As cities in Latin America continue to expand, urban violence has become a principal indicator of a nation’s overall level of security. InSight Crime looks at how Colombia has become a regional success story in violence reduction by driving down homicides in its major cities.
At a TED Talk (see video below) in January 2015, Research Director of the Igarape Institute in Brazil Robert Muggah said it is the world’s fragile cities, not nation-states, that “will define the future of order and disorder.” Muggah noted a key driver of violence is not necessarily the size or density of cities, but rather the speed at which they expand, which he terms “turbo-urbanization.”
This is perhaps nowhere more true than in Latin America, which has the highest concentration of urban dwellers in the world, according to a 2012 UN-Habitat report. In an e-mail correspondence, Muggah told InSight Crime that Latin American cities “expanded many times more rapidly than its northern counterparts,” and that at least 75 percent of inhabitants of most countries in the region now live in urban settings. During his TED talk, Muggah added New York needed 150 years to reach 8 million people, but it took São Paulo and Mexico City just 15 years to hit that same mark. UN-Habitat estimated that by 2050, 87 percent of all Latin Americans will be living in cities.
But it is unclear whether Latin American governments are taking notice — and whether they have the ability to halt urban violence. Roughly 86 percent of the world’s most violent cities in 2014 were in Latin America, according to Mexican non-governmental organization (NGO) Citizens’ Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice (CCSP-JP). This high percentage is consistent with previous years’ rankings.
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Recent security trends in Honduras highlight the impact just a few cities can have on national violence levels. Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula are Honduras’ largest cities, and are both wracked with violence. According to the CCSP-JP, San Pedro Sula is the city with the world’s highest homicide rate for the past four years, and Tegucigalpa has never ranked lower than sixth. Because the survey only counts cities with more than 300,000 inhabitants, the urban-based nature of the problem is obscured. By one local estimate, Honduras’ third-largest city, La Ceiba, has a reported homicide rate of 140 per 100,000 — higher than 49 of the cities on the list — but with a population below 200,000, it does not get ranked by the CCSP-JP. Regardless, Honduras is consistently ranked as the most or among the most violent countries in the world.
On the other end of the spectrum, examining violence patterns in Colombia’s largest cities offers insight into how the country reduced its homicide rate to just one-third of what it was 25 years ago.
In 1991, Medellin was the murder capital of the world, with an astounding reported homicide rate of 381 per 100,000. That year murders reached an all-time high in Colombia, at a homicide rate of 78 per 100,000. Homicide rates in Cali also regularly topped 100 per 100,000 in the early 1990s.
Colombia has since dropped its murder rate to roughly 26 per 100,000 in 2014, the lowest it has been in three decades. This reduction was paralleled by an even steeper decline in Medellin, which reportedly recorded a lower homicide rate than the national average last year. Meanwhile, murders in Cali dropped to a twenty-year low. Capital city Bogota has also seen significant reductions in homicides.
(Statistics in the graph below may vary from homicide rates referenced above due to differences among agencies in tallying murder statistics. The graph uses police data sourced by the think tank Finiterank and by the author for year 2014.)
How did Colombia achieve this dramatic reduction in urban violence? Muggah told InSight Crime new approaches to combating violence by enterprising mayors in Colombia’s three biggest cities, known as the “Golden Triangle,” were a key factor.
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“Mayors like Enrique Peñalosa of Bogota (1998-2001), Rodrigo Guerrero of Cali (1992-1994, 2012-2015), and Sergio Fajardo of Medellin (2003-2007) offer examples of how a radical change of approach is possible,” Muggah wrote in an e-mail to InSight Crime. “They purposefully borrowed scientific ideas and practices from around the world and deftly worked with different layers of government to design multi-sector violence prevention strategies.”
Mayor Guerrero of Cali in particular has been a pioneer in devising an epidemiological approach to understanding and reducing violence. Muggah also told InSight Crime how criminologists and economists in Bogota found that close to 100 percent of all violent deaths occurred in just 1 percent of the city’s streets. This has facilitated Bogota’s conversion from a city once considered to be among the most dangerous in the world, to one with a homicide rate almost 10 points lower than Colombia’s national average in 2014.
It is also worth considering there were other factors that likely played a significant role in Colombia’s drop in urban violence, asides from innovative securiy strategies pushed by the Colombian government — such as the 2013 truce between rival criminal groups the Urabeños and the Oficina de Envigado in Medellin. Nevertheless, other countries in Latin America would be wise to closely study how Colombia reduced homicides in what were once some of the most violent cities in the world. As urban areas comprise an ever-larger portion of the region’s population, the future of citizen security in Latin America may well be determined by what happens in its cities.