Many people today still associate Colombia with drugs, gangs and danger. But things are changing in the Latin American country: in 25 years, the murder rate has plummeted by 82%.
The decline of violence is in part thanks to historical political shifts. The fall of drug kingpins like Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the notorious Cali cartel in 1995 quelled some of the worst gang violence. The demobilisation of armed paramilitary groups from the Left and Right also helped.
But the cartels and insurgencies weren’t the only factors driving the killing: high levels of income inequality, rapid urbanisation, drug and alcohol abuse and gender inequality all contributed.
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Colombia took on these issues by investing in a new approach that treated violence as a public health problem – a disease like any other that needs to be tackled at the root. That meant a focus on prevention using a range of public services, not just repression by law enforcement. City mayors in Cali, Bogotá and Medellín were inspired by data-based, research-driven methods that have long been standard among public health professionals.
So, how did it work, and what can the rest of the world learn from Colombia’s path the peace?
In 2002, the western city of Cali elected Rodrigo Guerrero as mayor. Guerrero, a Harvard-educated surgeon-turned-epidemiologist, understood violence as an epidemic transmitted from person to person. As with any epidemic, he tried to map the outbreak and understand its transmission. Data came first.
By mapping crimes, compiling more reliable homicide numbers and gathering information on precisely how murders were committed, Guerrero found that cartel reprisals and turf wars weren’t the only factors jacking up the murder rate. Location-specific and time-specific datasets showed that homicides spiked at certain times in certain places. Payday weekends were particularly explosive, as were the early hours of Saturday and Sunday mornings around nightclubs. The data suggested that excessive alcohol consumption made violence more likely, while the easy availability of firearms made that violence more deadly.
If states around the world replicated the best violence prevention practices in their region, 1.35 million lives could be saved between now and 2030
In response, the city took two new steps. First, it banned the carrying of firearms on payday weekends and national holidays. Second, it tightened licensing laws. The sale of alcohol was banned after 1am on weekdays, and 2am on Fridays and Saturdays.
The results were remarkable: the homicide rate quickly dropped by 35% in neighbourhoods where the two measures were enforced.
Cali soon developed city-wide strategies, including corruption crackdowns, better education for police officers and stronger collaboration between local politicians and police stations. Soon, Guerrero’s ideas were spreading across the nation, and causing even greater drops in the homicide rate.
Cali’s commitment to data-driven public health approaches waned when Guerrero lost his seat in 2004. But the method spread. Cities, including Bogotá and Medellín, developed the approach, using data to inform prevention policies which slashed the murder rate, while eschewing “iron fist” policing strategies that had became commonplace in much of Latin America.
Medellín, Colombia’s second city, pioneered “urban acupuncture”, a tactic using urban design to solve social problems. In one deprived neighbourhood, the city built a cable car to help residents reach other parts of the city. It helped them to find jobs, and made them feel more included. Elsewhere in the city, money was invested into the provision of basic services – particularly libraries and schools. Better education and improved mobility helped cut the city’s homicide rate from a world-record-breaking 380 per 100,000 to around 20 in 2015.
Bogotá’s homicide rate fell from 80 per 100,000 in 1993 to 16.7 per 100,000 today
Bogotá also put public-health-inspired prevention first. The city invested in repairing or demolishing abandoned properties that became hotspots for criminal activity. It invested in public spaces, particularly in parks, to foster community pride and a sense of inclusion among residents. One of its mayors, Antanas Mockus, also tried to change behavioural norms through arts programming and information campaigns that focused on the importance of mutual respect and the sanctity of life. Its homicide rate fell from 80 per 100,000 in 1993 to 16.7 per 100,000 today.
The successes of Cali, Bogotá and Medellín were in large part due to the vision of their political leaders. A change to the Colombian constitution in 1991 devolved more power to municipal authorities, which laid the groundwork for creative public servants to experiment. By the late 2000s, their leadership was inspiring national policy changes: the data revolution had reached the highest levels of government policy.
One example is a policing project named Plan Cuadrantes. It encourages police forces to use data collection to develop specific strategies for small local areas, known as quadrants. In Latin America, more than 90% of all homicides occur in less than 2% of street addresses. By tailoring policing to the unique spatial make-up of local communities, homicides fell by 22%.
For all its successes, Colombia’s murder rate remains high. Some 22 homicides were recorded per 100,000 people last year, around four times higher than the global average. But four central lessons can be learned.
First is the potential of public health approaches to violent crime. Cali, Bogotá and Medellín’s best policies were founded on the epidemiological analysis that public health thinking provides. Engaging researchers, health professionals and social workers — not just police officers — pioneered new approaches to an old problem.
Second is the importance of police reform. Cracking down on corruption and police brutality, training officers in data-driven enforcement, focusing on local crime dynamics and strengthening community collaboration were key to Colombia’s crime drop.
In Latin America, more than 90% of all homicides occur in less than 2% of street addresses.
Thirdly, urban space influences crime patterns, and better design can encourage better behaviour. Medellin’s success story isn’t entirely replicable — in Rio, for example, cable cars made violence worse, not better — but the principle of investing in infrastructure can transform social problems.
And finally, crises need not always force government onto the back foot. Urgency can breed creativity, and harsh times don’t necessarily require harsh measures.
Colombia’s lessons are yet to be learned by many of its Latin American peers. Military crackdowns in Venezuela and El Salvador have contributed significantly to the continent’s body count: 43 of the world’s 50 most homicide-ridden cities are located in Latin America.
But if policymakers learn from their mistakes, and adapt what works, the results could transform the region. According to a recent report by the Small Arms Survey, if states around the world replicated the best violence prevention practices in their region, 1.35 million lives could be saved between now and 2030. Learning lessons from Colombia could be the difference between life and death for thousands of Latin American citizens.
(Picture credit: Flickr/Pedro Szekely)