Ecuador’s murder rate dropped for the third consecutive year in 2012, according to national police statistics. A police report released by the country’s Ministry of the Interior last week, shows the homicide rate to be lower than those in Central American and surrounding Andean countries, and one of the lowest in Latin America.

The 2012 murder rate of 12.7 cases per 100,000 population constrasts with rates of 21.7 in Mexico, 81.9 in Honduras, 65 in El Salvador, 55.2 in Venezuela, 30.3 in Colombia and 19.4 in Peru, according to the Ecuador report and Interpol.

In Ecuador, Cuenca and Loja recorded the lowest rates for cities with populations ofover 100,000, at 7.2 and 6.4 percent respectively.

Besides the drop in the murder rate, other categories of violent crime also showed drops.

“Ecuador is headed in right direction, especially in the area of violent crime,” said Paul Lara, spokesman at the interior ministry. “The government has increased spending on law enforcement by more than 60% in the past three years, putting more police on the streets and adding more law enforcement services, and we are seeing the benefits.”

Lara said the government plans to commit more resources in 2013 to areas with the highest murder and violent crime rates, particularly the coast. Statistics show that Manta, Esmeraldas and Guayaquil continue to have the highest murder rates in the country, all with rates of more than 20 murders per 100,000. “This is where there is the most pressure from drug transport organizations moving goods between Peru and Bolivia and Colombia. Our main objective is to keep international drug gangs out of Ecuador.”

According to the ministry, police check points have shut down most all drug shipments in the Andean region along the Pan American highway. “Drug organizations are now focusing on overseas routes with stop-offs along the coast.”

The police crime report shows that Ecuador’s the murder rate has dropped 27% since 2008. The ministry says that the nationwide Ecuador 911 program, which has installed security cameras, added new neighborhood police station and funded other law enforcement programs, is the major factor in crime reduction.

Retired criminology professor and part-time Cuenca resident Martin Simmons says that few crimes against expats and foreigners involve violence, but says it is up to individuals to keep themselves safe. “It has been years since an expat has been murdered here as far as I know but we have plenty of petty crime."

The biggest problem for foreigners, Simmons says, are crimes of opportunity. "Most expats and visitors tend to spend a lot of time on the streets in the downtown area, and most of them are on foot. It’s not surprising that they become victims of pick-pockets and bag snatchers.” He added: "Before we came here, most of us lived surburban, automobile-centered lives and didn't spend much time walking around in central cities."

Latin America nations with with lower murder rates than Ecuador are Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia.

Photo caption: New tourist police are sworn in in Cuenca in November.