Expert Commentary

Latin America: The link between high crime and public trust

2016 working paper for the Inter-American Development Bank that looks at how crime in Latin America affects the public's trust in public institutions such as police agencies and in private networks.

Caracas (Unsplash/public domain)

Immigration to the United States from Latin America has long been a subject of heated debate, and it has become particularly contentious throughout the 2016 presidential campaign. Some candidates have employed strong rhetoric about building walls and deporting “illegals,” while others have decried how immigration policies break up families. For Latin Americans, the decision to migrate is often a matter of safety and security, as Latin America continues to struggle with high rates of violence, crime, and poverty, according to data from the Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank that analyzes U.S. policy.

The most recent United Nations Regional Human Development Report, for 2013-2014, shows that Latin America has more than 100,000 homicides per year. Robberies have tripled over the last 25 years, and on any given day, 460 people suffer from sexual violence. Latin America also has the world’s highest rates of income inequality. The inability for people to feel safe in their communities negatively impacts all aspects of development, according to a United Nations Development Programme report.

A study, “Crime and Erosion of Trust: Evidence for Latin America,” published by World Development, attempts to quantify the relationship between crime and peoples’ trust in institutions—both social structures like friends and family and official institutions like police forces and courts. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defines social capital as “networks together with shared norms, values and understandings that facilitate co-operation among groups.” The study’s authors argue that trust is essential for social capital; trust “links ordinary citizens to the institutions intended to represent them and to one another.” Because crime weakens trust, it negatively impacts social capital, meaning the impact does not stop at the individual victim of a crime but has broader consequences: increasing fear, suspicion and distrust in the community at large. The impact of crime on the foundation of society can inhibit development.

Study authors Ana Corbacho, Julia Philipp and Mauricio Ruiz-Vega conducted a cross-country survey, collecting data from 1,000 respondents by randomly choosing telephone numbers or conducting face-to-face visits. The number of observations in the empirical analysis varies between 9,000 and 17,000, depending on what was being analyzed. The survey provides information about participants’ victim status and socioeconomic background, as well as attitudes toward politics, democracy, citizen collaboration, law and order, migration, well-being, health and the environment.

The study measured the impact of crime on two forms of social trust: “vertical trust” (trust in the local police force and in the judiciary system) and “horizontal trust” (trust in friends, relatives and business partners). To do this, the authors employed “propensity score matching (PSM) to isolate the relationship between crime and trust that can be attributed to the experience of victimization…PSM minimizes the overt bias…in the estimates.”

Some key findings:

  • High crime rates lower trust in the local police. On average, victims of crimes have a “10 percent lower probability of trusting the local police compared to non-victims; a sizeable impact, “considering that the average probability of trusting the police in the region is about 50 percent…the lowest regional average worldwide.”
  • When victims don’t trust their local police force, they are less likely to report a crime. In Mexico, for instance, 90 percent of victims do not file a report with the police. A society with poor vertical trust has the propensity to become more unsafe.
  • There “is no robust evidence of reduced trust in the judiciary or trust in friends and business partners.”
  • For victims of crime, the reduction of trust in the judiciary is about 3 percent, compared to 10 percent for the local police. The authors hypothesize that crime impacts trust in local public institutions more significantly. Therefore, because the police have much more direct interaction with citizens than the judiciary, they are more highly scrutinized. Similarly, victims are less supportive of their local leadership than they are of their national leaders, and the judiciary is often a national, not local, institution.
  • As for the impact of crime on trust in friends and family, “people who report having friends or having someone to trust as a business partner are more likely to exhibit civic behavior, boosting social capital. Victimization has the potential to disrupt this trust.”Approximately 85 percent of people surveyed reported having a friend or relative they can trust. “Crime victims have, on average, a 2 percent lower probability of trusting friends compared to non-victims.” However, the reverse can also be found—individuals may become more actively engaged with their community as a result of victimization.
  • The overall impact of victimization impacts on vertical more than horizontal trust.

The authors suggest that governments must work to address the impact of crime on society. Public programs will not be as successful as possible if citizens do not have trust in their institutions responsible for implementing the programs. Therefore, governments should invest in a public relations campaign to improve citizen opinions of public organizations. Crime prevention efforts will be more successful if more people trust enough in their local police force to work with authorities to prevent crime and also punish criminals.

Related research: A study, “Income Inequality, Distributive Fairness and Political Trust in Latin America,” finds that “income inequality matters for democratic legitimacy, as it is negatively related to citizens’ willingness to trust political institutions and actors.”


Keywords: crime, Latin America

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