Citizen insecurity thwarts Latin America’s development, says UNDP

Nov 12, 2013

Regional Human Development Report recommends prevention, institutional reforms and long-term national agreement to tackle violence

New York - Insecurity is a shared challenge that obstructs social and economic development in every country in Latin America, says a new UN Development Programme (UNDP) report launched here today. But crime control measures alone are insufficient; the most effective way to reduce citizen insecurity is by improving people’s lives, boosting inclusive economic growth and enhancing security and justice institutions, according to the Regional Human Development Report (HDR) 2013-2014.

The HDR "Citizen Security with a Human Face: evidence and proposals for Latin America" reveals a paradox: in the past decade, the region experienced both economic growth and increased crime rates. Despite social improvements, Latin America remains the most unequal and most insecure region in the world. While homicide rates reduced in other regions, they increased in Latin America, which recorded over 100,000 murders per year, totaling more than a million from 2000-2010. While homicide rates stabilized and even declined in some parts of Latin America, it is still high: in 11 of the 18 assessed countries the rate is higher than 10 murders per 100,000 inhabitants, reaching epidemic levels. Moreover, the perception of security has worsened, with robberies hiking threefold in the last 25 years, says the regional HDR.

"Citizen security is a sensitive issue which preoccupies many political decision-makers and reverberates in the heat of electoral campaigns,” said UNDP Administrator Helen Clark. "It is a crucial issue for several regions, including Latin America and the Caribbean, because without peace there can be no development, and without development there can be no lasting peace."

"There is no magic solution to insecurity, but this serious problem can be remediated—with vision and long-term political will," said UN Assistant Secretary-General and UNDP Director for Latin America and the Caribbean Heraldo Muñoz. "Each country needs to secure a National Citizen Security Agreement between the government, political parties and civil society so it truly becomes a state policy."

The HDR focuses on six main overlapping threats that negatively impact the region: street crime; violence and crime committed by and against the youth; gender-based violence; corruption (the misappropriation of public property, whose provision is the responsibility of the state); violence committed by state actors and organized crime.

"While some threats—such as organized crime, especially drug trafficking—are often used to explain insecurity, the regional, national and local dynamics are much more diverse," explains the HDR coordinator Rafael Fernandez de Castro.

One of the main lessons drawn from Latin America is that the “iron fist” policies do not work: strong police and criminal repression in the region have often coincided with high crime rates, the report says. The assessed experiences confirm that protecting the rights to life, to dignity and to physical integrity is essential to citizen security, which, as a public good, is a responsibility of the state, highlights the regional HDR.

MAPPING INSECURITY - While poverty and inequality decreased in most of Latin America from 2004-2010, in more than half of the assessed countries homicide rates rose, even in countries with lower levels of poverty. In addition, one in every three Latin Americans reported being a victim of a violent crime in 2012, says report.

The region’s rising consumer expectations and relative lack of social mobility drive "aspirational crimes," says the HDR. The transformations sparked by rapid and disorganized urban growth, as well as changes in family structure and school system deficiencies have also influenced crime in the region. Moreover, firearms, substance abuse and drug trafficking also drive violence, even though they are not direct causes of crime, according to the HDR which states that "the capacity of Latin American states has not risen the challenge of insecurity: corruption and impunity and lack of proportionality in sanctions have undermined its effectiveness and legitimacy."

UNDP-conducted surveys in prisons in Argentina, Brazil, Chile, El Salvador, Mexico and Peru highlight persistent social challenges. One in every three inmates left home before age 15 (in Chile, one in every two), and between 13 percent (Argentina) and 27 percent (El Salvador) never met their father or mother. The survey also revealed that 40 percent of inmates in Chile did not finish primary education. In all assessed countries, more than 80 percent of inmates did not complete 12 years of schooling.

The report also reveals a direct correlation between urban growth and crime: most countries with an urban population growth above 2 percent per year (the natural population growth) also reported increases in homicide rates, with the exception of Colombia and Paraguay. "The problem is not the size of the city, but the institutional capacity to include groups in marginal conditions," says the regional HDR.

