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AQ Feature

Curbing Homicides: What Works/What Doesn't

Which policies have been effective in reducing homicides? A study guide for Latin America's newly elected leaders.
what works
Cris Faga/Nurphoto via Getty Images

This article is adapted from AQ's latest issue on reducing homicide in Latin America. 

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As new presidents take charge throughout Latin America in 2018, they will be looking for effective policies to reduce homicide. Here is a list of options, compiled by AQ in consultation with security experts around the region. Many clearly do work. Others may have positive effects on society, but their impact on the murder rate is still unclear. One has obviously failed. Overall, it's clear that years of experimentation and research have provided a clear picture of what governments should – and should not – do. 

Gun Control | Police Reform | Military Deployment Gender-Specific Campaigns

Community Policing | Drug Liberalization | Conflict Mediation | Smart Policing

Gun Control 


Correction appended below.

What it Looks Like

Raising the legal age to buy a firearm, restricting how and where civilians can carry their guns, and implementation of programs that encourage the voluntary surrender of guns, among other tactics.  

Who Tried It

Brazil: Congress passed a restrictive disarmament law in 2013 that made it harder to buy firearms and largely prohibited civilians from carrying guns in public. Gun sales declined 90 percent from 2000 to 2008.

El Salvador: In 2005, a pilot program in two municipalities set gun ownership restrictions and invited gun owners to surrender their weapons. 

Colombia: The city of Medellín implemented Plan Desarme in 2004, which combined an arms turn-in program with cultural campaigns against gun ownership.

Results

The results were mixed in the two Salvadoran municipalities, where homicides decreased by 49 and 47 percent in the first five months, but later started creeping back up. Medellín, meanwhile, cut its homicide rate almost in half in 2004, the year it implemented Plan Desarme. Gun homicides decreased by 11 percent in Brazil in the year after the so-called disarmament statute was implemented, according to some estimates, but have remained alarmingly high. 

Does It Work? 

Back to top

Internal Police Reform 


What it Looks Like

Focusing on reducing corruption by setting higher standards for officers and removing corrupt ones from their posts. It may also include changes to officers’ wages, benefits or training.

Who Tried It

Honduras: In his first term, President Juan Orlando Hernández expanded a police reform initiative that began in 2012, establishing a special commission to “purge and transform” the force from the top down in 2016. Further efforts to modernize the national police included the 2016 inauguration of a new campus to train police officers. That year, the budget for police salaries and retirement increased — by 52 percent — as did the requirements for becoming an officer. Candidates now need a high school diploma to enter the police force.

U.S.: After ranking fifth among U.S. cities with the highest murder rates in 2012, Camden, New Jersey’s police department rebranded itself, trimmed its staff and their salaries, and embraced a turn to community policing, with an emphasis on transparency and trust-building between citizens and officers. 

Argentina: In 1998, the Buenos Aires province police decentralized, demilitarized and overhauled its training and recruitment of officers. 

Brazil: In 1995, the Rio de Janeiro state governor showed how not to overhaul police pay. When he offered bonuses to officers who showed “bravery,” police killings of civilians skyrocketed.

Results

The right kind of reform can yield positive results. After Honduras embarked on reform, its homicide rate fell by 50 percent in less than five years. And in its first year, Hernández’s “purge” commission dismissed over 4,400 officers from the national police, and homicides fell 26 percent. In Buenos Aires province, meanwhile, a new governor in 1999 largely reversed the police’s commitment to the changes — proving that police reform isn’t immune to politics.

Does It Work? 

Back to top

Military Deployment 


What it Looks Like

Deploying armed soldiers to tackle crime when police forces fall short. While such a strategy is often meant to be temporary, military presence may continue if police forces lack personnel or resources to effectively fight crime.  

Who Tried It

Mexico: In 2006, then-President Felipe Calderón deployed federal armed forces to fight organized crime in a sharp escalation of the drug war. His successor followed suit. President Enrique Peña Nieto signed a controversial law in December 2017 that empowered the military to fight domestic crime.   

Brazil: In February, President Michel Temer, facing low approval ratings, ordered the military to take over security operations for Rio de Janeiro state, where violence had surged in 2017. It was the most sweeping military deployment since a dictatorship ended in 1985.

