• Carlos Munoz Burgos

Review: How to cut the murder rate (The Economist)

Last week, The Economist published an article titled How to cut the murder rate. The article does a good job presenting the issue of homicides around the world and pointing out how although there has been an increase in peace in developed countries, murder rates are affecting the developing world. As I have already pointed out in previous posts, Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) is the most violent region in the world. The article states that this region has 8% of the world’s population but 38% of all recorded murders. Violence in the form of murder also plague other regions of the world such as southern Africa, the Middle East, and Africa, but nothing compares to LAC. Seven countries in Latin American account for a quarter of the world’s murders.

The article places great emphasis on rapid urbanization as a contributing factor to violence. This is true, but Latin America, as well as other regions in the world, is already suffering from this issue. Hence, the emphasis on chaotic urbanization serves as a good scene-setter for the article, but more needs to be said about chaotic urbanization, especially if the objective is to make a link between this rapid urbanization, poverty, and violence.

Many studies have shown that a definite correlation between poverty and violence cannot be made. A study of Colombian departments conducted by Corpovisionarios shows that departments with the lowest GDP per capita were not the ones with the highest homicide rates. In fact, these departments were among the least violent in Colombia. Lack of opportunities may play a role in violent behaviors, but as I constantly mention, causal relationships that only use one independent variable cannot be made to explain violence.

Also, if we part from the assumption that lack of economic growth is what causes violence, we are missing many experiences around the world that prove the opposite. Take Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Eight years ago, Ciudad Juarez gained the infamous title of murder capital of the world. Rapid economic growth in the maquila industry led to a rapid urbanization without social, economic, or educational infrastructure. This destroyed the social fabric, leaving youth with no parental supervision (some parents worked two shifts), education, or support networks to provide services to them after school. The economic boom in this area resulted in increased violence and reduced of social cohesion.

Rapid and chaotic urbanization is inevitable, and there is little governments can do in the developing world to stop it. As a result, governments need to find strategies to better manage this inevitable urban growth (up to 90% of urban growth will occur in the developing world). The following are some recommendations to prevent violence from erupting in a rapidly and chaotic urbanizing area:

  • Work at the municipal level to identify and provide needed social, economic, educational, and political infrastructure. Prioritize based on most pressing needs.

  • Conduct assessments to identify possible sources of violence and engage communities in decision-making processes. Work with community leaders who are respected and can voice the community’s concerns.

  • Do not deploy the police or armed forces if their only strategy is repression. Adopt community policing strategies to build trust between the community and the police. Increased trust in the police will increase reporting of illegal acts and will assist in the identification of the sources of violence.

  • Ensure there is transparency in all processes. Community cohesion is built by generating trusted networks of relationships, citizen participation, sense of community, and the ability to obtain transparent information and critically processing it. Lack of transparency generates information asymmetry and reduces the sources of competence in a community.

Causal relationships cannot be made in the field of violence. Economic growth is ideal, but should not be the only goal to prevent violence. It should be accompanied by a plan to allow places to grow in a way that generate community cohesion and resilience.