Ecuador and Cali, Colombia show Latin America how to reduce the murder rate

Jan 6, 2019

By Ryan Dube and Juan Forero

Marco Torres chased down a man on a narrow colonial street in Cali, Colombia then plunged a knife into the neck of his 28-year-old victim. He ran off, shed a red jacket and hopped a bus to disappear into the night.

A government video-surveillance system saw his every move. Ten minutes later, police had him in handcuffs. Mr. Torres was convicted of the slaying and sent to prison.

A murder victim’s body is covered on El Salvador street.

Latin America is grappling with a surge in homicides that has made it the world’s most murderous region. Amid the carnage, however, there are hints of solutions and experiments from across the region, which are aimed at bringing the crisis under control. New law-enforcement standards, data-driven policing tools and social programs are slowing the violence and, in some cases, dramatically reducing homicide rates.

In 2010, more than 2,600 people were killed in Ecuador, a homicide rate of about 18 per 100,000, almost twice the level the World Health Organization considers an epidemic. This year, the small Andean nation is expected to record 5.3 killed per 100,000, Latin America’s second lowest rate.

Cali, Colombia, once the home of an infamous drug cartel that bore its name, is expected to end 2018 with about 1,154 homicides, compared with 1,959 in 2013—a 41% drop. The 2018 homicide rate is expected to be 47 per 100,000, still high but improved from 84.5 per 100,000 of five years ago.

The most tantalizing of Cali’s anti-crime strategies is identifying some of the city’s dangerous young men for personal supervision by case workers who oversee schooling, therapy, sports programs, training and job placement.

“To have exchanged the streets for a big book on statistics has been crazy,” said Bryan Riascos, 26 years old. He was in a gang, sold drugs and was jailed on an illegal weapons charge. After studying metrology in a government program, he now works for a company that makes parts for cars and motorcycles.

Ecuador and Cali are among the exceptions to the violence of Latin America, where about 400 homicides are committed each day.

Slowing the carnage isn’t easy. It requires a combination of political and judicial changes along with economic and social policies to expand education and job opportunities. While these ideas have become common practice in the U.S., Europe and much of Asia, they are relatively novel in much of Latin America.

Better policing is a first step. The recipe includes higher pay, officer screening and the adoption of modern law-enforcement tools, such as using crime data to focus resources, community policing — putting more officers on the streets of trouble-prone neighborhoods — and restoring trust with residents.

“We know how to basically create a good cop,” said Alejandro Hope, a former member of Mexico’s intelligence services and a security analyst. “It’s not a technical problem, and it’s not a lack of money. It’s clearly a political problem, which gives us both reason for optimism and pessimism.”

In Ecuador’s biggest city of Guayaquil, population 2.3 million, Liduvina Corozo said gang shootouts had become common. Corpses were dumped in her local park, she said, and police rarely showed up to investigate.

Officers now patrol on bikes and quickly respond to emergencies, said Ms. Corozo, a 53-year-old teacher. The park has been renovated with better lighting and a giant bronze Christ statue. “It used to be really scary,” she said.

Guayaquil’s murder rate is now among the lowest of Latin America’s largest cities. Two hundred miles away, the city of Cuenca boasts one the lowest murder rates in all the Americas, lower than most cities of comparable size in the U.S.

But Guayaquil and Cuenca are the exceptions. From Mexico to Brazil, police are deeply distrusted in Latin America.

Polling found 35% of respondents in the region saying they have confidence in law enforcement, compared with 57% in the U.S. TV police dramas are rare in Latin America because the idea of cops solving crimes and catching crooks seems far-fetched.

Police are suspected in some of the region’s most brazen crimes of recent years, including the disappearance of 43 Mexican college students in 2014, all presumed killed, and the slaying this year of a Brazilian councilwoman in Rio de Janeiro.

The lack of trust helps sustain the violence because many residents don’t share information with police. Only a quarter of crimes are reported in Latin America, said Kevin Casas-Zamora, a former Costa Rican vice president: “If people don’t report crimes that means impunity, and impunity is a huge incentive for criminal activity.”

Like elsewhere in Latin America, Ecuador’s police had been poorly paid and undertrained. In 2006, Ecuador’s lowest ranked-cops earned about $200 a month, compared with $295 in Brazil and $400 in Colombia, according to Juan Carlos Ruiz, a Colombian political scientist at Rosario University in Bogotá. At the time, officers in the U.S. earned an average of $2,725 a month.

“With such low salaries you naturally have problems with corruption in some cases,” he said, “and in other cases, the job just isn’t very attractive.”

In 2010, hundreds of police in Ecuador rioted over cuts to benefits. Worried about rising violence and buoyed by high oil prices, the leftist government of then-president Rafael Correa raised police salaries that year for the 45,000-member force. Now, the lowest-ranking officers earn about $1,000 a month, police said, among the highest starting pay in Latin America.

Last year, 50,000 people applied for 2,800 spots, officials said.

