The world's most dangerous cities -- recalculated
Relatives of Marisela Escobedo mourn her death in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, in December, 2010. The Mexican town was then the deadliest city on Earth, but that distinction now belongs to San Pedro Sula in Honduras. Juárez is number 19. (Jesus Alcazar/AFP/Getty Images.)
That was the title of a searing 2010 book about the northern Mexican border town of Ciudad Juárez by U.S. author and journalist Charles Bowden.
The phrase was lethally accurate then, but it is considerably less fitting now.
For three years, from 2008 until 2010, the low-rise desert town of roughly 1.4 million inhabitants genuinely earned its reputation as the world’s deadliest urban zone, as two Mexican drug gangs – the Sinaloa cartel and the local Juárez organization – fought each other for control of the city’s narcotics trade.
But that was then, and this is now. Parts of Mexico continue to be haunted by extremely gruesome drug wars, but Juárez is no longer the main theatre of battle. In fact, it’s no longer even close.
In 2011, the city dropped into second spot in the global rankings for homicide, falling behind San Pedro Sula, an industrial city in northwestern Honduras, which is now deeply embroiled in drug-related troubles of its own. Last year, the Honduran town was again at the top of the heap, while Juárez had tumbled all the way to number 19 on a list of the world’s 50 most murderous cities that’s compiled annually by a Mexican documentation centre, the Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Penal Justice.
In 2010, Juárez had a murder rate that must rank up among the most harrowing in human history – 229 homicides for every 100,000 population. Last year, that stat plummeted to 56.
That’s still a lot of violence – 35 times higher than the present Canadian murder rate of 1.6 per 100,000 population – but it’s still a huge improvement on past carnage.
Even San Pedro Sula does not yet approach the levels of bloodshed experienced in Juárez at its worst, which is an extremely backhanded sort of compliment. Last year, the Honduran city had a murder rate of 169 per 100,000 population, and that is surely shocking enough for most people.
Curiously, the world’s second most violent city nowadays is Acapulco, the stately resort town on Mexico’s Pacific coast that was once the haunt of the rich and famous, whose numbers included U.S. Olympic swimmer and actor Johnny Weissmuller – of Tarzan fame – who dwelled there for many years, until his death in 1984, aged 79.
Apart from very rare incidents, such as the horrific gang rape of six Spanish women this past February, Acapulco’s drug- and gangster-ridden underworld does not intersect with the city’s now struggling tourist industry.
Of the world’s 10 deadliest cities – according to the same Mexican research centre – five are in Mexico. In addition to Acapulco, they include Durango, Mazatlán, Tepic, and Veracruz. Latin America beyond Mexico contributes three more dangerous spots, the aforementioned San Pedro Sula plus Caracas and Panama City.
The rest of the world is currently responsible for just two of the top 10 capitals of homicide – the Iraqi city of Mosul, as well as Johannesburg in South Africa.
No one seems entirely sure what changed in Ciudad Juárez to allow that city to ease its way out of this planet’s inner circle of urban violence. The appointment of renowned crime-fighter Julián Leyzaola as police chief may have played a role. Or maybe the two feuding drug cartels finally found a way to end or at least diminish their fight, possibly by means of at least a partial truce.
But the drug lords don’t issue a lot of press releases, so it’s difficult to know.
Oakland Ross is a foreign affairs reporter for the Toronto Star.