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Could US Anti-Violence Models Work in Latin America?

EL SALVADOR / 13 DEC 2021 BY KAI BERNIER-CHEN EN

Efforts to reduce gang violence are often thought of as highly dependent on local conditions, but a recent report looks at how models that proved successful in the United States could be applied in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.

Produced by DC-based think tank the Wilson Center, the report analyzed three specific strategies applied in the US: cognitive behavioral therapy, tracking violence through a health model and group violence intervention.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is viewed as an effective approach to reducing crime and violence through its focus on psychological well-being.

A modified version of this model, ¡Estoy DISPUESTO!, was implemented by Catholic Relief Services (CRS) in El Salvador for two groups: middle school students aged 12 to 15 and adult male inmates 18 years and older.

Based on the Chicago-based Becoming a Man (BAM) program, “¡Estoy DISPUESTO!” centered on improving relationships with a focus on self-control. The 16-week curriculum included weekly awareness lessons and transformation labs. The awareness lessons introduced topics such as anger management, which participants were encouraged to reflect on before applying to group discussion scenarios during transformation labs.

The program was implemented in ten schools in high-risk San Salvador communities alongside CRS’ Mindfulness program, which is designed to reduce stress, aggression, and improve decision making. While data has been limited, school staff did notice a significant change in participants’ behavior and emotional control.

In the second phase, Segundas Oportunidades (Second Chances), adult male inmates took part in the ¡Estoy DISPUESTO! curriculum along with job training and lessons focused on family and peacebuilding. Participants also received access to case management, mentoring, and support networks to assist with their transition from jail.

Overall results were promising and showed the program’s effectiveness – with one source in early 2020 claiming that 90 percent of released participants had not committed another crime to date. In 2019, the Directorate General of Prisons adopted the curriculum as a prison rehab program, and it has since been seeking to expand its use throughout the Salvadoran prison system.

Community Approach: Cure Violence Health Model

A quantitative, community-based approach, the Cure Violence (CV) model is rooted in the idea that violence is a learned illness that imitates the spread of diseases. To address this, CV relies on three main disease control methods: detecting and interrupting violent conflicts; identifying and treating high-risk individuals; and mobilizing communities to change norms.

One of the most violent countries in the world, Honduras hosted one of the first CV programs in Latin America.

Starting in April 2013, the pilot program ran for two years during which on-site interrupters were able to mediate between 14 and 20 conflicts per month in the operational areas. According to data from Cure Violence, the San Pedro Sula sites led to reductions in shootings of 88 and 94 percent in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

Differing from the traditional CV approach, the San Pedro Sula program did not hire former gang members as interrupters due to their inability to voluntarily leave gangs in Honduras. Instead, it used personal mediation tactics. Overall, the success of this model showed the potential for effective implementation in the Northern Triangle.

Integrated Approach: Group Violence Intervention

Group Violence Intervention (GVI) is a focused deterrence strategy that begins by analyzing gun violence data and identifying main criminal groups. Members are then warned of the consequences of continuing to participate in or instigate violence and are introduced to support services, including counseling. A strong relationship between law enforcement and the community is also a key component.

In 2019, Ceasefire Mexico City was implemented in the Plateros area of Mexico City. After an initial analysis of data – which suggested that the majority of homicides in Plateros were not a direct result of large cartel activity but rather the result of local gangs – areas were selected to implement the GVI.

SEE ALSO: Mexico Prisoner Origins Insufficient Basis for Anti-Violence Program Placement

Ceasefire Mexico City relied on the pulling levers strategy, which offers individuals several alternatives to violence before deferring to “levers” such as incarceration. The program also offered call-ins and custom notifications to at-risk individuals and provided participants with specialized social services.

Still, a relatively young program, a comprehensive study of GVI Mexico City’s effectiveness has not yet been conducted.

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