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

Tackling Urban Violence in Latin America: Reversing Exclusion through Smart Policing and Social Investment

The report discusses the relative effectiveness of strategies to reduce violence in four different Latin American cities: Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Medellín in Colombia, Ciudad Juárez in Mexico, and Santa Tecla in El Salvador. The four cities are attempting to improve citizen security by combining smart policing strategies and social investment in marginalized communities most affected by crime.

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 when police and military intervention failed to reduce alarming levels of violence. Social programs are just beginning, and implementation has been troubled and lacks cohesion. But authorities and community groups agree that this is the direction to pursue, only with more resources and better 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.

Among its findings, the report highlights:

  • The mano dura (iron fist) anti-crime approaches that have been employed by many governments in the region don’t work. Sending police or security forces into communities that have little or no state presence and have long been plagued by violence can often make the situation worse.  This is particularly true when officers act with impunity.
  • Policymakers must take into account that social, political and economic exclusion are the context in which crime and violence take root.  Therefore, comprehensive approaches that give attention to “reversing exclusion” by bringing in social services as well as law enforcement are in order.
  • Citizens whose daily lives are most affected by violence must be involved in designing and implementing solutions for their communities.  This means that coordination between government agencies, community groups, service providers and residents is key to developing long-term plans that will achieve a lasting reduction in violence and improvement in residents’ livelihoods.

To download the publication, please click here.

To download the publication in Portuguese, click here.