In 2011, Ecuador was one of the most violent countries in Latin America; the homicide rate had risen to over 22 per 100,000. That year, the government set a goal to reduce Ecuador’s homicide rate drastically, to just 5 per 100,000 in 2017.
Putting that target number into context, it is slightly higher than the murder rate of the United States, and only Uruguay and Chile have lower levels of violence in Latin America.
At the halfway mark to 2017, Ecuador is already fast approaching its goal. The country’s homicide rate in 2014 was 8.3 per 100,000, just one quarter of the average murder rate in Latin America and the Caribbean.
How did Ecuador do it?
Ecuador’s Interior Minister, Jose Serrano, recently spoke at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, DC on how the country has improved its security situation. Serrano credited the advancements to an integrated citizen security strategy and, above all, a new philosophy on improving police-citizen relations.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Ecuador
“The police had to go back to the neighborhoods,” Serrano said. “They had to go from being a military police to a civilian and community police force.”
Increasing state resources in security was a key component of the new strategy.
Ecuador more than doubled spending on security from 1 percent of the fiscal budget, to 2.3 percent. It invested $83 million in ten new Community Police Units (UPC), with each one comprising between 16 and 22 police officers. Ecuador installed more than one million emergency buttons in public spaces and businesses, which are connected to the closest UPC station. Authorities also reclaimed 600 public spaces and worked with 130,000 community leaders to improve citizen security.
Before the increased spending, half of all police vehicles were broken down. Now, many are equipped with GPS and video cameras, as well as modern communication systems.
A second key element of the new security strategy was a massive reform of the country’s police forces. In two years, the government spent $94 million on police training programs. It sent more police to patrol the streets on foot or on bicycle. The government also made the police work in and with the communities they were protecting.
Additionally, the government raised the salary of police officers. Currently, an Ecuadorean officer makes close to $1,000 per month, one of the highest police salaries in all of Latin America. This has attracted more candidates to apply for jobs with the police. In 2013, 7,000 candidates applied to become a police officer; the following year, there were more than 25,000 applicants for only 2,000 positions.
The increase in salary was accompanied by a demand for a more professional police force. Nearly 400 officers resigned from the force in 2014 due to the stiffer standards of police professionalism.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform
The security gains in reducing non-violent crime such as robbery have been more modest. Theft of vehicle parts, for example, went down just 3 percent during the first 10 months of 2014, compared to the same period in 2013. Robberies at shops and commercial stores dropped 12 percent in 2014 from the previous year.
It is difficult to know which components of the new security strategy contributed to reducing which types of crime. Some countries in the region, however, are making an honest effort to answer that question. In the last few years, several countries in Latin America and the Caribbean have performed rigorous scientific evaluations of similar programs — such as the evaluation of “Plan Cuadrante” in Colombia — to determine how police activity affects crime rates.
A scientific analysis of Ecuador’s security reform package would undoubtedly reveal which aspects have increased police effectiveness in combating crime, and which aspects would need to be improved.