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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Munoz Burgos

Hotspots and Cold Spots

Laguna Cuzcachapa, El Salvador

I had a conversation with a friend who authored one of the chapters in a publication issued by the Inter-American Development Bank. In his chapter, he discusses crime and violence in Central America’s Northern Triangle. Barring war zones, the Northern Triangle is the most violent region in the world with homicide rates of 81.2 in El Salvador, 27 in Guatemala, and 59 in Honduras. At first glance, these numbers could look high but not alarming, except for the homicide rate in El Salvador.

However, to put this in perspective, the average homicide in the United States has usually been around 4 or 4.5 homicides per 100,000 people.

If we zoom in a bit more, as my friend does in his chapter, we can see that the story can become direr in some areas of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. This means that crime is usually focalized at any given time in political units smaller than the national level. Additionally, the incidence of crime in these areas can vary from time to time or can remain the same for extended periods of time.

The study authored by my friend presents a spatial analysis of homicides and assaults in the three countries of the Northern Triangle. The results show that for Honduras and Guatemala, the areas where the greater number of homicides concentrate remained very similar in the period between 2013 and 2015, and 2010 and 2013, respectively. These are bordering areas where drug trafficking and other crimes associated with this problem are usually present. El Salvador’s case is different than its neighbors: a spatial analysis at the municipal level shows that high-homicide areas have shifted from west to east from 2010 to 2015. This shift could also be associated with drug trafficking routes. The graphics below (used with my friend’s consent) show this information graphically.

Graphic 1: Spatial Distribution of Homicides in El Salvador, 2010-2015

Graphic 2: Spatial Distribution of Homicides in Guatemala, 2010-2013

Graphic 3: Spatial Distribution of Homicides in Honduras, 2013-2015

Dr. David Weisburd at George Mason University has long focused and discussed hotspots (red in the maps above) and cold spots (blue in the maps above). Hotspots are places where crime and violence are concentrated, and therefore, where interventions should occur. Cold spots, on the other hand, are places where there are low incidences of crime and violence. Policies at the national level that have been applied in the Northern Triangle have not been effective because they have not focused on hotspots. For example, hard fist (mano dura) approaches have led to prison overcrowding, curfews have decreased social cohesion and instilled fear in communities, and the use of the military has resulted in human rights violations. It is important to mention, however, that a few years ago, positive national-level policies, such as comprehensive violence prevention policies that provide resources and autonomy to political units such as departments, municipalities, or communities to address crime and violence, have been implemented.

These policies allow political subunits to find local solutions to local problems. This is very important because, as I have discussed in other posts, violence is multifaceted and its causes are specific to each community. The literature on crime and violence prevention as well as on countering violent extremism recommend conducting community assessments to identify drivers of violence. Once these assessments are conducted, local policymakers can be better informed to make decisions on what interventions best suit their needs. I will be covering interventions that have been successful in reducing crime and violence in upcoming posts. Something important to point out is that is that, as the ecological model recommends, attention should also be placed on the relationships and behaviors of those individuals living in hotspot areas.

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