The crime pandemic

MOISeS NAiM is editor in chief of Foreign Policy magazine and the author of "Illicit." A longer version of this article will appear in the July/August issue of Foreign Policy (

IN THE LAST five years, the bird flu epidemic claimed 172 victims worldwide. In the same period, a less recognized but growing menace killed or maimed millions of people and produced massive economic losses. Like others, this dangerous pandemic ignores national borders and erupts in different places at different times. Inexplicably, it has surged in Boston and abated in Bogota. Experts disagree about its precise causes and what explains its sudden eruptions. Unlike bird flu, it is not caused by a virus transmitted from one species to another; it is exclusively created and spread by people. I am talking about street crime.

The world is experiencing a crime pandemic. Crime rates are on the rise almost everywhere, and these crime statistics typically are distinct from the death and mayhem that comes with terrorism, civil war or major conflict. The data reflect the booming number of civilians assaulted, robbed or murdered by other civilians who live in the same city, often in the same neighborhood. Frequently, the victims are as poor as the criminals.

Total recorded crime increased steadily since 1980 for all the countries the United Nations measures, according to a 2003 U.N. report. Even in the United States, where crime rates have famously declined since the mid-1990s, violent crimes have risen sharply in the last two years. In 2005, violent crime had the largest annual increase in 15 years. In Boston, murder rates are at an 11-year high.


The Police Executive Research Forum, a U.S. law enforcement association, reports that, among the American cities surveyed, homicides increased 71%, robberies increased 80% and aggravated assaults with guns increased 67% between 2004 and 2006. FBI statistics confirm this trend.

Crime is also rising in Britain. According to the European Union, Britain is now considered a “high crime country.” A 2007 EU report calls London the “crime capital of Europe.”

Of course, the United States and Europe are still relative paradises compared with other countries. The situation has gotten so bad that frustrated citizens in Johannesburg, Mexico City and elsewhere have staged massive marches to protest the inability of their governments to protect them. And they are right. The streets of some cities have become more dangerous than war zones. Postcard-perfect Rio de Janeiro, for example, is more lethal for young males than Israel and the occupied territories. According to the Washington Post, between 2002 and 2006, 729 Palestinian and Israeli minors died as a result of violence and terrorism there. Yet in that same period, 1,857 minors were murdered in Rio de Janeiro.

The world’s most murderous region is the Caribbean, followed by South Africa and western Africa, and then Latin America, according to a joint U.N.-World Bank report from earlier this year. But the trend is global. Russia’s homicide rate is 20 times higher than Western Europe’s. Rising crime rates are also reported throughout Asia.

In the poorest countries, the consequences of high crime rates are crippling. Crime increases the costs of doing business and makes countries less economically competitive. High crime rates can also scare away investors. “We were making good money in Colombia in the mid-’90s,” the chief executive of a multinational corporation told me. “But I decided that there was not enough money in the world to compensate for the despair that I felt during the many sleepless nights I spent worrying about my kidnapped colleagues there. We paid the ransom, got them back ... and left the country.” The World Bank calculates that Latin America’s economic growth could be 8% higher if its crime rates dropped.

But the main reason to reduce crime rates is not to spur economic growth or attract foreign investors. The paramount reason is to give citizens the right to walk their streets -- or stay home -- without fearing for their lives, a basic human expectation that millions around the world are increasingly losing.

Unfortunately, while the consequences of high crime rates are clear, the cause is far less so. Consider, for example, the notion that crime is the inevitable consequence of poverty. This idea is as common as it is exaggerated and misunderstood. Some poor countries have high crime rates, others don’t. Russia is far richer than Costa Rica, but its crime rates are substantially higher than those of Costa Rica.

Some have suggested that crime rates may be explained by the strength of religious institutions, measured by church attendance and involvement in religious activities. Again, the statistical evidence isn’t there. Countries with high church attendance rates, such as Guatemala or the Philippines, can also be murderous.

So what drives crime rates up? Researchers can agree on little beyond the general notion that crime soars in places where there are a high percentage of young males, ample drugs and easy access to guns. Economic inequality and urbanization also accelerate crime rates (but experts disagree by how much). And, once criminal behavior takes root in a neighborhood or city, it takes a long time and an immense effort to reclaim the streets.

It is easy to dismiss growing crime rates as either a local problem or one that has been with us since time immemorial. But this would be a major mistake because, although we may have recently lost ground, the problem has the potential to be a far greater global nightmare.

Consider China and India. They have a rising population of young males, growing levels of economic inequality and rapid urbanization. Drugs and guns, however, are still comparatively hard to come by. But if these two nations become more like other poor countries in this regard, their crime rates could soar to unimagined levels. Suffice it to say, the crime pandemic would never be hidden from anyone again.