El Salvador, Honduras, Colombia and others have also deployed military police.

Results

Even though surveys register high levels of confidence in the region in the military, evidence links their involvement in policing to human rights violations more than to a drop in homicides. From 2006 to 2010, complaints against Mexico’s defense ministry to the national human rights commission rose 677 percent. Meanwhile, Temer’s use of the military has failed to reduce crime. In its first four months, shootings and police-involved killings rose 36 and 34 percent, respectively, by one group’s measurement. 

Does It Work? 

Back to top

Gender-Specific Campaigns 


What it Looks Like

Focusing on the specific threats women face based on their gender. The region leads the world in femicides, or gender-based murders. In response, campaigns targeting gender-based violence — often on the transnational level — have proliferated in recent years.   

Who Tried It

Regionwide: The #NiUnaMenos campaign aims to raise awareness and drive policies to protect women. Started in Argentina in 2015, the movement has spread across the region. 

Costa Rica passed Latin America’s first law specifically against femicide in 2007. Since then, most of the region’s governments have passed similar legislation.

Bolivia: In 2011, the NGO Fundación Construir partnered with four rural communities to raise awareness on gender violence, strengthen services for women, and empower women to defend their rights.

Mexico: Gender alerts are an emergency measure that Mexico’s interior ministry has implemented since 2015 in municipalities facing high levels of femicides. The alerts provide local governments with federal resources to research and tackle the causes of gender-based violence.

Results

Popular movements like #NiUnaMenos have pressured policymakers to pass or reinforce gender-specific policies, but their impact is difficult to measure. The number of registered femicides in Argentina hit a record high in 2013, a year after a femicide law was passed. In Mexico, experts have called for a reassessment of the gender alerts, since data shows femicides have increased both nationally and in states with municipalities in the program. In Bolivia, meanwhile, the Construir program trained over 11,000 people about violence against women, but data is unable to show its direct impact on female homicides, which fell the year after the project but spiked thereafter.

Does It Work? 

Back to top

Community Policing


What it Looks Like

Prioritizing relationships between police officers and the communities they serve, who are given some say in the policing process. Implementing programs to build strong ties between police forces and the general population to prevent crime.

 

Who Tried It

Nicaragua: Some view Nicaragua’s commitment to innovative community policing, which incorporates youth rehabilitation programs and women’s empowerment, as a legacy of the country’s 1979 revolution.

Ecuador: In 2011, Ecuador began expanding its community police force, sending more officers into communities on foot and bicycle, and retraining officers. The country more than doubled its spending on security, investing $83 million in 10 new community police units (UPC). In 2012, police launched a new program, allowing mobile phone users to connect with local UPC units at the touch of a key. 

Brazil: The Fica Vivo program, started in 2002 in Belo Horizonte, showed that nongovernmental organizations can help ease tensions between young people and the police. The program offers hundreds of workshops for people aged 12 to 24 and now operates throughout Minas Gerais state. 

Dominican Republic: The Barrio Seguro program focused particularly on building trust between the police and communities in Santo Domingo’s most violent areas.

Results

Despite having Central America’s lowest GDP per capita, Nicaragua boasted the region’s lowest homicide rate in 2017. The same year, Nicaraguans’ trust in the police was slightly higher than the regional average, although this may decrease after police cracked down on anti-government protesters this year. Ecuador’s homicide rate fell from 15.4 per 100,000 in 2011 to 5.7 per 100,000 in 2016 — the second-lowest in Latin America. The main challenge with community policing is securing buy-in from police, who often see their authority as being challenged.

 

Does It Work? 

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Drug Liberalization


What it Looks Like

Ending prosecution of users of certain drugs, such as marijuana. Resources once used for prosecution are thought to be better spent targeting homicides and treating addicts. Another strategy, outright legalization, can deprive cartels of funding. 

Who Tried It

Portugal decriminalized the use of all drugs in 2001. 

Uruguay legalized the production, distribution and consumption of marijuana in 2013. 

Mexico decriminalized possession of small amounts of certain drugs, including marijuana and cocaine, in 2009. 

