More than half of us live in cities. And by 2050, this will have risen to two thirds. Understanding how and why urban spaces become deadly, then, is more important than ever. Take the following 20 cities, for example. Crime, inequality, poverty and unemployment are rife in each of them. These, though, are just some of the factors that make them the most dangerous conurbations you can actually visit, according to Mexico Citizens Council for Public Security’s 2015 report.
20. Teresina, Brazil
Sweltering Teresina, Brazil’s hottest city, is a booming industrial metropolis that’s home to over one million people. But it is, unfortunately, one of several conurbations in the country’s northeast suffering from a violent crime epidemic. In fact, around two thirds of Teresina’s homicides are related to drug trafficking. This is a relatively new phenomenon here – and one that local police are poorly prepared for.
19. St. Louis, Missouri
Aggregate homicide rates in the U.S. are falling, but not in St. Louis, Missouri, which is home to over 300,000 people. Indeed, this troubled city on the Mississippi River continues to experience high levels of violence in some of its most deprived districts. Controversially, some city officials blame escalating crime rates on a “Ferguson effect.” Yes, they claim local protests have stretched police resources thin.
18. Belém, Brazil
Punctuated with fresh-water beaches and forested islets, Belém – whose name means Bethlehem in Portuguese – is a hot, humid, Amazonian metropolis of 1.4 million people. And this enigmatic jungle gateway, which is perched on the banks of the Pará River, has a proud colonial history. In recent years, however, its overcrowded favelas have seen bitter conflicts between rival drug gangs. Naturally, this has driven up its murder rate.
17. Salvador, Brazil
Salvador de Bahia is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and Brazil’s first great colonial capital. And the city, resplendent with colorful buildings, enjoyed something of a facelift for the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Unfortunately, however, many of its favelas remain neglected. Between 2000 and 2010, in fact, Salvador’s homicide rate shot up by 418 percent, with analysts from Insight Crime blaming an influx of guns, gangs and crack cocaine.
16. Cuiabá, Brazil
Cuiabá is a major ranching center and the burgeoning capital of central Brazil’s Mato Grosso state. And it has grown exponentially during the last three decades, though its evolution from cow town to boom town has invariably brought organized crime. Cuiabá’s high rate of violence, however, is more associated with sex trafficking than drug trafficking; a problem exacerbated by rapid industrial development and tourism.
15. Vitória, Brazil
Nestled in a rugged coastal bay at the convergence of several rivers, the municipality of Vitória in southeastern Brazil encompasses dozens of islets and islands. And while the city is economically driven by its massive industrial ports, it is, like many other Brazilian cities, highly unequal and socially polarized. Indeed, this stark divide between rich and poor provides fertile ground for drug cartels and their associated violence.
14. Cape Town, South Africa
With a stunning location on South Africa’s coast, Cape Town is known for its vibrant multicultural heritage. Indeed, in 2014 the New York Times named it the best place on the planet to visit. Beyond its world-class appeal to visitors, however, the city has been struggling with violent crime for years. And entrenched inequality, unemployment, poverty and marginalization are just some of the factors contributing to the problem.
13. San Salvador, El Salvador
El Salvador is home to an estimated 25,000 gang members. As such, rival factions including Calle 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) have reputations for extreme violence and continue to present a major image problem for the Central American country. In fact, its capital, San Salvador, has one of the highest murder rates in the world. The roots of its social disorder lie in the Salvadoran Civil War, which ran from 1979 to 1992.
12. Ciudad Guayana, Venezuela
Languid and lightly decayed, Ciudad Guayana in Venezuela was created in 1961 with the merger of two settlements on the Orinoco River: San Félix and Puerto Ordaz. But today, the city’s descent into violence must be understood in the context of Venezuela’s ongoing social and political crisis. Indeed, a plunging currency, paralyzed industries and food shortages are just some of the factors enabling crime to flourish here.
