In the early 1990s, fear of crime and violence was a defining feature of life in Medellin, Colombia’s second-largest city. In 1991, the homicide rate peaked at a staggering 381 per 100,000 inhabitants, making Medellin the most violent place on earth.
Fast-forward 25 years: homicides have plummeted to about 20 per 100,000 inhabitants, and Medellin now ranks as one of the most livable and innovative cities in Latin America. Several other cities in the region have achieved similar progress, such as Cali in Colombia, or Diadema in the Brazilian state of Sao Paulo.
This was no coincidence. Each of these three cities managed to reduce crime and violence significantly by implementing programs that were tailored to their specific situation and sought to eradicate the root causes of violence.
In Medellin, improvements in the security situation resulted both from the dismantling of violent drug cartels and a series of innovative urban and social development projects that helped integrate impoverished hillside neighborhoods with the rest of the city. In Diadema, studies revealed that a large proportion of crimes occurred at night, in specific streets, and were directly related to alcohol consumption.
Based on these findings, the city targeted its interventions on hot spots, prohibited the sale of alcohol in bars after 11 p.m., and combined social interventions to strengthen social and human capital. Three years later, assaults against women were down 56%, while the homicide rate fell by 45%—saving more than 100 lives a year.
Unfortunately, these promising results are in stark contrast with the experience of many other cities. Despite impressive GDP growth and a sharp decline in extreme poverty, Latin America and the Caribbean still sees an annual average of 24 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants.
The World Health Organization (WHO) considers a rate of 10 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants or higher to be characteristic of endemic violence. This means that,