Evidence-Based Public Security can help Latin America beat Organised Crime

Article

Alberto Kopittke

Latin America is currently experiencing its longest period in which the vast majority of its countries live under democratic regimes, where most of the armed political conflicts have subsided, and despite a deep-seated militaristic culture and instances of authoritarian populism, the armed forces support peaceful transitions of power between different ideological groups.
 
While the COVID-19 pandemic has led to an increase in poverty and exacerbated structural issues like unemployment and racism, many countries have enjoyed two decades of economic growth and an expansion of social rights.
 
However, a significant and enduring issue has plagued the entire region for over 50 years: a devastating epidemic of violence that has claimed the lives of millions of Latin Americans, particularly among the impoverished and black youth. Despite significant regional differences, this violence is driven by groups engaged in the illicit drug trade and other underground markets.
 
Over time, what began as small groups exerting control over impoverished neighbourhoods has evolved into massive criminal corporations, comprising hundreds or even thousands of affiliated members. As they expanded their reach, these groups left a trail of violence in their wake, growing increasingly well-armed and organised.
 
Meanwhile, national governments have generally followed a similar approach, relying on immediate and punctual measures while neglecting to enhance their strategic capabilities to combat this type of criminal activity effectively.
 

Both right-wing and left-wing administrations, albeit through different avenues, are converging toward a common strategy: an increasing reliance on militaristic combat doctrine, whether employed by civilian or military police or directly by the armed forces, these methods often result in excessive use of force and high levels of police lethality against socially vulnerable groups.

At the same time, these solutions are developing into an ideological doctrine that portrays human rights as hindrances protecting criminals, and builds a large support base for increasingly extreme actions (even though they have gone on for decades without showing any positive results).

On another front, the prison system in many parts of the continent has fallen far below the basic standards of human dignity, with overcrowded and substandard facilities. In numerous countries across the region, these prisons have effectively become the operational hubs of criminal organisations. The lack of adequate separation between low-risk and high-risk individuals, coupled with a scarcity of rehabilitative programmes, leads to young individuals entering prisons for minor offences and leaving with aggravated criminal profiles and large “debts” to be paid on the streets.

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The absence of effective control over organised crime within the prison system transforms prisons into functional “headquarters,” where groups forge alliances, orchestrate attacks, and perpetrate significant cybercrimes against the general population. They essentially extend their reach from behind prison walls, while under state protection. Regrettably, there is little indication on the horizon that the demand for drugs can be curbed, nor does any global policy seem capable of making a substantial impact on the economic dynamics of these criminal organisations. However, despite the extremely difficult situation, some critical initiatives in the region have demonstrated the possibility of mitigating one of the most pressing and immediate consequences of the strengthening of these groups’ empowerment: urban lethal violence.

The modernisation of law enforcement institutions has already yielded tangible and positive outcomes on the continent. This modernisation goes beyond simply acquiring more advanced technological tools, which may be necessary but should never be an end in itself. It involves enhancing institutional capacity in areas such as crime analysis, inter-institutional management1, internal oversight, intelligence, anti-money laundering, homicide investigation, forensics and arms control. Furthermore, implementing evidence-based strategies, with greater focus, proactivity and integration, including problem-solving orientated policing2, hot spot policing complemented by urban micro-interventions3,4,5 and focused deterrence6 have already been proven to be effective in reducing violent lethality.

Large-scale urban interventions in peripheral communities have also proven invaluable in providing follow-up and sustainability to safety actions7. Similarly, well-structured prevention programmes based on the best available evidence, have been shown to protect young people8 and reverse risk trajectories9, even in challenging contexts.

However, it is imperative for governments aiming to effectively combat the epidemic of violence to prioritise structural reforms within the prison system. It is urgent to structure systems that effectively isolate violent leaders from their cohorts while providing young individuals with dignified penal treatment and evidence-based programs to reduce criminal recidivism, grounded in the latest scientific knowledge.

Latin America has two primary avenues in addressing organised crime: the populist, authoritarian, militaristic and anti-fundamental rights way that has been prevalent throughout the 20th century, yielding occasional results but proving unsustainable in the long run. Or the path of an evidence-based public security model10 that upholds fundamental principles even in the most challenging times.

Fortunately, the world today possesses a wealth of knowledge concerning what does and doesn’t work in reducing violence. While organised crime introduces new complexities, the incorporation of this concept remains the foremost mission for those who believe in strengthening democratic rule of law as the ultimate goal and the most effective means of forging less violent societies.

References

1 Kopittke, A. L. W., & Ramos, M. P. (2021). What works and what doesn’t to reduce homicides in Brazil: a systematic review. Revista De Administração Pública, 55(2), 414-437. https://doi.org/10.1590/0034-761220190168

2 CHAINEY, Spencer P.; SERRANO-BERTHET, Rodrigo; VENERI, Federico. The impact of a hot spot policing programme in Montevideo, Uruguay: an evaluation using a quasi-experimental difference-in-difference negative binomial approach. Police Practice and Research, v. 22, n. 5, p. 1541-1556, 2021

3 COLLAZOS, David et al. Hot spots policing in a high-crime environment: An experimental evaluation in Medellin. Journal of Experimental Criminology, v. 17, n. 3, p. 473-506, 2021.

4 BLATTMAN, Christopher et al. Place-Based Interventions at Scale: The Direct and Spillover Effects of Policing and City Services on Crime. Journal of the European Economic Association, v. 19, n. 4, p. 2022-2051, 2021

5 Chainey, Spencer & Estévez-Soto, Patricio & Pezzuchi, Gastón & Serrano Berthet, Rodrigo (2022). An evaluation of a hot spot policing programme in four Argentinian cities. The Police Journal: Theory, Practice and Principles. 96. 0032258X2210790. 10.1177/0032258X221079019.

6 Michelle Degli Esposti; Carolina V.N. Coll; Eduardo Viegas da Silva; Doriam Borges; Emiliano Rojido; Alisson Gomes dos Santos et AL. Effects of the Pelotas (Brazil) Peace Pact on violence and crime: a synthetic control analysis. The Lancet Regional Health Americas.  VOLUME 19, 100447, MARCH 2023.

7 CERDA, M. et al. Reducing Violence by Transforming Neighborhoods: A Natural Experiment in Medellin, Colombia. American Journal of Epidemiology, v. 175, n. 10, p. 1045-1053, 2012. DOI: 10.1093/aje/kwr428.

8 RAMOS, C.; NIETO, A.M.; CHAUX, E. Aulas en Paz: Resultados preliminares de un programa multi-componente. Revista Interamericana de Educación para la Democracia, v. 1, p. 36-56, 2007.

9 FUNDACIÓN PAZ CIUDADANA. Impact and cost-benefit evaluation of drug treatment courts in Chile. Presentation of results May 2018.

10 Kopittke, Alberto. Evidence-Based Public Safety Manual: what works and what doesn’t to prevent violence. Conhecer, 2023.

Alberto Kopittke, PhD, is the Executive Director of Instituto Cidade Segura (Safe City Institute) and an external consultant on Citizen Security for the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). He holds a doctorate in Public Policy, a master’s degree in Criminal Sciences, and degrees in Law and Evidence-Based Policing. He has experience in government advisory positions and coordinating initiatives at the national level in Brazil, including as Municipal Secretary for Public Security in Canoas/RS. He has worked as a consultant on a number of successful violence reduction projects, formulating evidence-based Public Safety and Violence Prevention Plans.

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