A new report by a leading Colombian think tank maps the concentration of homicides in the country’s largest cities, highlighting the importance of urban areas in violence reduction strategies, both in Colombia and across Latin America. 

The report by the Ideas for Peace Foundation (Fundación Ideas para la Paz – FIP), published in El Espectador, found that the 27 most populated cities in Colombia accounted for 48 percent of the country’s total homicides in 2016. Thirty percent of all homicides occurred the country’s four largest cities: Bogotá, Medellín, Cali, and Barranquilla. 

The impact these four cities have on the national homicide rate can be seen in the graphic below. For each decrease in the average homicide rate of the four cities in each of the last five years, there has been a corresponding decline in the national homicide rate. 


“If the country wants to continue reducing the homicide rate, it will have to have a concrete response to urban violence,” the authors write.

FIP identified Medellín as one of the cities most responsible for driving down the country’s murder tallies. The homicide rate in Colombia’s second-biggest city went from double the national average to more than 6 points below it in the span of just four years, a stunning turnaround for a city that was once the murder capital of the world.

SEE ALSO: Indepth Coverage of Homicides

FIP also mapped where murders are concentrated in each of the four principal cities. It found that homicides in Cali are generally highest in areas where illicit markets exist and criminal organizations are fighting for control of territory. Similarly, high levels of violence in the national capital Bogotá have a strong correlation with drug sales.

To visualize the concentration of homicides in certain areas, FIP compared a map of Cali in which last year’s homicides were distributed at random with another map of where they actually occurred. On the actual map, homicides are clustered in the eastern half of Cali and a few pockets along the city’s western limits. These areas are also where the state is weakest, the poverty rate is highest and the greatest number of people live, according to FIP. 


Based on this data, FIP argues that the authorities should focus their efforts and resources on reducing violence in these micro-areas where homicides are most concentrated. 

“In order to stop the current violence it is necessary to move from a general point of view at the national level to implementing specific measures at the local level,” the authors conclude. 

InSight Crime Analysis

The FIP’s findings are largely a microcosm of the security dynamics in the rest of Latin America. Robert Muggah, research director at the Brazil-based Igarapé Institute, has said the region’s “turbo-urbanization” has put cities on the frontlines in the unceasing battle to reduce violence. And as citizens continue to move from rural to urban settings, the importance of cities to countries’ overall security will only increase. It is estimated that 87 percent of all residents in Latin America will be living in cities by 2050. 

As in Colombia, urban violence across the region is geographically concentrated. According to Igarapé, approximately 80 percent of all homicides in Latin America’s large and medium-sized cities occur on just 2 percent of city streets. So in order for Latin America to shed its dubious distinction as the world’s most violent region, it will have to prioritize not just cities but the small, hyper-violent pockets where the vast majority of homicides take place. 

The good news is that some cities are already taking innovative steps to improving security. A former mayor of Cali used an epidemiological approach to curb violence in the 1990s. In Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, authorities established a range of social programs, including working groups known as “security roundtables” (mesas de seguridad) that involved community leaders in the decision-making process. Considered to be the world’s murder capital just five years ago, Juárez’s homicide rate has since dropped precipitously.

Of course, criminal actors also play a major role in determining homicide rates. Medellín’s murder rate fell when a “pax mafioso” was agreed upon by the city’s two major crime groups. And Juárez’s security improvements coincided with the end of a bloody cartel war. In El Salvador, the national homicide rate was cut by half in the months after the MS13 and Barrio 18 gangs agreed to a government-facilitated truce in 2012. 

SEE ALSO:  Juárez After the War

As InSight Crime has previously noted, the presence of organized crime may be the single biggest obstacle to implementing security strategies that prioritize populations and places that are prone to high levels of violence. These types of interventions have been found to be effective in the United States, but it’s not yet clear how they well they could be adapted to the Latin American context.

What is clear is that countries in Latin America must place a greater emphasis on collecting homicide data. Few security interventions are evaluated in a scientifically rigorous manner.  Even worse, a recent InSight Crime investigation found that law enforcement officers in Guatemala are often forced to rely on a sixth-sense known as “olfato” to determine who is behind a murder. Without accurate and robust data, authorities have little recourse for diagnosing the problem and applying appropriate measures to reduce violence.