Urban areas tend to attract crime and violent activity, but there are some cities in particular where the general levels of violence are surpassed by a long way. In some of the world’s most dangerous towns and cities, the rule of law no longer applies and criminal gangs or cartels more or less rule the roost. The results for those unfortunate enough to live in these areas can be serious, with typical features being high levels of gun crime, homicides, corruption and intimidation.
Obviously it’s hard to pick out one reason that explains why all of the cities on this list have fallen into the hands of criminal elements, but there are some common factors at play. Many urban centres, particularly in Mexico and Latin America, have suffered as a result of the drugs trade and the absence of law enforcement mechanisms or their corruption by the drug cartels. Other cities have experienced wars and the destruction of infrastructure, clearing the way for ruthless organisations to take the upper hand. Then there are those cities where poverty is so endemic that criminal groups are able to exploit the weakness of everyone else to take charge.
In some of the cities discussed here, the control of criminal forces is by no means complete. Even in the most dangerous of settings, there are brave and determined people who want to take them on. This has, in fact, seen some successes. But we will also see the lack of hope in some places for any imminent change. Here come a selection of 10 cities around the world where crime holds sway.
The capital of Kosovo, which only declared itself an independent country in 2008 after years of ethnic conflict between Serbs and Albanians, Pristina is not a pleasant place to live. Thousands have been leaving the city to search for a better life in other European countries. Political power in Kosovo is held by forces with ties to the Kosovo Liberation Army, a militia that fought against Serbia and which is notorious for its ties to organized crime, including people smuggling and the illegal organs trade. The dominance of criminal elements has proved disastrous for the population, who lack some of the most basic social necessities of life and face extremely high unemployment rates.
Last September, 43 protesting student teachers disappeared in the city and were never again seen alive. Their bodies were subsequently recovered, showing signs that they had been tortured and executed. This was just the latest example of the firm grip of drug gangs on the city and surrounding area, who act in close collaboration with the local political structure. The most likely explanation for the tragic fate of the students was that they were arrested by the police, who then handed them over to the drug gangs to be disposed of. So far, no-one has been held criminally responsible for the disappearances, in spite of strong protests in the town and across Mexico.
Culiacan is the home city of the Sinaloa drug cartel and organised crime syndicate, one of Mexico’s most violent criminal groups. The US has described the cartel as one of the most powerful drug smuggling organizations in the world, and it has operations in a total of 17 Mexican states. Reports have suggested that their brutal attacks on rival cartels have in some cases been accepted by the Mexican authorities, giving them a free hand to act without any fear of legal consequences. They have connections in a number of large US cities, where Colombian cocaine and heroin from Asia is distributed in large quantities.
7 San Pedro Sula
This Honduran city is another that has been caught up in drug wars and is largely under the control of drug gangs. There are some parts of town where it is impossible for residents to leave to take up jobs in other areas, due to the rules imposed by the gangs. But the strength of the gangs also comes from the fact that there are very few employment opportunities there. Hurricane Mitch caused substantial damage in the late 1990s, and the core economic activities of the area, such as the manufacturing industry, have never recovered since. Add to that the problem of poverty–Honduras is considered one of the poorest countries in the Americas–and you get an idea of the lack of hope for the situation to improve any time soon.
6 Guatemala City
The capital of Guatemala lacks the structures and political controls to impose the rule of law, with the result that well-connected gangs and organized crime groups can run rampant. The key problem in Guatemala is that the country was embroiled in a long-running civil war that only came to an end in 1996. As part of the peace deal, a general amnesty was offered to all crimes committed in the fighting. This enabled former death squads and security agencies to transform themselves into criminal organizations which have considerable authority in Guatemala City. As well as the drugs trade, arms are trafficked through the city, and gangs also are involved in people smuggling.
Historically, Cali was home to one of Colombia’s largest drug trafficking cartels. Today, it is still the scene of violent clashes involving competing criminal organisations for control over the city for their illegal business operations. One of the organisations involved is called the Urabenas. The high level of armed groups in the region is linked to previous paramilitary organisations that fought in the country’s civil war but maintained their weapons after formal demobilization. The continuing power of the criminal gangs was illustrated again last year when seven leading crime figures were assassinated, triggering a spate of brutal murders throughout the city continuing for several days.
4 Casal di Principe
The small Italian town with a population of just over 20,000, may not seem at first glance to be a place where you should be fearful of criminal control. But it happens to be the home town of the most dangerous clan of the Camorra mafia. While the clan’s leader has been jailed, the mafia continues to wield significant influence over economic life in the town. The city council has repeatedly been suspended due to mafia infiltration, and in the past, political scores have been settled with bullets. In the 1990s, Casal di Principe had the highest homicide rate in the whole of Europe. More recently, there have been some signs of improvement with the election of an avowedly anti-mafia mayor for the town.
Sofia is the capital of Bulgaria, one of the most impoverished countries in Europe. An indication of the impunity enjoyed by the local crime scene was provided in 2008, when the US embassy released a list of 140 contract killings that had taken place there since the 1990s. Not a single figure within the organized crime scene had been held accountable for any of these deaths. Then in 2010, a local radio presenter was assassinated in the middle of the day on a city street. In spite of evidence linking a leading gang member with the murder, he was released from detention after nobody dared testify against him for fear of retribution. Showing the growing anger among the population at the criminality and corruption, and the impact this has on social conditions, there were several demonstrations held in the city last year.
Over the course of two wars fought by Russia against Chechen separatists beginning in the 1990s, Grozny was virtually obliterated as a city, with many of its buildings destroyed. Although some efforts have been made to reconstruct parts of the city since the conflict came to an end in the early 2000s, the leadership of this at the local government level has been overseen by elements with close ties to the Chechen mafia, one of the largest organized crime groups in Russia. They have allegedly siphoned off millions in money sent from Moscow and regularly demand bribes for major projects. The Kadarovtsy, so called because of the Chechen leader Ramzan Kadarov, have also been accused of carrying out numerous murders, including to settle political vendettas.
1 Ciudad Juarez
Located on the US-Mexico border, Ciudad Juarez has become a hub for the massive drug smuggling trade that supplies narcotics to one of the world’s biggest markets. The police force in the town laid off over 800 officers in a bid to tackle the pervasive corruption that existed with officers having been paid by the warring drug cartels. Two drug cartels, the Juarez and Sinaloa cartels, fought bitterly for control of the city beginning in 2007. The presence of the military in Juarez has been increased dramatically, and there have also been outbreaks of vigilante justice by groups attempting to tackle the violence which the government has been unable to control. Another troubling feature of the criminal domination of the area has been a large number of attacks on women, with over 300 killings in the past two decades.