From the formation of self-defense committees in Michoacán, Mexico and to the murder of a former Miss Venezuela, to gangs in Central America and the murder of police officers in Argentina at the hands of criminals, the lack of citizen security continues to be a leading concern of Latin Americans. The United Nations has qualified crime and violence as an “epidemic” and considers the region to be the most insecure in the world. In 2012, one in three inhabitants in the region was a victim of a crime, mainly theft.
Violence has a variety of causes, most of which are known. Solutions, however, are lacking. The World Bank Citizen Security Coordinator for Latin America and the Caribbean, Rodrigo Serrano-Berthet, gives us an overview of the situation of crime and violence in the region and proposes solutions to stem this scourge.
Question: In recent years, citizen insecurity has been a major concern for Latin Americans. Why is that?
Response: Because they have not managed to reduce the high rates of crime and violence which affect the region. Other areas of concern to Latin Americans, such as inflation, poverty and unemployment, have improved. By contrast, the incidence of crime and violence has not changed in recent decades, and remains at very high levels, much higher than in other regions. The Latin American and Caribbean region is home to nearly 9% of the global population but accounts for over 30% of the world’s homicides. Seven of the 10 countries with the world’s highest homicide rates are in the region, and of the 50 cities with the highest rates in the world, 42 are in Latin America, including the top 16. Even in countries with low homicide rates, such as Argentina or Uruguay, the feeling of insecurity is extremely high, in part due to the high levels of victimization, mainly robbery and theft, and to the level of violence associated with these crimes.
Q: Can you give us a picture of the most dangerous areas in the region?
R: The map varies considerably by type of crime. A map of homicides is very different from that of victimization, for example. On the homicide map, the countries with the highest rates by sub-region are Mexico; Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala in Central America; Venezuela, Colombia and Brazil in South America; and Belize and Jamaica in the Caribbean. But if we look at total victimization rates (for any type of violent crime), we get a different picture, where countries such as Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Uruguay and Argentina lead the ranking. In other words, crime and violence affect every single country in the region, in one way or another. That is why this problem is Latin Americans’ prime concern.
And this is at a national level; in reality, crime is disproportionately concentrated in certain cities, neighborhoods and city blocks. In Honduras, for example, 65% of homicides happen in just 5% of cities. Within cities, crime is heavily concentrated in certain neighborhoods or hot zones and even within specific blocks. U.S. studies have demonstrated that up to half of all crimes can be focused within 1% of city blocks and 70% of all crimes within 5%. The same trend is seen in Latin America. But what is even more troubling is that the main victims of homicide are young, low-income men who live in marginalized communities. With over 50,000 homicides annually, Brazil, for example, accounts for more than 30% of all homicides in the region. Of these, more than half are young people, and nearly 80% are Afro-Brazilian. A similar situation occurs in other countries in the region.
Q: Are there success stories in the fight against crime and violence?
R: There are many countries and cities that have managed to dramatically reduce the incidence of violence. In Latin America, the most notable examples include Bogota, Medellin, San Pablo and Recife. These success stories appear to apply a similar set of policies. For example, a police force who is more results-oriented and who intensively uses information to guide prevention and control activities; regulations for control of weapons and the sale of alcohol; programs which provide opportunities to at-risk youth or revitalize hot zones through comprehensive strategies which actively involve the community in the response.
At a program level, interventions at an early age help families to guarantee that their young children grow up in socially protective environments, where pro-social behavior and community integration are promoted and where domestic violence is unacceptable. These have proven very effective in the long term, both in countries outside the region as well those in Latin America and the Caribbean (for example, Jamaica and Colombia). In addition to these primary prevention strategies, activities have been implemented that have effectively diminished violence in schools and have a positive impact on communities.
Q: What measures from other regions could be applied in Latin America to reduce crime and violence?
R: The United States has more than 30 years of experience with a wide range of violence prevention strategies. There is solid evidence that many of these work. However, one of the challenges is to determine which strategies are appropriate for the region’s problems, and to adapt them to very different institutional contexts. The program for home visits to mothers at risk is an initiative that has led to an 82% decline in arrests of low-income mothers and a 72% decrease in 13-16 year olds. Other programs are designed to improve social-cognitive skills of youth at risk and to help them to control their impulsiveness, which is behind much of youth violence. In Chicago, the Becoming a Man Program, which offers sports activities, managed to reduce the rate of violent crime among these youths by 40% in just one year, as well as improving their school performance. Strengthening partnerships, community coalitions and their activities have helped decrease young people’s initiation into violent activities by 31%, besides having a positive impact on other risky behavior.
Q: What are your recommendations for governments and civil society for a less violent, more tolerant future?
R: Three recommendations. Firstly, recognize that there is no magic wand to resolve the problem. To address the problem it is necessary to invest in a portfolio of comprehensive interventions with a proven impact on risk factors for violence. Secondly, focus on the geographical areas and population groups at greatest risk, particularly young people. Thirdly, strengthen the capabilities of municipal governments which are most affected by violence to generate local partnerships to enable implementation of the first two recommendations. These priorities are guiding World Bank actions with respect to citizen security in the region.