If Latin America hopes to shed its dubious title as the world's most violent region, it will have to lower homicides in the areas where they are most concentrated: the cities. Fortunately, there are success stories from around the region that offer blueprints for reducing urban violence.
It's official. Latin America is the most violent region in the world, and the figures are alarming. Eight out of the ten countries with the highest homicide rates are in Latin America, and the region is home to 47 out of the 50 most violent cities in the world. Since the problem tends to get worse over time, it is not surprising that one out of three adults in Latin America consider crime and violence to be a top priority.
However, not all cities live the same reality. In Central America there are conditions that come close to war zones. The most violent country in the world not at war is El Salvador, with 116 homicides for every 100,000 inhabitants, and in the capital city of San Salvador the rate increases to 188 for every 100,000. (See graph below)
This article first appeared on the Inter-American Development Bank's blog Sin Miedos and has been translated, edited for clarity and reprinted with permission, but does not necessarily reflect the views of InSight Crime. See the original article here.
Chile, however, has a homicide rate of less than 3 per 100,000 inhabitants, while the city of La Serena honors its name by being the safest in all of Latin America.
It has not always been this way. Despite civil wars and dictatorships that marked some of the countries in the region in past decades, the rate of homicides remained close to the world average of 6 or 7 for every 100,000. In more recent times, criminal violence has diminished in other areas of the world, especially in North America and Western Europe. But with a few exceptions, murders, assaults and other crime rates have gotten worse in South America and Central America.
What explains this high level of crime in Latin America?
There are many factors that explain it, but one of the most important is inequality. Latin America is home to 10 of the 15 most unequal countries in the world. There is an important positive correlation between economic and social inequality, and the occurrence of lethal violence. Other factors include high youth unemployment rates, the chronic weakness of security and justice institutions, and unregulated urbanization.
Yet the news is not all bad. There are promising examples of some governments, especially those at the municipal levels, that are striving to turn the situation around. The most innovative public security initiatives are surfacing at the city level. Mayors have the most direct contact with their voters, they have freedom to take preventive action and establish priorities, and face the consequences if their promises are not fulfilled.
A study conducted by the Inter-American Development Bank, the Igarapé Institute and the World Economic Forum highlights some examples of success. Our review of 10 municipalities showed us that their success is not by chance; they are investing in already tested practices.
Some of the most dangerous cities in the world have produced the most impressive results. Take the example of Bogotá. Between 1995 and 2013 the city saw its homicide rate diminish by 70 percent. Medellín had an even more dramatic decrease of more than 85 percent between 2002 and 2014. But the most impressive improvement was in Ciudad Juárez, which saw the homicide rate crumble from 282 per 100,000 in 2010 to 18 per 100,000 in 2015.
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There are some lessons to be drawn from these cities on how to design programs that will help reduce urban crime and violence.
First, public security policies and security programs must be based on facts and data. Incredibly, less than 6 percent of the insecurity and justice measures implemented in Latin America and the Caribbean are based on any concrete evidence of their effectiveness.
Second, police and social services must focus their energy on high-risk people, places and behaviors. In many Latin American cities, a little more than half of the homicides occur on just 2 percent of the streets. A small number of people are responsible for a disproportionate amount of crime and violence. If prevention of urban crime is the goal, then programs that are too broadly focused will not work. Police activity in high high-risk areas coupled with social prevention is proven to be more effective.
Third, local authorities must start exploring ways to regulate drugs. Regulation is not the same as legalization. There are many intermediate options between prohibition and legalization. Mayors across Latin America and the Caribbean are experimenting with the decriminalization of drug use, including strategies focused on harm reduction, regulation for the use of medicinal marijuana, and even the strict control of the markets for recreational marijuana. The goal is to place control of the drug market in the hands of the government and not in the hands of organized crime.
Fourth, it is essential that we advance efforts to create greater social cohesion and improve marginal neighborhoods. This can be done by promoting a shared feeling of responsibility, developing urban renovation projects, increasing links between rich and poor areas of cities, expanding options for public transport and increasing the distribution of social services.
Leadership is at the center of urban rebirth. It is up to mayors, the business community and non-profit organizations to lead the charge in lowering rates of crime and violence. When there are enough resources and a good plan is in place, it's impressive what cities can achieve.
*Robert Muggah is the director of research at the Igarapé Institute and the SecDev Foundation. Ilona Szabo de Carvalho is the executive director of the Igarapé Institute.