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Latin American Mayors Test “Vaccines” to Cure Violence

February 16, 2015


Children at a youth center in Cali, Colombia

Isabelle Schaefer / World Bank

Some Latin American cities with high homicide rates are successfully applying formulas that avoid “heavy-handed” measures.

It is an ongoing discussion in the media and political campaigns in countries most affected by delinquency: is there a need to apply “heavy-handed” measures, to be harder on crime or even to consider the death penalty for the most serious offenses?

Some local governments in Latin America are demonstrating that employing violence to reduce violence is not always the best alternative, however. These governments have found simple, practical and low-cost ways to reduce violence.

During a visit to World Bank headquarters in Washington D.C., three mayors of cities considered among the most violent in the region shared their innovative strategies for addressing a problem which, in many countries, affects mainly young people and is the leading cause for concern among citizens.

The World Bank has long considered citizen insecurity a key development challenge. To address this problem, it is working with federal, state and municipal governments in the region to support different approaches and practical, innovative solutions to address violence.

Epidemiology of Violence

One such effort involves Rodrigo Guerrero, mayor of Cali, Colombia, who during his two terms in office (1992-1994 and 2012-2015) has applied his training as an epidemiologist to treating the high homicide rates in his city just as he would a disease of unknown origin.

 “It is a method I call ‘epidemiology of violence,’ and that is applied in several cities in Colombia and elsewhere.’”

This scientific analysis of the situation of violence enabled local officials to implement diverse measures in different zones. In some locations, they improved public lighting while in others, they prohibited the sale of alcohol after a certain time and in others, they increased the police presence.

When he first applied this method over20 years ago, Guerrero had to prove that it was possible to eradicate violence by treating it as an epidemic.

 “Cali had a homicide rate of 126 per 100,000 inhabitants when I first joined the government in 1983; currently, the rate is 62. We still consider this unacceptable, but we will continue to reduce it because we now know how to best face the problem,” said Guerrero.

Guerrero reports that his greatest success is not in Cali but in Bogota since the mayors who succeeded him in Cali did not use his methods, but three government administrations in the Colombian capital did follow his recommendations. The result: the homicide rate in Bogota fell from 80 to 18 per 100,000 inhabitants.

Prevention and Employment

Alexander López, Mayor of El Progreso, in northern Honduras, near the Guatemalan border, faced a similar challenge. That area is along the cocaine route to the United States.

It is an area dominated by drug trafficking, in one of the most violent countries in the world. Many considered it a bold move for the city to implement what is known as the “80-20 Plan,” which consists of 20% coercive measures (use of police force, punishments, etc.) and 80% preventive.

 “We have recovered 350 public spaces and worked to improve public lighting. We have also created 5,000 micro businesses and have reduced the night-time hours of locales such as discotheques,” said López, citing some examples of the plan’s preventive measures.

 “Simply reducing opening hours to 2am has helped us curb the incidence of violence,” he explained.

His colleague, “Tito” Asfura, Mayor of Tegucigalpa, stressed that insecurity is the end result of a variety of problems such as access to water and sanitation, childcare and healthcare, among others. “These are areas where we can eventually rehabilitate people. It is the sum of many things,” he said.

“Above all, the problem of insecurity has to do with the lack of employment,” said Asfura. In the past year alone, his government has invested US$ 24 million to train more than 1,500 micro-entrepreneurs and to implement other pro-employment measures.

This relationship between job creation and violence reduction also became clear in El Salvador during the implementation of a youth employment program in 2008.  “Even though violence mitigation was not the goal of the program, we observed a decline in violence in the areas where it was implemented,” said Humberto López, the World Bank Director for Central America.

For López, fighting crime and violence requires more effort where variables and data related to employment, social needs and crime statistics are crossed. This will enable officials “to monitor the number of homicides, where they occur and to compare that information with other variables to better understand the causes of violence.”

With that idea in mind, the World Bank is supporting Honduras in the creation of the Violence Observatory, in collaboration with universities and the government of that country.