Police training in Ecuador has doubled to 18 months. Higher-ranking officers are expected to hold a university degree. And authorities built a new forensics lab for ballistics and DNA testing, which has boosted the number of arrests.

There also has been a broad crackdown on police corruption.

Starting in 2013, any officer who is either in line for a promotion, involved in intelligence work or working in neighborhoods known for organized crime must pass a lie-detector exam. The officers also must undergo a psychological profile and an analysis of personal finances.

“A cop in debt is a vulnerable cop,” said Col. Henry Tapia, the deputy inspector general.

Since the testing started, more than 1,000 police officers have been fired or charged with crimes. “We have found commanders involved in all kinds of things, from drug trafficking to extortion,” said police general Patricio Carrillo, the head of police operations.

Central to the law-enforcement overhaul has been data analysis that pinpoint the location, time and circumstance of crimes. “If we aren’t strategically anticipating crime,” Gen. Carrillo said, “we will always arrive late just to pick up cadavers.”

In Guayaquil, a team of 18 officers review data at police headquarters, producing daily reports and geo-referenced maps to help decide where and when to deploy officers. That helped Guayaquil reduce homicides to about 200 this year from close to 600 in 2010.

Ecuador police also employ a $270 million emergency response program called ECU-911. The system relies on 4,500 high-definition cameras mounted on light poles around the country. Cameras— also installed in public buses—can track a suspect’s movement from one block to the next, which resulted in the arrest of Mr. Torres after the 2015 knife attack.

Following the curve

To fight cholera in Victorian London, Dr. John Snow mapped the location of every fatality from the disease. He narrowed down the source of the epidemic to a Broad Street well pumping contaminated water. It was a breakthrough not only in treating the disease, but in the use of statistical analysis to solve social problems.

In Cali, a Harvard-trained epidemiologist and twice mayor, Rodrigo Guerrero, used the 19th century idea to find out why so many city residents were dying in murders.

“I said, ‘I’m going to look at homicides in an epidemiological context,’” recalled Dr. Guerrero, 81. “People then didn’t know anything about that.”

In the early 1990s, Dr. Guerrero in a first step determined that 70% of Cali’s homicides took place in an area that made up 30% of the city.

While mayor from 2012 to 2015, Dr. Guerrero set in motion programs—both for police and communities—that have helped shave the homicide rate.

Now an adviser to Cali’s local government, Dr. Guerrero has traveled to Honduras, Ecuador, Mexico and other Latin American countries to give his prescription: data collection and analysis, and the reform of courts and police. He also calls for investing in people.

One program, Youth Without Borders, plucks willing young men from gangs for a chance at a safer workaday life through job training and therapy.

“What’s different between us and other programs in other cities is we do one-on-one follow-ups,” said Fausto Prieto, 40, who coordinates neighborhood case workers. “Every case worker has to be on top of each kid, day to day.”

City workers organize six or seven hours of programs each day, and the instruction can stretch for as long as two years or more.

Cali’s violence share two causes, said Andres Villamizar, the city’s secretary of security—too little opportunity and too little authority.

“If you ask me what works in Cali, if it’s the iron fist or social policies? I think neither of the two separately,” Mr. Villamizar said. “You have to have both. It’s naive to think that just with social investment you’ll solve the problem, just as it’s naive to think that with more police and army you’ll resolve it.”

Police had in the past focused on the number of arrests. They now target the city’s most murderous groups and individuals. Special teams of detectives this year dismantled 45 organized crime networks, a large source of homicides, said Captain Fernando Alzate, who commands the teams.

Mayor Maurice Armitage, a former businessman who has been kidnapped twice, continues Dr. Guerrero’s work.

“Here, we do all we can so that people don’t kill each other,” he said.

The Cisalva Institute, a government-funded crime-fighting policy group, runs Youth Without Borders. They hold weekly meetings to hear reports of progress and setbacks among the 1,200 former gang members they are trying to help, said Maria Isabel Gutierrez, an epidemiologist who heads the program.

When a young man is at risk of quitting the program or is in trouble, the Cisalva team spends more time in his neighborhood. To keep tabs, Cisalva has a staff of 156 people, including 35 community police officers—about one for every eight men in the program.

One goal is to prepare them for city jobs, such as the public bus system or garbage collection, positions that pay 40% above the minimum wage.

“Our style of life changed. The way we dress, the way we talk,” said Yiminson Sanchez, 25, who got a hospital job through the help of case workers.

Wilson Muñoz, 45, is an outreach worker assigned to keep 17 young men from returning to gang violence and drug-dealing. After four months in the program, Mr. Muñoz said, about 10 of them are fully committed.

Escaping the lure and protection of gangs is complicated for youths in neighborhoods where crossing from one street to the next presents the danger of entering the territory of a rival gang.

But there are enough men who want to succeed to keep the program alive, including William Bedoya. The former gang member now operates a small barber shop in his living room. He wants to support his 8-year-old son.

He is realistic about his life’s transformation. “This isn’t going to happen from one day to the next,” he said.

Credit: Wall Street Journal,

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