Visualizing citizen security in the Americas

by Robert Muggah · November 26th, 2014.

For more than two decades Latin American and Caribbean countries have experienced some of the highest rates of violence in the world. The regional homicide rate is well above what qualifies as an epidemic, and in some places surpasses what might pass for war. There are many forms of violence across the region ranging from organized and petty crime to state-led extra-judicial killings and sexual violence. The region also features a wide variety of publicly and privately-led responses – whether pursued aggressively through military and police institutions or through more preventive strategies that privilege judicial, health, educational, and recreational lenses. Many of these latter approaches are commonly described as “citizen security”.

From the hard fist to the open hand

Prior to the emergence of citizen security, governments across Mexico, Central and South America, and the Caribbean typically invested in repression. The dominant paradigm required states to be the sole provider of national security and public order. Known colloquially as “mano dura”, or hard fist, military and policing institutions sought to deter criminals by applying zero tolerance methods. The results were sadly predictable, including a massive expansion in police (and lately private security guards), draconian legislation, harsh sentencing, and ballooning prison populations. The militarized approach effectively criminalized and stigmatized large swathes of the population and is associated with the rise, not the fall, in organized gangs and associated forms of collective violence.

More recently, many Latin American and Caribbean countries have witnessed a turn in the dominant security model. After decades of dictatorship and in the wake of civil wars, governments and societies pursued intensive reforms to their security and justice sectors, including a move toward more adversarial systems and greater civilian oversight. Waves of restructuring efforts were launched in Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico, Nicaragua and Venezuela. While some were more successful than others, these emphasized police and criminal justice reform, community and proximity policing, restorative justice programs, alternative approaches to drug policy, and a wider investment in social and economic rehabilitation programs.

Mapping the spread of citizen security

While difficult to pin down with total precision, there has been a rapid growth and expansion in citizen security across Latin America and the Caribbean since the late 1990s. The Igarapé Institute has documented more than 1,350 citizen security interventions across more than 40 countries and territories in the region. While often overseen by national and municipal institutions, many of these initiatives have been supported by multilateral and bilateral agencies, notably the Latin American Development Bank and the Inter-American development Bank. Indeed, the Institute has recently launched a new interactive data visualization – the citizen security dashboard– to help policy makers, practitioners, researchers and advocates better apprehend what kinds of activities are underway.

The citizen security dashboard is intuitive and straight-forward to use. It codes eleven basic variables to categorize citizen security activities across the region. Information is organized according to donor agencies, catchment areas, the duration of the intervention, beneficiary coverage, functional strategies, thematic priorities, the budget of the programs and other indicators. The dashboard allows users to interact with the information, visualize activities by region, country and city but also across time and theme. The dashboard reveals a number of fascinating trends, including:

  • A heavy concentration of interventions in Brazil, Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico which account for more than two-thirds of all activities since 1998;
  • Most citizen security interventions are pursued at the national level (47%) as compared to the city scale (32%), or in specific regions (7%);
  • Notwithstanding dense clusters of regional and south-south cooperation, multilateral and bilateral aid agencies still account for more than two thirds (70%) of financial supporters for citizen security; and
  • The most common focus of interventions is on common crime and juvenile crime, with the majority of strategies involving management improvements and preventive interventions focused on improving service delivery.

The citizen security dashboard facilitates a big picture overview of the distribution and reach of activities, but also permits micro-level analysis. The Igarapé Institute and its partners recently expanded the capabilities of the tool to include a new “traffic light” system to monitor the evidence of what works and what does not. On the basis of a meta-review of the scientific literature on impact evaluations drawn from criminology, public health, economics and other fields, the dashboard also shows whether specific interventions are supported by evidence of results. A preliminary sample (10%) of the database reveals that just 7% of all 1,350 interventions are backed by a robust assessment registering positive impact. More than 57% have no supporting evaluations at all.

The citizen security dashboard has generated considerable interest in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the BolivianBrazilian, ColombianGuatemalan and Nicaraguan press. But while useful, data visualization tools are no panacea. Indeed, Latin American and Caribbean countries are grappling with accelerating crime and homicide rates and this will not be solved by technology alone. Sophisticated local and international criminal organizations have proliferated in recent years putting at risk governance, economic development and the work of civil society organizations. Yet while international bodies contemplate further intervention to help local partners deal with these issues, they are facing their own financial limitations, making targeted interventions based on sound evidence even more crucial.

Dr. Robert Muggah is the research director of the Igarapé Institute. He also directs research at the SecDev Group and is a senior adviser to the Inter-American Development Bank and the World Bank. He was a speaker at TED Global and the Web Summit in 2014 where he discussed fragile cities, smart cities and cyber cartels. This article borrows from an article published by Local First.

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