By Juan Corredor-Garcia, PhD student in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York

While Latin America represents only 9% of the global population, it is home of more than 30% of the homicides around the world. What explains these high levels of violence? Laura Blume, Assistant Professor at the University of Nevada, Reno, is currently carrying out a project that seeks to understand the trends behind this violence within the region. She and her research assistants presented the Violence Against Public Figures (VAPF) Project at #MPSA2023, the first comprehensive cross-national, panel dataset of incidents of lethal violence against a range of public figures (politicians, security officials, activists, indigenous or community leaders, judges, lawyers, journalists) in Central America from 2008 – 2022.

This interview discusses the several challenges she has faced while gathering this data as well as the importance to get more granular data regarding these killings.

Juan Corredor-Garcia (JCG): Hi Laura, thanks for sharing your work at the MSPSA blog. Can you tell us how did the VAPF project start?
Laura Blume (LB): Hi Juan, thanks for inviting me.

The project started as part of my dissertation wanting some more nuanced data on violence that was not just homicide rates. I began correlating data on a wide range of public figures that had been killed originally just in the three countries where I did my dissertation fieldwork:  Honduras, Nicaragua and Costa Rica. For Costa Rica, it was pretty quick and easy because there have not been many killings. However, in Honduras and Nicaragua the project quickly became far larger in scope than I had envisioned.

While I was in grad school, I conducted a much smaller dataset of murdered politicians in Mexico from 2005 to 2015. I have to acknowledge that my data was prior 2018 and subsequent electoral cycles in Mexico where the number of assassinations has really skyrocketed and gone off the charts. I think part of my naive idea was that since I had a dataset from Mexico where I found like 160 cases, I thought, well, Mexico is a much bigger country than the Central American nations and therefore I was not going to find as many cases. What I found instead was quickly over 700 cases in Honduras and over 100 in Nicaragua. Admittedly part of that is because I was looking over a longer time period and at more categories of public figures, but the numbers were still shocking.

So, when I started as Assistant Professor at University of Nevada, Reno, I hired research assistants who are also with me here at MPSA presenting on the project. We started just cross checking and trying to complete data for those three countries originally. And then I got a Guggenheim grant to expand the dataset through Central America.

JCG: How do you define public figures?
LB: That has definitely been a struggle. Actually, we have had some changes since we conceived the project. For security officials we have gathered data on over 900 individuals. However, I realized that we had missing data on security officials killed in Honduras and El Salvador because there have been some years in both of those countries where the level of violence has just reached such proportions that there are not necessarily news articles on every public security official who gets killed. As a result, I had to put security officials on hold and pulled out those names into a separate data set.

But getting back to the main question in terms of deciding who really counts as a community leader activist can be really challenging particularly on some cases where there is not that much information available. For instance, we have struggled with the cases of young activists. We have had cases like that of a 13-years old boy who was killed in Honduras and who was listed as being a land defender. We don’t know what kind of figure he was or if he belonged to a cooperative organization that is engaged in fighting for land rights. Thus, we have struggled with how old should be someone to be considered as an activist.

JCG: I can imagine that these categories might be different in theory and practice. How do you deal with that?
LB: The first step is collecting names before we search for details on these cases. A lot of the names come from Global Witness’ list of land defenders who are killed annually. This list gets compiled as a starting point. We find then news articles that have listed them as a community leader or activist. We count that and include them.

But this counting can get confusing. For example, in 2018 in Nicaragua there were these massive protests that triggered widespread government repression and also led to the end of any press freedom at the same time. So, then we started having instances where Amnesty International or other NGOs reports would list people killed at the protests. But were they first-time protesters? Were they engaged in ongoing land struggle movements (such as that 13-year-old Honduran boy)? Where they described anywhere as being activists or community leaders of any kind? So, we needed to create a separate category of protesters.

JCG: What challenges have you have encountered through these years collecting this data? How difficult has been to get quantitative data on lethal criminal violence?
LB: This is a good question. We are working to get not only quantitative data (e.g., the total numbers of killings) but other relevant information. However, and as I mentioned before, it has been very difficult to find publicly available sources because in some cases no one is writing about it. Therefore, we are gathering data on any relevant jobs these people had. A lot of people are more than one of the kinds of public figures we’re interested in. We have a lot of individuals like mayoral candidates who were also lawyers.

