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Breaking Down the Silos between Latin America’s Homicide Reduction Programs

A woman hugging two young girls
Family members watch the coffin of a mother of four children being carried through a cemetery after she was shot dead in a slum of Guatemala City. © Veronique de Viguerie/Getty

Latin America has the highest homicide rates in the world. Approximately one out of every three people intentionally killed is killed in Latin America, even though only eight percent of the world’s population lives there. Around 25 percent of all homicides take place in just four countries in the region: Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela.

My organization, the Laboratório de Análise da Violência, affiliated with the State University of Rio de Janeiro, set out to map homicide reduction programs in the region so as to offer a critical account of the options available to public officials and civil society.

The research started with an internet search based on a list of keywords, followed by contacts with relevant actors and institutions in the region in order to identify relevant programs. Those that were located—93 in total—were coded with respect to their main characteristics. After a thorough analysis, a typology of the nature of the interventions was created.

Our report [PDF in Spanish], which launched today at the Brazilian Forum on Public Safety in Brasília, is the first extensive analysis of its kind and includes programs initiated or active between 1990 and 2015. It identifies six categories of homicide reduction strategies:

  • controlling risk factors related to homicide
  • encouraging changes in culture
  • protecting at-risk groups
  • improving the criminal justice system
  • re-integrating offenders or mediating between armed groups and/or between offenders and victims
  • integrating various combined strategies in order to reduce homicides

The report also includes 10 case studies that take a more in-depth look at specific programs, which represent most of the above-mentioned types. In order to carry out these case studies, field visits were conducted in Brazil, Venezuela, Honduras, Jamaica, El Salvador, Mexico, and Colombia. In each project, program administrators, beneficiaries of the program, and other relevant stakeholders were interviewed.

So what did we learn? Most violence prevention programs in the region tend to be general and lack a specific focus on homicide prevention—homicide is treated basically as an extreme consequence of general violence. Although homicide rates are used as a way to measure violence and as a criterion to choose locations in which to intervene, there is seldom an explicit rationale as to how an initiative will diminish homicides.

Most programs are targeted at people who have already been identified either as victims or as perpetrators, in order to reduce rates of reoffending and revictimization. There is clearly a need for a more specific focus in public policies.

Unfortunately, only one-fifth of the programs we studied have ever been evaluated for impact, so the report does not make recommendations as to which strategies are best. Instead, it is designed to help government officials make informed decisions as they consider adopting existing policies.

Our report is part of a much broader effort in the region to increase attention towards homicides and the ways to prevent them. Last year, in Bogotá, Colombia, we cohosted the first Regional Conference on Homicide Data Quality in Latin America and the Caribbean. We are also engaged in a campaign to encourage law enforcement officials and civil society—including youth groups, business leaders, and members of faith-based and community organizations—to become part of the solution.

Much more will need to be done, but we hope the region is beginning to understand the size of the problem it faces.

Laboratório de Análise da Violência is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

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