other.
It's still unclear how long they had been there or if they all were shot at the same time. The survivor, who had been shot in the neck, according to media reports, told authorities that he was with a group of immigrants from Ecuador, Brazil, El Salvador and Honduras. They apparently were trying to make their way to the border to enter the United States when they were ambushed by members of the Zetas drug cartel. When they rejected demands for money and collaboration, the assailants opened fire, the Ecuadoran survivor said.
The massacre in Tamaulipas is one of several that have occurred in recent months. Mass graves with dozens of bodies have been discovered in North and Central Mexico. Since President Felipe Calderón launched his war on drug cartels in 2006, more than 28,000 people have been killed.
As bad as the crime rate is in Mexico, it's even worse in Venezuela. A recent New York Times article highlighted the gravity of the situation: 43,792 murders have been committed in Venezuela since 2007. According to the National Statistics Institute, in 2009 alone there were 19,133 homicides; that is one every 30 minutes. Most are attributed to social, economic and political tensions. More than 90 percent of the crimes go unsolved, without a single arrest. It is three times more dangerous to live in Venezuela than in Iraq, the Times article points out.
Colombia has had its share of violence, with an internal war between government forces supported by right-wing paramilitaries and leftist guerilla groups. But the most recent acts of violence are worrisome. Two separate hit lists appeared on Facebook, warning the young people on the list to leave the town of Puerto Asis in less than three days. Three of those on the hit lists, ages 16, 17 and 19, were killed in different incidents. A fourth was injured.
Colombian federal officials and Internet forensic experts were trying to determine who is behind the lists, which included 69 boys' names and 31 girls' names.
Youth also are the main protagonists in the ongoing violence in Central America, especially in El Salvador and Honduras. Rival gangs are killing each other off. Drug dealers are infiltrating the gangs. And although the government denies it, there are reports of death squads doing social cleansing. The archbishop of El Salvador recently called upon authorities in that country to stop the violence after a 6-year-old girl was found decapitated.
These are just a few examples of the violence that is ravaging many Latin American countries. The OAS secretary-general is right -- violence in Latin America is reaching epidemic proportions. The symptoms are visible, and the causes are many: poverty, lack of opportunities, corruption, impunity and a breakdown in values. It seems as if some members of society have no respect for life and no fear of death. Let's hope a cure is found soon. The bloodshed has to stop.
KING FEATURES SYNDICATE