El Salvador is the murder capital of the world

A new USAID report examines what works in reducing community violence in the United States, and how these lessons could be applied to Central America's turbulent Northern Triangle region. But can US programs really work in the most violent region in the world?

The report (pdf) by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) analyzes the effectiveness of violence reduction programs, most of which were based in the United States, and was presented recently at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. (See full video of the event below)

The report specifically focuses on efforts to contain “community” violence, which the researchers define as violence between individuals or small groups that primarily stems from personal disputes or common crime.

A central conclusion of the report is that violence and crime is generally contained to a small number of people and places during “high-risk times.” Interventions should therefore be focused, the report advises, on targeting those select individuals, places, and behaviors that are responsible for a large share of the violence.

“Identifying and addressing those concentrations is what works best in violence reduction, according to the evidence we reviewed,” Thomas Abt, a Senior Research Fellow at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and principal author of the report, told InSight Crime. “Overgeneralized approaches to enforcement and prevention are often ineffective, wasteful, and in the case of indiscriminately aggressive law enforcement, unjust.”

Specifically, the report identified two strategies that stood out above the rest for having a significant impact on violence and crime: focused deterrence and cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT).

Focused deterrence involves identifying the individuals most prone to use violence and engaging them in repeated communication with law enforcement officers, social services, and community leaders. In nine interventions out of ten, this strategy was found to reduce homicides from anywhere between 34 percent and 63 percent, according to the report.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of What Works

Cognitive behavioral therapy, meanwhile, employs clinical psychological techniques in order to change the harmful thinking and behavior of criminals. The report found the most effective CBT interventions resulted in a 52 percent reduction in recidivism of juvenile and adults offenders.

Researchers augmented their review of US violence intervention programs with field studies in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala. They met with representatives from law enforcement, local government, non-governmental organizations, and faith groups to gauge how well the US interventions could be applied in the Central American context.

The researchers called the dedication and commitment shown by individuals working to prevent violence in the Northern Triangle “nothing short of heroic.”

However, the report highlighted several weaknesses commonly shared among the Central American interventions. They did not make a concerted effort to focus on the populations most affected by violence on a consistent basis, according to the report. These programs also “lacked the clinical and analytical rigor” shown by their counterparts in the United States. The report cited a recent investigation which found that out of 1,350 Latin American citizen security interventions, more than 50 percent had “no evaluative component whatsoever.”


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This report touches on a perennial question: can what works in one place work somewhere else, even under vastly different political, security, geographical, and economic conditions?

Perhaps the most prominent example of this debate in the Latin American security field is Plan Colombia, the massive US aid package that has provided $10 billion over the last 15 years to assist the Andean nation combat drug trafficking and a guerrilla insurgency.

Numerous analysts have pointed to the perceived success of Plan Colombia as evidence that a similar aid package could work in the Northern Triangle or even places farther afield like Afghanistan. Others, however, have suggested this rinse-and-repeat strategy vastly oversimplifies the differences between Colombia during the early 2000s and the Northern Triangle or Afghanistan now.

As for applying US violence reduction strategies to the Northern Triangle, the challenges are daunting. The Northern Triangle is one of the most homicidal regions on the planet, and following a murder spike last year, El Salvador now has a homicide rate 20 times that of the United States. What's more, as the report points out, the Northern Triangle's law enforcement agencies are considerably weaker, criminal groups -- a principal driver of violence in the region -- are much stronger, and impunity is widespread. These dynamics suggest the violence reduction strategies that worked in Chicago may not necessarily work in San Pedro Sula or San Salvador. 

Nonetheless, there are cases of US programs that have been successfully adapted to the Central American context. Enrique Roig, Director of Citizen Security for Creative Associates International, told InSight Crime that a partnership between USAID and the city of Los Angeles’ Gang Reduction and Youth Development office led to first of its kind secondary prevention pilot programs in Mexico, Honduras, and El Salvador.

In Honduras, “The initial secondary prevention pilot did show pretty significant reductions in risk factors of the youths who went through the program,” Roig said. “That program is now being expanded into a much larger initiative as part of the US government and government of Honduras place-based strategy.”

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

Ultimately, however, Roig notes that success will depend on how well individual programs are incorporated into a nation's broader citizen security strategy. Violence prevention and reduction interventions will have to start working in concert, and not at cross-purposes, with other components of the security apparatus, like law enforcement.

“An overall coherent strategy is what is needed in Central America,” one that focuses on places, people and behavior, with a common focus on homicide reduction, Roig said.

None of this will be easy. Adapting successful US-based violence reduction programs and strategies to the Northern Triangle while simultaneously integrating them into a nation's citizen security approach is a complex task that carries no guarantee of instant success. Both Roig and Abt noted the difficulties that would come with implementing a focused deterrence intervention in particular, given the weakness of law enforcement agencies in the Northern Triangle and their penchant for heavy-handed policing tactics.

But these challenges should not act as a deterrent to experimentation and innovation; in a region as blood-soaked as the Northern Triangle, inaction is not an option.

“Both [focused deterrence and CBT] could work, but the only way to know for sure is by adapting them to local conditions and then trying them out,” Abt said.  

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