Seguridad ciudadana en las Américas

Proyecto de investigación activa

By Jessica Varat

Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, March 2007.

Contributors: Carlos Basombrío,  Cláudio Beato, Lilian Bobea, Lucía Dammert, Guillermo Fernández, Alberto Föhrig, Vielka Polanco, Julia Pomares, Gabriel Prado, Andréa Silveira, Catalina Smulovitz

The 2006 Latinobarómetro poll found that crime and insecurity topped the list of concerns for most Latin American citizens. Their worries are well-founded. According to most measurements, levels of crime (especially violent) in Latin America are significantly higher than in the United States, Europe and the Asia-Pacific region.  Yet most governments in the region have historically been unable to implement innovative and effective policies to address citizen insecurity.  This is due in part to institutional barriers in the security sector and a lack of resources, as well as a dearth of both creativity and understanding of the roots of crime.  Given this paradox, what kind of policies should governments undertake today to reduce levels of crime and public perception of insecurity?   What are the challenges to implementing current policies?  In answering these questions, many experts find themselves questioning whether current crime prevention strategies are living up to expectations or if countries with a history of mano dura (heavy hand) policies will find themselves returning to that approach in the face of increasing urban violence?

Seguridad Ciudadana en Las Americas: Proyecto de investigación activa (Citizen Security in the Americas: An Action Research Project), a new compilation published by the Latin American Program of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, aims to answer these questions and serve as a reference for both policy-makers and scholars.  The work presents the results of five field studies by top citizen security experts, including a comparative chapter that evaluates these programs to determine best practices. The five countries studied, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Dominican Republic, and Peru, have varying levels of crime and diverse national citizen security policies.  Contributors to this volume evaluate these policies as they are carried out at the local level, providing the reader with a view of the specific needs of local communities and neighborhoods.

The majority of the studies rely heavily on interviews with a broad range of social actors, as well as on quantitative data.  The chapter on Brazil (Cláudio Beato and Andréa Silveira) for example, examines national citizen security programs with three main goals:

  • Improve the relationship between the community and the police
  • Encourage coordination amongst police units and identify “hot spots” to prevent violent crime)
  • Reduce homicides in these high-risk areas through an integrated and community-based approach.  

The chapter focuses on the implementation of these programs in the city of Belo Horizonte and uses extensive quantitative survey data to measure public opinion and efficacy of the programs.

In an era when most discussions of citizen security and violence in Latin America are focused on gang violence in Central America and transnational crime, Seguridad Ciudadana en Las Américas provides the reader with an analysis of the policies used by South American governments to confront their age-old problems of citizen insecurity at the local level. Catalina Smulovitz highlights these results in the comparative chapter and proposes a number of best practices and lessons based on the studies.  The most successful programs were locally oriented andparticipatory, integrating government officials, community leaders and police forces. These common factors improved citizens’ perceptions of insecurity as well as their relationships with the police force. Yet, despite these successes, an overall lack of trust remained between all actors involved—leading many participants to question the projects’ sustainability. In Brazil’s New York City-inspired program Integração e Gestão de Segurança Pública (Integration and Management of Public Security), civil and military police were hesitant to share strategic intelligence information with outsiders, be they program facilitators or community members.

In addition, the evaluations demonstrated that the long-term participation of all actors must be guaranteed in order to ensure the sustainability of such programs.  High levels of participation in workshops, community meetings, and other activities, observed in the initial stages of the programs generally declined due to case-specific variables, (such as the levels of distrust in the Brazil case study). Another important caveat noted by the authors was the high level of participation by officials compared to community members. By identifying these and other deficiencies and best practices, Seguridad Ciudadana en Las Américas provides policy recommendations that are useful to any government or social actor attempting to implement local citizen security initiatives.


Jessica Varat
 is Program Associate at the Latin American Program, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

See also: Crime, Violence