8 Countries Where Rampant Inequality Has Led to Violence

Dear rich people: drastic inequality is bad for everyone, even you.

Asher Edelman, the former Wall Street tycoon who was the model for Gordon “Greed Is Good” Gekko in the 1987 film Wall Street, shocked the financial world earlier this year when he endorsed Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders. The multi-millionaire explained that when “the average American has not had an increase in pay in over 15 years,” it is terrible for the U.S. economy because businesses need more than the top 1% to keep them afloat—they need a strong, robust middle class.

Edelman’s assertion was not groundbreaking: President Franklin D. Roosevelt made the same argument 80 years ago during the Great Depression. FDR realized that maintaining a strong middle class and reducing poverty were beneficial for the rich, even if they had to pay higher taxes, because glaring inequality is often synonymous with unrest, violence, instability and upheaval. History bears that out, from the French Revolution to WWII. 

Too many Americans—and too many Republican politicians—have not learned the painful lessons of history and cling to the failed ideas of Reaganomics, neoliberalism and trickle-down economics. If they took an honest look around the world, they would realize it’s much safer to be rich in social democracies like Switzerland, Germany, the Netherlands and Sweden than in Honduras and other countries where they are surrounded by widespread desperation. 

The U.S. is at an economic crossroads: does it move more in the direction of social democracy or continue to decimate its middle class and suffer all of the problems that go with severe inequality?

Below are eight countries where inequality is having violent, painful results.

1. Brazil

Brazil, in some respects, is an economic success story, or was: the Portuguese-speaking country is the largest economy in Latin America and the sixth largest economy in the world, and it won the right to host the Summer Olympics. But that has turned out to be a looming disaster, with the country's police telling tourists they can't protect them.

The growing incomes at the top just never trickled down in Brazil, where the richest 10% control about 44.5% of the country’s overall income (according to the Institute of Geography and Statistics), the minimum wage for full-time workers amounts to about $287 a month in U.S. dollars, an illiteracy rate of 9% remains (according to the CIA World Factbook), and favelas (shantytown slums) are plentiful in Rio de Janeiro and other major cities. While life is hard and terrible for the poor, the rich are also affected by the country’s extreme inequality; kidnapping is common and millionaires and billionaires typically hire armed bodyguards and ride in bullet-proof vehicles in order to avoid being abducted. In fact, some plastic surgeons in Rio de Janeiro and São Paolo earn a very good living restoring the appearances of rich Brazilians who have been mutilated by kidnappers.

The Mexico City-based Center for Public Security and Criminal Justice reported that in 2015, the murder rates in Brazilian cities included around 60 per 100,000 residents in Fortaleza, Natal and Salvador. According to the U.N., Brazil had an overall homicide rate of 25.2 per 100,000 residents in 2012.

2. The Philippines

Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ new right-wing president, campaigned on a get-tough-on-crime platform and has vowed to restore the death penalty. Supporters of outsourcing like to pretend that corporations are being benevolent when they open call centers in the Philippines and other developing countries, but there is nothing benevolent about paying the type of slave wages they couldn’t get away with in Germany, Switzerland or Denmark. Taking advantage of cheap labor will not encourage true economic development in the Philippines, which, like many developing countries, has an ultra-wealthy 1%, a weak middle class, widespread poverty, and an abundance of violent crime (including kidnappings and carjackings).

The harsh disparity between the haves and have-nots has also led to extremist insurgent movements, ranging from the New People’s Army (a Maoist guerrilla organization that has been active since 1969) to Abu Sayyaf (a jihadist/radical Islamist group with ties to Al-Qaeda). The Philippines does not need more low-paying dead-end jobs, sweatshops or a strongman president, it needs real economic development, which it won't get from the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

3. Mexico

Mexico is one of the largest economies in Latin America and the 14th largest economy in the world. Neoliberalism, however, has not served Mexico well, and so-called free trade agreements like the North American Free Trade Agreement have encouraged Mexico to be treated as a source of cheap labor rather than encouraging the growth of the country’s middle class. NAFTA was not only bad for the U.S., it was also bad for Mexico, as thousands of small farmers unable to compete with giant agribusiness lost their livelihoods. With so many campesinos unable to stay afloat financially, poverty became more widespread in rural Mexico, and drug cartels took full advantage of the desperation by offering illegal work to the poor.

