Colombia has witnessed an important reduction in violence and a real drop in homicide over the last 25 years.
Events such as the fall of Pablo Escobar in 1993 and the Cali cartel in 1995 allowed for the suppression of the violence meted out by dangerous gangs. The demobilisation of armed paramilitary groups has also been a factor.
Moreover, Colombia opted for a new focus: violence as a public health problem. Prevention is articulated based on the creation of public services and not the use of police repression. The mayors of the cities of Cali, Bogota and Medellin were inspired by the exploitation of data and methods aimed at research that were widely used by healthcare professionals.
The successful experience in three cities
In 2002, the mayor Rodrigo Guerrero highlighted the problem of violence as an epidemic, and tried to map out the outbreak of violence and how this is transmitted via the exploitation of data.
The gathering of data related to homicides and the specific places where these were committed facilitated the elaboration of crime maps. The reprisals of the cartel and territorial conflicts did not completely explain the increase in the homicide rate, very high in certain places and at certain times: payday weekends and early hours of Saturday and Sunday morning near nightclubs. The study of the data suggested that the excessive consumption of alcohol and the availability of firearms had mortal consequences.
A noteworthy 35% drop in homicides in neighbourhoods was possible thanks to the prohibition to carry firearms on payday weekends and restricting the sale of alcohol.
Colombia’s second city led an urban project known as “urban acupuncture” that, based on an urbanistic design, aims to solve social problems. In a poor neighbourhood, a cable car was installed. This measure was very important because it provided residents with mobility, so that they could find work and feel more integrated in the city. There was also an investment in basic services, especially in schools and libraries. Improvements in education and mobility contributed to a reduction in homicides, from the world record of 380 homicides per 100,000 people in the 90s to 20 homicides in 2015.
The capital also applied measures inspired by public healthcare policies. They improved or destroyed areas that had become the focus of criminal activity, and investment was made in public areas that encouraged a feeling of belonging and positive inclusion among its residents. One of its mayors, Antanas Mokus, tried to change behavioural norms with programmes and campaigns that stressed mutual respect and the importance of life. The homicide rate fell from 80 homicides per 100,000 in 1993 to 16.7 per 100,000 in 2018.
The successful experiences of Cali, Bogota and Medellin were possible thanks to the vision of their political leaders. The modification of the Colombian constitution in 1991 transferred more power to local authorities, which could be more creative and experiment. At the end of the 2000 decade, leadership of these local policies inspired changes in the country’s policies: the data revolution had reached the highest levels of governmental policy.
The lessons learned
The perspective of public healthcare to administer crime has a great potential. The involvement of researchers, healthcare professionals and social workers allowed for new ways of addressing an old problem.
The urban area influences criminal patterns and a better urbanistic design stimulates an improvement in behaviour; investment in infrastructures can transform social problems.
Reforms in police organisations: the fight against corruption, enabling the police to exploit data, a focus on the dynamic of local crime and intensifying community collaboration were key to reducing crime in Colombia.
Links of interest