Central America: Private sector makes fighting crime its business

December 13, 2012


A policeman watches over pedestrians in Guatemala

Gated communities guarded by gun-wielding sentinels and houses, both big and small, hidden behind barbed wired fences and barred windows seem to be a common sight -and an eyesore- in much of Latin America.

Regardless of their walk of life, Latin Americans want to keep crime out of their homes and lives. Despite the region’s social and economic gains –a growing middle class and a narrowing poverty gap-- citizen security is a top concern. With surveys showing that the number of people citing crime as their top concern has tripled in the past 10 years.

Latin America has become one of the most violent regions in the world. Regional homicide rates top 10 murders per 100,000 people, enough to become an “epidemic” by World Health Organization standards. Particularly worrying is Central America, which clocked up more than 18,000 homicides per year in sharp contrast with European averages such as Spain’s 400 yearly murders.

Crime and violence exact a heavy social and economic toll on countries and communities. Governments, citizens and the private sector pay a huge price for this. Law enforcement, security and health care costs amount to almost 8 percent of Central America’s GDP –or around US$20 billion. And security-related costs for Central America's businesses can add up to 3.7 percent of all firms' sales.

Businesses as a new partner in citizen security

Against this backdrop, businesses across the region are emerging as a new and welcome partner in preventing crime. Call it Corporate Social Responsibility, true altruism or business-savvy, the private sector is making tangible contributions in this area.

“By supporting innovations in the public sector and in civil society, businesses can play a transformational role in promoting evidence-based violence prevention initiatives,”  said World Bank Regional Vice President Hasan Tuluy at a Citizen Security Forum held by the World Bank, the American Society and Council of the Americas.

Government officials across the region echo this sentiment.

“There is a limit to what the State can do by itself when it comes to citizen security. The private sector, especially at a local level, can be an effective partner in improving community safety,” said Douglas Moreno, El Salvador’s Deputy Minister of Justice and Public Security.

" By supporting innovations in the public sector and in civil society, businesses can play a transformational role in promoting evidence-based violence prevention initiatives "

Hasan Tuluy

World Bank Regional Vice President for Latin America and the Caribbean

Gang members doing good

Moreno says that Central America’s business community has shown a tremendous interest in addressing this problem from multiple view-points.

For example, Rio Grande Foods, a food distribution company within El Salvador, works with faith-based institutions, local community groups and the government to reintegrate young people into communities and into the labor force.

Rio Grande’s three-year-old program has resulted in 250 hires, with another 100 currently taking part in rehabilitation workshops.
CEO Josue Alvarado says that most gang members “want out” and a better future for themselves and their children, but need to figure out how to make ends meet.

His company works with Catholic churches in the area as the first point of contact for those interested in receiving help. Rio Grande’s program provides 4-6 months of basic food products for the family, psychological assistance and job referrals. According to Alvarado, at least half of those in the program are now employed and their overall performance is 15 percent higher than that of average employees.

AES Corporation, a global power company, is also making a conscious effort to reach out to the estimated 200 million at-risk youth in the region.

AES invests in community centers in El Salvador, Panama and the Dominican Republic, where young people receive civic education, basic computer skills and technical training in the power sector, the company says. In El Salvador’s crime-ridden Soyapango municipality, about 40 percent of the trainees were offered a job once they completed the program according to AES Stakeholder Relations Manager Adriana Roccaro Giamporcaro.

Prevention guide

To address this concern, the Bank and several regional partners, recently published a practical guide to show how companies can engage in community safety.

Public-Private Partnerships and Community Safety: Guide to Action'' illustrates, with concrete examples and tools, the entry points that businesses all over the world have used to support citizen security. The guide includes several successful examples, such as El Tiempo newspaper and the Bogota Chamber of Commerce, and other partners joining forces to launch the “Bogotá Cómo Vamos” initiative to help citizens monitor local government performance and accountability.

It also mentions an example from Chile’s electricity company using scientific crime prevention techniques in its master plan for upgrading the public lighting network in Santiago de Chile.