Ravaged by a pandemic, a brutal war in Europe, and rising social unrest over unaffordable food and fuel, the world looks anything but safe. The combination of raging inflation, polarization, and conflict has many people feeling afraid and insecure. In the United States, recent polls indicate that worries about violent crime and guns outrank worries about unemployment, immigration, climate change, and COVID-19. But has the world really become less safe in recent years? A closer look at the most important indicator—rates of lethal violence—reveals a more complicated picture with points of light and plenty of shadow.
In short: During the pandemic, most types of crime declined as much of the world was under lockdown. Although homicidal violence has risen again in a handful of countries, many more saw murder rates stay the same or even decrease since early 2020—with marked drops in some nations.
The stubborn exception to the decline in lethal violence is in the Americas—the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean, which remain the world’s hotspots for murder. Of course, murder is just one end of a spectrum of violence that includes physical, sexual, domestic, and psychological abuse, which are much harder to capture with reliable statistics. Violent deaths provide a proxy for the wider problem. And that problem includes the fact that we know more than ever about what works and what doesn’t in reducing lethal crime—yet the countries and communities most affected aren’t applying these lessons.
Since 2020, the United States has experienced a vertiginous rise in killings, outpacing every country in the world in the rise of homicides. People living in the United States have a decent reason to feel more insecure than in the past. After murder rates declined for decades, homicides jumped by 30 percent between 2019 and 2020, the highest increase in the world. In statistical terms, the murder rate climbed from 6.1 homicides per 100,000 people to 7.8 per 100,000 people. That may not sound like much, but it translates into big numbers: The absolute homicide toll rose from 16,669 victims to more than 21,000 victims, the largest single-year increase in U.S. history.
Murders, especially by firearms, remained stubbornly high in 2021, reaching 6.9 victims per 100,000 people. The United States’ harrowing homicide epidemic is driven by rising crime in cities, where lethal violence jumped 44 percentage points in 2020 and another 5 percentage points in 2021. Criminologists are scrambling to explain why the country is such an outlier, with various theories blaming declining trust in law enforcement, disruptions to the economy, and skyrocketing firearm sales. Americans are already heavily armed: One in three citizens claim they own a gun. Most owners cite personal protection as their motive. And Americans are going on a handgun and rifle buying spree. More than 40 million weapons were sold in the past two years alone—another record.
Brazilians are also feeling unsafe, with 2 out of 3 people claiming to be afraid to walk alone at night. And not without reason. Latin America’s largest country retained the top spot as the world’s most homicidal nation, with over 47,000 intentional murders registered in 2021, double the number recorded in the United States. Last year, Brazil logged 22 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, a slight decrease from 23 per 100,000 in 2020. Brazilian police are also the most violent in the world, responsible for at least 6,400 killings in 2021, six times more than their U.S. counterparts, who are in second place worldwide. In Brazil, stunning levels of inequality, impunity, firearms possession, and violent disputes between rival drug gangs are typically blamed for the high murder rate.
The story is sadly familiar in Mexico, Colombia, and a host of other Latin American and Caribbean countries with a long tradition of high levels of violence. Mexico, where the murder rate has remained largely flat since 2019, leads the world in the killing of journalists. After reaching its lowest rate in four decades in 2019, Colombia’s homicide rate has crept back up again, with a disturbing increase in the targeting of community leaders. Meanwhile, lethal violence declined sharply in some of the world’s most homicidal countries: by over 40 percent in El Salvador and just under 30 percent in Honduras and Venezuela in 2020, before climbing again in 2021.
If there is any positive news, it is that these spikes in violence have largely been confined to the Americas. Most other countries around the world registered overall declines in homicide since 2019. And it’s not just murder: An assessment of 27 cities around the globe found that most types of crime—such as theft, robbery, and burglary—have also fallen. Virtually all types of police-reported crime dropped in the wake of pandemic-related shutdowns.
While there has been a strong relationship between stay-at-home restrictions and certain categories of crime, the impact of the pandemic on homicide is more ambiguous. A recent study found that stringent lockdowns were associated with large declines in violence in most crimes. One reason for this is that the opportunity to commit crimes declines when there is a shortage of would-be-victims and homes whose residents are away. The pandemic-induced drop in social drinking likely also helped: In the United States, for example, over 40 percent of all convicted murderers and victims had alcohol in their blood just before or after the crime occurred. Yet lockdowns likely also contributed to a surge in family violence and domestic abuse. Although homicides connected to organized crime were likely down as daily routines changed, those associated with intimate partners may have risen, which could help explain the lack of wild shifts in most countries, especially those with low levels of collective violence.
Globally, murder is still hyper-concentrated in a handful of countries. Just five—Brazil, Nigeria, Mexico, India, and the United States—account for one-third of the world’s reported murders, according to numbers compiled by the Igarapé Institute’s Homicide Monitor. If the list is expanded to the top 10 countries to include Colombia, Venezuela, South Africa, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Pakistan, then it accounts for 44 percent of all reported intentional killings outside of war zones. If global levels of homicide are going to be reduced, these countries would be a good place to start.
The silver lining is that there is growing evidence of what works to curb lethal violence, provided the leadership and resources are mustered to deal with it. The best way to prevent murder is to make it a political priority rather than an afterthought, with clear plans, targets, and benchmarks to track success. Rather than flooding communities with more police, decision-makers should focus on high-risk places and people—including improvements to the environment like green spaces and more lighting, supporting positive opportunities for young people, and professionalizing law enforcement and criminal justice providers.
Another proven strategy involves building up civic infrastructure, including through community-based groups. Princeton University sociologist Patrick Sharkey found that in cities with populations of 100,000 people or more, each new local organization created to prevent violence and build stronger neighborhoods resulted in a 1 percent decline in violent crime and murder. The advantage of investing in civic entrepreneurs is that they not only contribute to better safety and security but also improve community resilience in other ways.
Although evaluations of high-impact strategies to reduce lethal violence have largely been limited to North America and Western Europe, most experts agree that strategies targeting specific places and people—such as school-based programming—are especially effective at reducing the risk of violent behavior. Targeted cognitive behavioral therapy, positive parenting training, substance abuse assistance, education, and employment support can be fast and effective solutions. The goal is to generate tangible positive changes in the lives of young people, inculcating self-restraint and peer-to-peer socialization. These kinds of activities must be complemented with smart, professional, community-facing, and accountable policing as well as alternatives to prison time.
Ultimately, much like COVID-19, homicide is a treatable disease, not a permanent affliction. Like COVID-19, murder is most contagious in neighborhoods and among residents already facing the highest levels of disadvantage and stress, especially poorer minority groups. Also like the pandemic, it can be cured with the right combination of leadership, preventive policies, and remedial action.