Furthermore, people with former employments, say judges, who then were involved in activism or politics.

Another factor we are tracking is the place where they were killed as well as where they are from. We are trying to get some quantitative measures of where these attacks are happening. In some countries, you see more violence happening in capital cities. For example, in the Honduran context, we see when politicians from rural areas travel to the capital where things can be outsourced to the Maras or to gang members these murders have chalked up to these larger state narratives of “criminal violence” even if it’s politically motivated.

Moreover, we are looking closely around election seasons and what political parties these people were affiliated with. We also pay attention to the geography of these attacks as well as the circumstances of these public figures’ deaths. I have found that in Honduras and some other places like Nicaragua, the false state narratives of state absence are part of a larger narrative to designate certain places occupied by “narcos” as outside the reach of the state (which in reality is not true because the state is overly present in a militaristic sense). Quite the contrary, we have found that many of these killings were by private security guards of a mining corporation or otherwise linked to extractive industries.

JCG: I have seen a similar narrative in other places in South America, particularly in Colombia. Can you elaborate more about these false state narratives?
LB: Yes. These narratives claim that people were killed because they were found in the wrong place at the wrong time. But we are trying to show that this is not the case for pretty much everyone in this dataset. We are trying to chart how they were killed, if there’s any reports on actors responsible, if there was anyone arrested, if there was an investigation done.

For example, there was a Honduran prosecutor who was driving home when she was shot at 52 times in the chest. It is clear that woman was not in the wrong place at the wrong time. We also see people often killed entering their homes or in their own homes. So again, not wrong place, wrong time. As I said, for each name we find, we are trying to get details on the circumstances of their death, if they were killed on public and/or if the assailants wanted to send a message – by looking at the visibility of these attacks we are building on a lot of the work of Angelica Durán-Martínez.

JCG: I am curious to know how do you trace the criminal vs political motivations behind these killings.
LB: People tend to talk about criminal and political violence as if they were separate things but on the ground the reality is different and often really blurred. There is a case I always think about that shows the interconnections between these categories: Carolina Echeverría, the first ever indigenous Miskitu Congresswoman who had served in Honduran Congress. She was the leading candidate for the Liberal Party and was running to be Congresswoman again in 2021. She was also a criminal defense lawyer, she and her husband both worked on high level cases related to drug trafficking and corruption.

She was brutally assassinated and 2021. A team of five people dressed up as a COVID response team showed up to her house during the pandemic, so of course, she opens the door. They shot her 14 times, and shot her husband in the leg as he ran out to try to stop this. Three members of the Maras have been arrested, supposedly because they showed up dressed as the COVID response team. The other members of the team were not even caught, but there is no reason to believe the Maras wanted to kill her. Her relatives report she was offered 400,000 US dollars to abandon her campaign. Moreover, supposedly someone paid over a million to actually kill her. Maras are not paying that much money for an assassination, much less to kill an indigenous congressional candidate from a department they don’t operate in.

There are a lot of theories as to whether it was a rival political interest that wanted her removed, and certainly some suggestive evidence that could be the case. Other theories point to motivations related to her work as a layer that could have gotten her killed. But we argue that this is why the range of public figures needs to be looked at. Was she killed because of her job as a Congresswoman, criminal layer, or anything else? There is often no accountability even for these well-known cases. The real person behind the murder is not who’s getting caught.


Laura Blume is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Nevada, Reno. Her work focuses on issues of human security, with a regional focus in Latin America. Her teaching and research interests include the war on drugs, violence, illicit economies, immigration and democratization throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. She is currently working on a book project that uses comparative ethnography to examine the ways in which political context impacts drug-trafficking violence in Central America. Her work has been published in Comparative Political Studies, Journal of Politics in Latin America, NACLA Report on the Americas, and World Development. She won a 2022 Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation Distinguished Scholar Award for her project, “Cataloguing Murder: Tracking Violence Against Public Figures in Central America.”

About the Author

Juan Corredor-Garcia is a PhD student in political science at the Graduate Center, City University of New York. He is currently a Fulbright/Minciencias scholar. He studies the intersection between rebel and criminal governance in Latin America from a civilian resistance perspective, as well as the politics of green militarization in South America.

Find him on twitter at @thuandavid10