In Latin America, surprising progress on crime

In their recent trips to Latin America and the Caribbean, President Obama and Vice President Biden were right to focus on the economic opportunities in a region whose prospects have never been brighter. Despite the global economic crisis, more than 70 million of our citizens have escaped poverty in the last 10 years, and the number of middle-class families could double within a generation.

With U.S. exports to Latin America and the Caribbean already worth three times more than those to China, it is clearly time for America to move beyond stereotypes and reassess its southern neighbors.

One such stereotype concerns security. To be sure, much of Latin America still struggles with violence of epidemic proportions. Although our region is home to less than a tenth of the world’s population, we account for a fifth of all murders. Understandably, insecurity has become our people’s No. 1 concern — and a significant obstacle to greater tourism, investment and trade.

This violence stems from factors as varied as the spread of drug trafficking, a shortage of decent jobs for our youth and public institutions that have been slow to adapt to new challenges. But Latin America is not paralyzed in the face of this problem.

Some Latin American cities are borrowing strategies from American counterparts once crippled by crime. Others are developing home-grown solutions. The most effective ones feature multidimensional approaches that combine smarter policing with multidimensional approaches such as better social services and programs for at-risk youth.

• In Bogotá, Colombia, authorities have put their own twist on New York City’s Compstat, a software program used to track crime statistics and hold police commanders accountable for results. In Bogotá, police officers who use this system are now personally responsible for reducing crime levels and building ties with civic groups in their districts. As a result, last year the Colombian capital city’s murder rate fell to a 27-year low.

• In Mexico, violence related to drug trafficking has taken a terrible toll. But that is not the whole story. The city of Aguascalientes is a showcase for the advantages of taking a comprehensive approach to fighting crime, as opposed to resorting exclusively to punitive “ mano dura” (iron fist) policing. Under a dynamic mayor, Aguascalientes coupled more effective policing with a broad program to improve services and create safer public spaces. As a result, the murder rate is now comparable to Seattle’s or Portland’s.

• One of the most encouraging turnarounds is taking place in Rio de Janeiro, which has introduced community policing in some of its toughest neighborhoods, the favelas. Known as UPPs, their Portuguese acronym, these specialized units are established inside slums after they are cleared of armed gangs. Staffed with recent police academy graduates, UPPs build trust with neighbors as the government upgrades basic services.

In communities where the UPPs have been deployed, robberies have dropped by half and murders by 75 percent. In fact, Rio’s homicide rate is now lower than Baltimore’s or Oakland’s, and the city is increasing the number of UPPs ahead of the 2014 soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympic Games.

• Central America is especially hard hit by violence, with a murder rate 10 times the world average. But even here, not all news is grim. Nicaragua has combined good police work with inter-agency coordination and community actions to keep its murder rate of 11 per 100,000 inhabitants. This is under half the Latin American average.

After decades in which crime was handled reactively and with little thought for long-term strategy or evaluation, many local and national leaders are now eager to seek out and apply practices that have a proven record of success. Caribbean nations have pledged to improve how they gather and share their crime statistics, so they can develop better anti-crime programs.

This creates an unprecedented opportunity for a much deeper and more productive collaboration between the U.S. and Latin America. Now, in addition to sharing intelligence and the latest crime-fighting technology, mayors and security officials from cities across our hemisphere should also start to exchange social, cultural and political know-how gained in reducing violence.

Washington has an obvious interest in helping tackle the roots of violence: more peaceful and democratic neighbors will mean more jobs and opportunities for U.S. companies. But international donors and aid agencies should also finance sharing of knowledge and experience gleaned by cities that have reclaimed their streets. It will be money well spent: building safer communities is one of the most effective investments in our collective future.

Luis Alberto Moreno is president of the Inter-American Development Bank.

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