WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
6 Jun 2011 | News

Tackling Urban Violence in Latin America

San Salvador—Today, as the Organization of American States (OAS) 41st General Assembly focuses on “Citizen Security in the Americas,” WOLA released a new report on innovative approaches to reduce urban violence.

WOLA’s report, Tackling Urban Violence in Latin America: Reversing Exclusion through Smart Policing and Social Investment discusses the relative effectiveness of strategies in four different Latin American cities. As the report shows, Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Medellín in Colombia, Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, and Santa Tecla in El Salvador are all attempting to improve citizen security by combining smart policing strategies and social investment in marginalized communities most affected by crime.

Tomorrow—Tuesday, June 7th—the OAS General Assembly is expected to approve a “Declaration of San Salvador on Citizen Security in the Americas.” In the past, many Latin American governments have emphasized hard-line anti-crime strategies, tough policing and sentencing, and using the military to control crime. This Declaration affirms a different approach: states have a duty to provide security to their citizens while respecting human rights and due process.

“A lot of the talk at the OAS meeting has been about organized crime and drug trafficking. The declaration, to its credit, sees organized crime as only one part of the crime and violence that Latin Americans have to live with every day. The declaration recognizes that youth violence, gender violence, and other forms of insecurity have to be addressed in a comprehensive manner,” said Adriana Beltrán, WOLA Senior Associate for Citizen Security, who is attending the OAS General Assembly. “The declaration rejects the ‘iron fist’ policies that have exacerbated the violence and recognizes that programs must address social causes. This is an important shift in thinking.”

“Now,” said Beltrán, “the challenge is to move beyond declarations toward developing and implementing new approaches.”

The newly released WOLA study addresses the challenge of turning rhetoric into realistic policy as it looks at four specific cases, including one in Colombia, to examine some of the most cutting edge recent attempts to tackle violence in the region.

Inevitably, some observers will turn to Colombia as a model. But “success” in Colombia has been very mixedmajor cities have seen modest but troubling violent crime increases since 2008and there isn’t a single “Colombia model.”

The WOLA report compares four cities, scattered across the continent, where it is recognized that mano dura or zero tolerance anti-crime approaches don’t work. Governments in all four cities are attempting to combine more targeted policing with social investment in communities that have known very little government presence before. They bring in the police and extend city services with community councils, construction projects, and other services. They seek to reverse the exclusion that these communities have suffered, which has contributed to criminality.
Each case study is different. In Rio de Janeiro, the government sent a new community police force into favelas long dominated by criminal gangs, and then began to bring in city services. These are new efforts, in a few targeted areas. While there are some complaints about police behavior, many residents report a sense of hope about the future. Time will tell whether government investment will be sustained enough to reduce crime in the long term.

In Medellín, an ambitious effort by municipal authorities to increase policing and invest in marginalized hillside communities took place during a lull in the violent competition between criminal gangs. Dramatic reductions in crime were seen for several years. Competition between drug-trafficking groups then reignited, and violence levels have crept back up, but city efforts appear to have kept the violence from returning to earlier levels

In Ciudad Juárez, the government turned to social investment programs when police and military intervention failed to reduce alarming levels of violence. Social investment programs are just beginning, and implementation has been troubled and lacks cohesion. But local authorities and community groups agree that this is the direction to pursue, only with more resources and leadership.
In Santa Tecla, a multi-year effort led by the city’s mayor has developed community councils and local violence prevention programs. Homicide levels, while still high, have dropped below those of neighboring communities.

“These cases show that new and promising approaches are being explored in Latin America. The OAS, as it develops a Plan of Action to implement its declaration, should seriously consider these local efforts to fight crime by reversing exclusion of the hardest hit communities,” said Beltrán.


Adriana Beltrán
Senior Associate for Citizen Security

Kristel Mucino
Communications Coordinator