On February 27, 2010, an earthquake of magnitude 8.8 struck just off the shore of Chile in the vicinity of the southern city of Concepción. This was a massive event, killing 521 people and injuring a further 12,000 (US Geological Survey 2011a). Unfortunately, this was not the first major earthquake to strike southern Chile; they are endemic to the region. Indeed, a previous earthquake of magnitude 9.6 struck in roughly the same region on May 22, 1960, killing 1,655 people and injuring a further 3,000. The latter was, in fact, the most powerful earthquake ever recorded anywhere in the world, and its energy release was “about two orders of magnitude larger than the mean annual seismic energy release in the world” (Lomnitz 2004, 374–75). Slightly more than a month before the 2010 earthquake in Chile, a much smaller magnitude 7.0 temblor struck Haiti. This vastly smaller seismic event resulted in the deaths of 316,000 people and the injury of a further 300,000 (US Geological Survey 2011b). Shockingly, the 2010 Chilean earthquake was approximately 500 times the strength of the Haitian temblor, even as its human and infrastructural toll was only about 0.17 percent as great (Kurczy et al. 2010). And the enormous 1960 earthquake was more powerful still: it released almost 8,000 times as much energy as the one that devastated Haiti but caused a small fraction of the latter's human and infrastructural toll. Why was the least powerful of these seismic events by far the most lethal? The reason for this difference is quite clear: at least since the 1920s, the Chilean government had instituted and implemented building codes designed to guard against earthquake damage, notably through enforcing the use of shear walls (Lomnitz 2004, 368). No similar codes had been legislated in Haiti, nor could they in all likelihood have been effectively enforced.
This is not the only instance in which state capacity has been critical in matters of life and death. In 1991 and 1992, a cholera epidemic struck much of Latin America, but extensive infection was ultimately centered in Peru. By the time the bulk of the epidemic had run its course in that country, there were more than 301,000 reported cases, 114,000 hospitalizations, and 2,840 deaths. Peru's Andean neighbor Chile, by contrast, suffered a total of 41 cases and 2 deaths (Suárez and Bradford 1993, 4).