nathalie alvarado IDB

Latin America and the Caribbean: Fostering development through finding solutions to crime and violence

// Interview: Nathalie Alvarado

Head of Citizen Security and Justice, Inter-American Development Bank

JT: How have security and justice become a fundamental axis of the IDB’s intervention and how do you characterise the evolution of the region in these areas over the years? 

NA: Despite increasing efforts in the fight against crime and some improvements in certain areas, the truth is that Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is still the most violent region in the world, with an average homicide rate four times above the world’s average. This violence affects mostly vulnerable populations. In LAC, homicide is the leading cause of death among individuals aged 15 to 44.

In addition to the impact on human life, there is a significant cost to the economy. Our latest study found that crime and violence cost the region 3% of its annual GDP, i.e. around $261 billion. This is equivalent to the region’s entire annual expenditure on infrastructure. It is, therefore, no surprise that Latin Americans consider insecurity the number one problem affecting their lives.

At the IDB we believe that crime and violence are not just insecurity challenges, they are foremost development challenges. IDB started working on citizen security projects in the early 90s. Our first operation was with Colombia, where we helped to develop an observatory of crime. For the last decade, the IDB has been increasing the portfolio of interventions in citizen security and justice, which currently amounts to $645 million, and 17 operations in 12 countries.

This growth is a direct response to the demand of governments in the region. Having said that, there is tremendous heterogeneity. For example, most Central American countries have very high homicide rates, whereas in the Southern Cone (namely Argentina, Uruguay, Chile) the problem is more related to property crime. This means we can’t take the region as a whole in trying to come up with a solution, we need to instead understand the local complexities of crime.


JT: What role does the Inter-American Development Bank play in advancing citizen security and the justice systems – including prison services – in Latin America and the Caribbean?

NA: We are always looking to provide better support to countries, and for that, we have designed a scope of intervention where the IDB can have the most added-value. Therefore, we support the region through three mechanisms: 1) loan operations; 2) technical assistance; 3) knowledge generation and dissemination.

Our interventions are focused on the entire criminal justice chain, from violence prevention and police reform to matters of access to justice and prisoner rehabilitation. We consider it important to cover all the elements related to crime and violence in LAC and to work on the strengthening of security and justice institutions. This begins by supporting the modernisation of police forces. It entails improving recruiting, training, compensation mechanisms, and in some cases, also advances in patrolling and management strategy.

With respect to the Justice system, we seek to improve efficiency in the management and administration of criminal justice services. Today, we are helping several LAC countries in the digitalisation of their Court records and we are helping prosecutors’ offices to strengthen their investigative function by improving their technical capabilities and protocols in handling evidence. It is not enough to have police officers arrest criminals if they will not be prosecuted.

Finally, we are supporting inmate rehabilitation and post-incarceration reintegration. Prisoner rehabilitation is not a priority for most governments. A common approach is to simply build more prisons, but we are much more focused on improving rehabilitation programmes within prisons.

Crime and violence cost the region 3% of its annual GDP, that is around $261 billion. (…) They are not just insecurity challenges, they are foremost development challenges.

JT: How is the complexity of the security and justice issues in Latin America being addressed by the IDB?

NA: Indeed, crime and violence are profoundly complex and require equally sophisticated and robust responses. In addition to working with the institutions in the criminal justice chain, we have identified the main areas of improvement and key nodes where we prioritize our actions:

Lack of quality data to support evidence-based policies: We often lack a clear picture of what is driving crime and violence in the region. Administrative records differ by country and generally, they are still on paper. In the case of prisons, for example, in numerous countries, there are no reliable records of who is in prison, for how long, for what reason, and what the treatment they are getting if any. This gap must be addressed as quickly as possible, and IDB is making resources available through technical cooperation to help the countries generate better data.

Insufficient evaluations: We want to advance the knowledge of what works and what doesn’t. Currently, a lot of the knowledge comes from developed countries where there are evaluations about what is effective in terms of, for example, changing behaviour, hotspot policing or prisoner rehabilitation. In Latin America and the Caribbean, we have tried to adapt models tested in developed countries, but we still need more robust diagnostics and evidence that applies to our context, that’s why the IDB is pushing the agenda for knowledge generation and evaluations.

Limited coordination: There is a bleak view on who should take charge of security issues; it’s not a problem to be solved by the police alone! There are several drivers that need to be addressed before crime happens. Prevention is needed, but coordination among agencies is also paramount. We have witnessed a major lack of coordination between the social sector and the security and justice sector – people often work in silos, trying to solve a problem that has different but overlapping causes, and that could be solved in a collaborative way.