Brazil: Legislative changes in 2002 and 2006 led to the partial decriminalization of drugs for personal use, replacing prison sentences with mandatory treatment and community service. 

U.S.: Ten states and Washington, D.C., allow recreational marijuana, while another 20 states allow it for medical purposes. California, the country’s largest economy, allows recreational marijuana.

Results

Drug liberalization can have positive effects, but the jury is still out on its impact on homicides. Decriminalization, for example, helped Portugal dramatically cut overdose deaths and HIV and hepatitis infections — but not homicides. One study found murders actually increased 40 percent from 2001 to 2006. Homicides in Uruguay have increased since 2011 and the first quarter of 2018 saw a record high. A former president said legalization of marijuana “trivialized” drug usage in general. Meanwhile in the U.S., one study found drug-related murders were down 41 percent in the states with legal marijuana laws that border Mexico.

Does It Work? 

Back to top

Conflict Mediation


What it Looks Like

Intervening with individuals, between gangs or between criminal organizations and the government. In the last two cases, such mediation can require concessions, which are often unpopular.  

Who Tried It

El Salvador witnessed a rare truce in 2012 between its largest gang, Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) and its rival, Barrio 18. The government played a behind-the-scenes role in the negotiations among the gangs’ leaders.

Colombia: The government’s controversial peace deal with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, which Congress enacted after voters rejected it, showed how politically difficult negotiating with a much-hated criminal group can be.  

U.S.: Project Ceasefire in Chicago, which identified and counseled individuals at high risk of being involved in violence, inspired Cure Violence, an NGO with the stated mission to treat violence like an epidemic. Cure Violence has grown into a global movement. 

Jamaica: Launched with funding from the national government in 2002, the Peace Management Initiative (PMI) works to interrupt cycles of revenge between members of rival gangs. Some say the program marked the first time the government called on civil society to help stem violence, acknowledging the failure of police repression. 

Venezuela: Many programs try to prevent violence by providing alternatives, like employment, for men at risk. Proyecto Alcatraz takes volunteers, often from rival gangs, through a two-year program that uses physical labor and rugby to isolate them from negative influences. 

Results

El Salvador’s murder rate halved after the truce, which ultimately unraveled after the Supreme Court removed the defense minister who helped broker it. After Congress passed the peace deal in 2016, Colombia’s homicide rate continued to fall, and hit its lowest point in over four decades. One study examined seven of Project Ceasefire’s targeted areas and found that shootings were down in six of them. In Jamaica, PMI involvement in communities correlated with drops in homicides, but experts are cautious to give the project full credit. Proyecto Alcatraz says its work helped bring its municipality’s homicide rate down 79 percent in its first 10 years.

Does It Work? 

Back to top

Smart Policing


What it Looks Like

Using data to better inform anti-crime policies. For example, a recent study of five Latin American countries by the Inter-American Development Bank found that half of all crimes occur on just 3 to 8 percent of city blocks. By allocating resources based on the geographic patterns of homicides, police may be more likely to prevent them.

Who Tried It

Colombia: Plan Cuadrantes is a community policing initiative launched in eight cities in 2010 that draws on the national police’s extensive system of georeferenced crime data. 

Guatemala: In 2016, the interior ministry identified the country’s most violent municipalities in a strategy aimed at deploying law enforcement resources where they were needed most.

U.S.: The CompStat system revolutionized policing in New York City by tracking major and minor crimes and holding police accountable in accordance with those numbers.

Brazil: In 1999, São Paulo’s public security ministry introduced Infocrim, a database that maps crimes in real time.

Mexico: In 2008, Mexico City started using a digitized system to track and evaluate thousands of police officers.

Results

A study in Colombia found that when patrol units were armed with information on when and where past crimes occurred, homicides fell 22 percent. Homicides in Guatemala fell 4 percent from 2016 to 2017, and nearly 16 percent in the first four months of 2018. Crime has fallen 75 percent since CompStat started, and inspired projects like Infocrim in Brazil and Mexico City’s police performance system.

Does It Work? 

Back to top

Due to a technical error, a previous version stated that gun homicides fell 100 percent in the year after Brazil's disarmament statue. The decline was 11 percent. 

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O'Boyle is a senior editor for AQ

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Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.


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