• Carlos Munoz Burgos

What made the homicide rate go down in Bogota and Medellin?

Bogota and Medellin are often cited as successful examples of violence reduction. In 1993, Bogota reached its highest homicide rate ever recorded at 80 homicides per every 100,000 people. Since then, homicides have seen a constant decline, although they slightly increased between 2006 and 2010, to go down again through 2017, the last year for which data is available. The homicide rate for Bogota in 2017 was 13.6 per 100,000. The highest homicide rate for Medellin was 381 per 100,000 in 1991. After this alarming rate, homicides started declining, with some increases between 1999 and 2002, and between 2008 and 2009. The homicide rate for Medellin was 22.4 per 100,000 in 2017.

Local policies to prevent violence have been credited with the reduction in homicide rates in both Bogota and Medellin. As discussed in a previous post, the civic culture approach, whose aim is to change people’s collective behaviors and help them assume co-responsibility with the state to improve security, has been credited with the reduction in homicides in Bogota. This approach began with Bogota’s mayor Antanas Mokus (1995-1997 and 2001-2003), and partially continued in the interim of Mokus’ two terms with Enrique Peñalosa between 1998 and 2000. However, as Bogota’s mayor, Peñalosa is known for adopting a zero-tolerance interpretation of the broken windows violence prevention theory as his strategy. He focused on providing quality and orderly spaces for citizens of Bogota to enjoy.

In Medellin, Colombia’s second largest city, many strategies have been implemented to reduce violence, and many of them have been declared successful. Projects ranging from negotiating with illicit groups to citizen coexistence programs, to a cable car and library in a crime-ridden marginalized area of Medellin, and to the demobilization and reintegration of paramilitary groups.

Although there was a reduction in crime and violence after the implementation of the aforementioned local efforts, none of these efforts had a component of empiricism in them to prove that they had an actual impact in reducing violence. Additionally, in the case of Medellin, Don Berna, Medellin’s most powerful drug lord after the death of Pablo Escobar and leader of The Office of Envigado cartel, is claimed to be most influential regarding homicide rates in Medellin. From 2003 until 2008, Medellin’s homicide rate dropped by 50 percent. Don Berna had ordered his organization to keep the murders down. Anyone who killed without his consent would pay a high price. Interestingly, when Don Berna was extradited to the US in 2008, there was a spike in homicides in Medellin.

It is also important to mention that the approaches implemented in both Bogota and Medellin to reduce violence are medium-to-long-term. In the case of Bogota, the homicide rate had already started going down when Antanas Mockus was elected. This means that the civic culture approach could have not reduced the homicide rate in Bogota immediately after its implementation began. It may have started to have an impact during Peñalosa’s term, but this would be very difficult to assess. National strategies may have also had a positive effect reducing violence. For example, Operation Orion in 2002, which sent the Colombian Army to Comuna 13 in Medellin to dismantle militias and groups associated with criminal activity and drug trafficking, might have had an impact on the significant homicide rate decline the following year.

It is very difficult to attribute all credit for the homicide reduction in Bogota and Medellin to one particular strategy. As I have mentioned before in many posts, violence is multifaceted and multi-causal. In Colombia, there were many actors in the conflict and all of them were incentivized by different factors to commit violence. In many cases, it seems like violence in Colombia decreased due to negative resilience; that is, violence went down but due to negative causes. As a result, it is very important to understand violence and violence reduction in Colombia from a more holistic approach, taking into consideration all actors. Besides Don Berna’s actions, it is not completely clear what made homicide rates go down in Colombia, or at least Medellin. It is clear that the homicide reduction in Bogota and Medellin was due to a combination of interventions and circumstances (positive and negative), and that the success of this reduction may not only lie in strategies that were implemented at the local level. Evidence-based interventions would have greatly contributed to knowing, which approaches had the most impact in the reduction of homicides in Medellin and Bogota.