And last but not least, there’s the issue of an over-reliance on punitive models. A common response to rising crime in LAC is to build more prisons or to implement harsher sentences. Sometimes the frustration of not achieving crime reduction impels governments to adopt a reactive punitive model which can ultimately lead to the collapse and crisis of the justice systems. Therefore, we promote models that also focus on prevention, encourage the use of alternatives to imprisonment, bring institutions closer to people, and that focus on behaviour change and rehabilitation.


JT: Could you please refer to a couple of projects that the IDB is supporting that you consider especially well-routed or that have already achieved important results?

NA: The Honduran reform is a great example. Back in 2012, when Honduras was the country with the world’s highest murder rate, the government asked us for support. While some people were sceptical, we were optimistic. The IDB supported a profound reform of the National Police, with changes to its recruitment, training and compensation scheme. It also entailed revamping the training curriculum of the whole police force: about 5,000 police officers have now graduated under the new curriculum. The project also improved the infrastructure for the Police Academy and several other facilities – these efforts have contributed to the 50% reduction in the country’s homicide rate in the last 5 years.

There are no quick fixes to reduce crime and violence, but Honduras gives us a reason to be hopeful. It also shows that strengthening institutions is the way to go. Then, there is the case of Costa Rica’s penitentiary system. We supported the government in implementing a new model that combines education, technical training, and psycho-social support. This involved the creation of three Integral Care Units, which consist of new centres housing around 1,600 inmates serving the last six months of their sentence. These Units adhere to the highest international standards, have modern security equipment and reflect the principle of normality. In these centres, there are also capacity-building programmes aimed at the rehabilitation and successful reentry of prisoners. This model has become a benchmark for the region, and we are now in the process of evaluating it to determine its impact on recidivism.

Technology can be a very powerful tool for enhancing our responses to crime and violence.

JT: What is your view on the application of technologies in citizen security and justice systems and how is the IDB supporting the digital transformation of Latin American jurisdictions?

NA: Our last Citizen Security Week (held in November 2018) was precisely about technology in the security and justice sector. Technology can be a very powerful tool for enhancing our responses to crime and violence. In fact, there is a lot of advanced technology that can be efficient in preventing and countering crime such as big data and artificial intelligence. Some examples of the kind of work we are doing with technology in the sector include a big data project for crime prevention in urban areas in Colombia, the use of crime prediction software to improve policies, the digitalisation of judicial processes, and incorporating technology innovations for prisoner rehabilitation.

But we must be cautious. The hard part is not acquiring technology per se, the challenge lies in leveraging technology for people’s safety. We have identified five key factors to ensure the best use of technology as far as crime control and prevention are concerned. These are lessons learnt from our experiences and work in the region.

The first one is we have to define a clear vision, because, after all, technology is just a means and we must know what we want to achieve with it. The second is the need for interoperability and openness; technology and silos are not compatible. If institutions are not open and willing to share data, the potential of technology is minimised.

The third element is transparency and ethics; increasingly complex algorithms are aiding patrolling strategies and even court decisions. This affects people’s lives directly, and we think citizens and governments should know what is behind these algorithms. The fourth element is the need for human capital. A tool is only as good as whoever is using it. We believe that public officials need more digital competences to better use the new technological tools at their disposal. Acquiring technology without having capable human capital that can operate it properly is a waste of money. And the last element I think is to define the rules of the game, given that technology has evolved faster than norms.


JT: What are your expectations for the future? Is it utopian to think of a citizen security and justice sector in Latin American countries that is completely different from today?

 NA: It is not. The high levels of crime and violence in our region are not inevitable. In fact, even some of the most murderous countries in the region have shown declines in their homicide rates in recent years (in El Salvador homicide rates have decreased by 42.9% since 2015; in Guatemala they have gone down by 42.7% since 2009 and in Honduras: homicide rates have gone down by 48.7% since 2011).

We are very focused on the problem and I think we need to shift the focus towards finding solutions. That’s why generating knowledge is fundamental. We need to know what works in reducing violence.

While some believe that crime reduction is a natural side effect of economic progress, we have not seen that in our region. In the last decade, LAC citizens have become wealthier, healthier, and more educated, but crime rates remain high. This means that we cannot expect crime to go down as a result of economic progress. We must take concerted actions to reduce violence, whether that means working with populations that are at risk, targeting hotspots and hot people, or guaranteeing swift justice and rehabilitation alternatives.


Nathalie Alvarado has twenty years of experience working in the field of citizen security and since 2012 she has been overseeing the design and implementation of many of the IDB’s operations. She has been responsible for defining the IDB’s Citizen Security and Justice action strategy and knowledge agenda for Latin America and the Caribbean. Her work on police reform, urban safety and violence prevention has been widely published. She holds a Law degree from the University of Lausanne, Switzerland, and a master’s degree in Economic Law from the Free University of Brussels, Belgium. 



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