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Q&A: How One Colombian City Is Tackling Violent Crime

Children painting on a wall
Children paint a mural on the wall of a park with PAZOS in Palmira, Colombia, on June 19, 2021. Courtesy of the Palmira mayor's office

Palmira, a city in Colombia with a population of roughly 359,000 people, ranked for a decade among the 50 most violent cities in the world. But an innovative program prioritizing resources for youth susceptible to gang violence has helped change that—contributing to a 29 percent drop in the city’s homicide rate over the past year, experts say. In recognition of Palmira’s progress, the city in October received a peace prize from the United Cities and Local Governments and the Association of Netherlands Municipalities for the program, called PAZOS, which stands for “peace and opportunities.” Open Society-Latin America and the Caribbean, which helped support the program’s monitoring and evaluation phase, spoke with Palmira Mayor Óscar Escobar.

How did Palmira come up with the idea of the PAZOS program?

Palmira is one of Colombia’s 20 largest cities in terms of its geographic size and its population. In 2011, a spike in violence put the number of homicides at 98.1 per 100,000 residents. When confronted with this problem, our office found we had to recognize and overcome three challenges. First, past public investments in public safety lacked a strategy for engaging the communities they were supposed to impact. Second, traditional, punitive approaches to violence reduction were largely ineffective. Third, Palmira’s youth had few if any options for social and economic mobility, making them major participants of Colombia’s 2021 national strike.

A decade later, Palmira still makes the list of the world’s 50 most violent cities. However, that rate has dropped to 42.9 homicides per 100,000 residents. That’s still higher than the national rate of 26.8 per 100,000 inhabitants, but it’s a significant improvement, and it shows how the city’s commitment to social innovation has been more effective than traditional security measures. 

Could you describe the population served under the PAZOS Program?

PAZOS focuses on young Palmira residents aged 15 to 29, who account for 22.5 percent of the city’s total population. Of those, 54 percent are men and 46 percent are women. The program focuses on that demographic because they are both the primary perpetrators of violence (accounting for 60 percent of all arrests) and the primary victims (54 percent of homicide victims are under the age of 25). We aim to reach both those who promote and are victims of violence due to a variety of barriers to employment, education, and full development. We want to see them reach their full potential and we have reason to believe they can. For example, we know our educational system is good because the city has among the state’s highest standardized high school test scores since 2016.

PAZOS is also territorially focused, meaning that we target our work to areas where urban violence is prevalent. We began by identifying the 15 Palmira neighborhoods with the highest incidence of homicidal violence in 2018 and 2019. Then, because we know the immediate victim and the perpetrator aren’t the only ones affected by this violence, we looked at community-based solutions.

What are the most important pillars of the PAZOS initiative?

PAZOS seeks to reduce youth homicide rates through the following:

  • Channeling resources to already existing youth violence prevention programs, which helps the city improve administrative efficacy and efficiency, and aids public, private, and community actors in offering a more coordinated intervention.
  • Incorporating best practices and lessons learned in interrupting, treating, and preventing violence in other contexts to enhance social and emotional development in this one.
  • Enhancing the youth sector’s socioeconomic outlook by providing young people with work-oriented training, employment, and entrepreneurship opportunities.

What have been the major results?

There are many, but the biggest has been achieving the lowest homicide rate in 17 years. Thanks to Open Society Foundations’ funding for monitoring and evaluation of our main “Forging Opportunities” intervention strategy, we know participants of the program are responding positively. For example, thanks to the program, 86 percent of young people surveyed have prepared their resumes and 67 percent have participated in job interviews. And half of the participants say they now resolve their conflicts through dialogue.

What part of PAZOS program would you change or improve?

During the pandemic, it was difficult to reach out to the territories and engage the community directly. But now we are collaborating with the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organized Crime and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. We’re focused on developing a long-term community engagement strategy that enhances people’s ability to counteract the prevalence and power of organized crime.

What kind of feedback have you gotten from the community in Palmira?

The Palmira community has shown us that the strategy should always focus on income generation and capacity building, and that it should include more than just those neighborhoods with the highest homicide rates.

What were the most challenging parts of implementing the program? Was law enforcement cooperative?

One of the most difficult challenges was gaining the trust and respect of the young people to intervene in their lives as part of a socioeconomic program established by the city and its allies. At the same time, we had to help law enforcement agencies understand that PAZOS takes a non-traditional approach to addressing the structural causes of crime and violence. 

What would you recommend to other cities around the world hoping to tackle violence through a program like PAZOS?

To ensure comprehensive interventions, we recommend taking a culturally responsive approach to understanding the root causes of violence, exploring this issue at the personal, family, community, and societal level.

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