Drug trafficking is nothing new in Mexico, and it has more causes than just inequality, including our own failed drug war. But violence skyrocketed when rival cartels in post-NAFTA Mexico stepped up their battle for turf: Human Rights Watch estimates that over 60,000 people were killed in cartel-related violence in Mexico between 2006 and 2012. Mexico’s affluent class lives really well; upscale areas of Mexico City resemble Manhattan’s Upper East Side. But way too many of Mexico’s poor have little or no hope for a decent life.

4. Guatemala

Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica, all known for having a vibrant middle class, are three of Latin America’s economic success stories. The vast majority of Uruguayans are neither ultra-rich nor ultra-poor, they’re middle class. That is quite a contrast to Guatemala, which has a long history of extreme inequality as well as some of Latin America’s worst crime rates.

When Guatemala is described as the poorest country in Central America, that doesn’t mean it is devoid of millionaires or billionaires. Guatemala has an ultra-rich minority that lives very well. What Guatemala lacks is a strong middle class; about 54% of Guatemalans lived in poverty in 2011 (according to the CIA World Factbook), and in 2011, economist Branko Milanovic described Guatemala as the second most unequal country in the world. In 2012, Guatemala had a homicide rate of 39.9 per 100,000 people compared to only 3.1 per 100,000 that year in Chile. In 2013, Mexico’s Citizen Council for Public Safety and Criminal Justice analyzed crime rates and compiled a list of the most dangerous cities in the world: Guatemala City came in at #12.

5. South Africa

Economically, life remains difficult for most people in South Africa, where the homicide rate was 32 per 100,000 people in 2013, according to U.N. data. The apartheid system was an economic cancer in South Africa, and the country is still suffering from apartheid’s lingering effects. South Africa’s black middle class grew by 78% between 1991 and 1996, yet the country continues to be plagued by brutal income inequality; in 2011, 61% of economic consumption in South Africa came from the top 20% of wage earners. And about 48% of South Africa’s population, according to Statistics South Africa, has an income equivalent to about $58 per month.

6. Honduras

Honduras has a reputation as a “business-friendly” country where it is easy to open a call center or a sweatshop. But any corporatist who believes neoliberalism is serving Honduras well should take a close look at the country’s crime rates.

In November 2013, a study Jake Johnston and Stephan Lefebvre conducted for the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that income inequality and unemployment in Honduras had increased considerably since a coup in 2009, and it is no coincidence that violent crime has also been soaring in the Central American country. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, Honduras had a murder rate of 84 per 100,000 in 2013 compared to less than 0.9 per 100,000 that same year in Italy. In Pedro San Sula, Honduras’ second largest city, the homicide rate was 169 per 100,000 in 2012. Gang violence is pandemic in Honduras, which is a textbook example of how badly neoliberal economics can fail in Latin America.

7. Jamaica

In 2015, Charlotta Mellander, a professor of economics at the University of Jönköping International Business School in Sweden, took a look at the relationship between inequality and violence. Mellander, who analyzed U.N. data and 178 different countries, found that the world’s most unequal countries, from Mexico to South Africa, also tended to be the most violent.

Jamaica is a country where one finds a strong contrast between the haves and have-nots. According to, Jamaica’s poverty rate decreased by almost 20% in recent decades only to increase by 8% during the Great Recession. The Statistical Institute of Jamaica, in October 2015, reported an overall unemployment rate of 13.5% and a youth unemployment rate of 30.3%, while the CIA World Factbook has reported that 19% of Jamaica’s population now lives below the poverty line. According to the U.N., Jamaica’s homicide rate reached 45 per 100,000 people in 2015.

8. Papua New Guinea

Papua New Guinea is one of the most unequal countries in the Asia/Pacific Region; while the rich minority prospers, 37% of its population lives on the equivalent of less than $1.25 a day and 60.3% of its population lacks access to safe drinking water. Violent crime is prevalent, and the homicide rates include 66 per 100,000 residents in Lae and 33 per 100,000 residents in the National Capital District.

In recent months, student protests calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Peter O’Toole over corruption allegations have been turning violent, and in June, a Papua New Guinea court issued an injunction barring those protests from college campuses. But in a country where illiteracy is around 37% and about half of the population of the largest city, Port Moresby, live in shantytown slums, violent crime and unrest come as no surprise.

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

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