11. Natal, Brazil
Natal in northeastern Brazil is an example of how statistics can mask a complicated story. Though the city’s homicide rate is one of the highest in the world, it is, conversely, also considered a relatively safe destination – provided that visitors remain in the well-policed tourist zones. Perhaps surprisingly, fine historical architecture, urban parks, museums, sand dunes, beaches and coral reefs are just some of Natal’s attractions.
10. São Luís, Brazil
Described by Rough Guides as “a poor city by even northeastern standards,” São Luís is the neglected state capital of Maranhão in Brazil. But despite the usual problems of drugs, guns and gangs, the city does have enormous potential. It is, after all, a center of Afro-Brazilian culture, and in recognition of its historical value its colonial quarter was designated UNESCO World Heritage status in 1997.
9. Cali, Colombia
A gritty metropolis of 2.3 million inhabitants, Cali is considered to be the most dangerous city in Colombia. But fortunately, it isn’t all murder and misery here; Cali is apparently the Salsa capital of the world. That said, you might want to take care selecting an evening dance venue. Worryingly, police sweeps of some party zones turn up as many as 400 weapons on Friday and Saturday nights.
8. Fortaleza, Brazil
The sprawling economic powerhouse of Fortaleza is the capital of Brazil’s Ceará state. And this booming city of shopping malls and high-rise condos, which is home to approximately 2.6 million people, is a major hub of commerce and industry. So while tourists know this FIFA World Cup host city for its beaches and parties, its notorious favelas reveal an undercurrent of poverty, struggle, crime and danger.
7. Valencia, Venezuela
In 2014 Venezuelan beauty queen Génesis Carmona was shot dead in Valencia during clashes between pro and anti-government demonstrators. Known as “Little Detroit,” Valencia is a major industrial and manufacturing hub and Venezuela’s third-biggest city. Like the country’s other urban strongholds, however, it’s suffering the impacts of wider economic collapse.
6. Maceió, Brazil
Founded in the 19th century to process exports from local sugar plantations, the Brazilian seaside city of Maceió is blessed with beaches and coastal lagoons – which is why it’s known as the “Paradise of Waters.” But, as seasoned travelers know, paradise often has a dark side. In fact, Maceió is the capital of Alagoas, which is purportedly Brazil’s most violent state.
5. Distrito Central, Honduras
Like neighboring El Salvador, Honduras has long suffered from organized crime. And the municipal area of Distrito Central, which includes the capital Tegucigalpa and its sister, Comayagüela, is a hub for violent gangs. Many analysts connect the region’s insecurity not only to endemic police corruption but also to the 2009 military coup. Indeed, since then homicide rates have jumped from around 60 per 100,000 to more than 90.
4. João Pessoa, Brazil
As the easternmost conurbation in the Americas, João Pessoa is known as the Brazilian city where the sun rises first. But while poets and green spaces are the city’s most celebrated accolades, you shouldn’t be fooled by its seemingly gentle airs. For João Pessoa, unfortunately, is in fact Brazil’s most violent city. Fortunately for foreign visitors, however, most of its criminal activities occur in neighborhoods they never see.
3. Acapulco, Mexico
Once upon a time, Acapulco was a favorite of destination of Hollywood superstars and moneyed jetsetters. Those days, however, are long gone – nowadays the city is rife with violent turf wars and pitched street battles. But while rival gangs fight for control of local trafficking routes, many thousands of Mexican tourists still visit and enjoy the beleaguered city every year.
2. Caracas, Venezuela
If the U.S. Department of State is to be believed, Caracas, Venezuela’s capital, is a virtual warzone. Indeed, it states that “heavily armed criminals are known to use grenades and assault rifles to commit crimes at banks, shopping malls, public transportation stations and universities.” Of course, beyond all its dramatic dysfunction, Caracas is still a working city of three million people.
1. San Pedro Sula, Honduras
Steamy San Pedro Sula in Honduras enjoys the dubious infamy of being the world’s murder capital. It is, in fact, the most dangerous place on Earth, discounting warzones. And the city, which is home to around 700,000 people, is also a major operational hub for international drug cartels. Indeed, gangs control the streets, while local police and politicians are often the willing recipients of narcodollars.