Young Latin-Americans, especially males, are the most affected by crime and violence and yet are the most common perpetrators, according to the report. El Salvador (92.3) , Colombia (73.4) , Venezuela (64.2) , Guatemala (55.4) and Brazil (51.6) have the five highest youth homicide rates in the world (per 100,000 inhabitants), according to 2011 World Health Organization data .

The HDR highlights gender violence as a persistent threat and an obstacle to human development, public health and human rights in the region. Records of domestic violence, rape and female murders (femicide) have increased in almost all assessed countries. Among the UNDP-surveyed inmates who had committed sexual offenses, between 75 percent and 90 percent reported knowing their victims before the crime and between 20 percent and 40 percent were family members.

PERCEPTION OF INSECURITY - In all assessed countries the perception of insecurity is greater than the direct victimization, says the report. Five out of 10 Latin Americans perceive that security in their country has deteriorated. But in Honduras, for example, which has the highest murder rate in the world (86.5 per 100,000), eight out of 10 citizens feel safe in their neighborhoods—in line with the regional average. In contrast, in Chile—which has the lowest murder rates in the region (2 per 100,000) and low levels of victimization for theft—the perception of safety is worse than in Honduras: seven out of 10 citizens feel secure in their neighborhood.

COSTS OF INSECURITY - Insecurity impacts individuals, societies and democratic institutions. It also affects the region’s economic potential: without the excess mortality due to homicides the region’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) would have been 0.5 percent higher, equivalent to a potential gain of more than US$24 billion in 2009. In addition, Latin America lost 331 million years of life in 2009, considering the loss in life expectancy and the region’s population, based on the homicide rates for 15 countries.

Honduras incurs the highest costs of crime and violence as a percentage of their 2010 GDP (10.54 percent, equivalent to $1,7 billion), followed by Paraguay (8.7 percent, or $1,7 billion), Chile (3.32 percent, or $7.2 billion) Uruguay (3 percent, around $1.2 billion) and Costa Rica (2.52 percent, or $915 million), according to a UNDP-Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) study for the report, which analyzed the costs of crime and victimization levels in those five countries. Public expenditure as a result of crime (police officers, judges, prison system, among others) is higher in all countries except Uruguay, where the costs incurred before crimes are committed (such as security, insurance, prevention) is higher.

STATE RESPONSE - Reforming basic justice and security institutions—police, judges, public prosecutors and prisons—is essential to respond to citizen insecurity, says the HDR, which emphasizes the need to restructure the hiring, management and professionalization of staff. The report analyzed the proportion of police and judges in different countries and conducted surveys that revealed very low levels of public confidence in the criminal justice systems. Except Nicaragua and Panama, more than half of Latin Americans expressed little or no confidence in their courts’ response in case they were victims of theft or assault.

The UNDP report states that the prison system is in crisis in almost all countries in the region. Some factors such as institutional weakness of the police and courts, overpopulation and abuse of preventive detention are key challenges. In addition, the rehabilitative function of prison systems has not been prioritized in the region, according to the report, turning them into “spaces that promote violence, human rights abuse, criminal networks and recidivism." Also, the perception of Latin American citizens of incarceration as a solution to the security problems has hindered the attempts to reduce the prison population, boost alternative measures and encourage social reintegration, stresses the HDR.

BEYOND THE STATE - The report highlights the importance of "non-state actors’ " response, including civil society organizations and international cooperation. However, it emphasizes that due to the growing sense of insecurity, the expansion of the middle classes and the "thinning" of the state, private security guards are increasingly being hired in Latin America at an average annual growth rate of 10 percent. The region now has almost 50 percent more private security guards (3,811,302) than police officers (2,616,753) and Latin American private security agents are the most armed in the world, with rates of gun possession per employee ten times larger than Europe. This phenomenon further increases inequality, as social groups have different capacities to deal with crime, says the HDR.

RECOMMENDATIONS – The report emphasizes that efforts to improve citizen security must take into account the specific needs and demands of women and young Latin Americans, highlighting 10 political recommendations based on lessons learned from the region: 1. Align national efforts to reduce crime and violence, including through a Citizen Security National Agreement as a state policy; 2. Generate public policies to protect those most affected by violence and crime; 3. Prevent crime and violence through inclusive growth; 4. Decrease impunity by strengthening security and justice institutions while respecting human rights, 5. Promote the active participation of society, especially local communities in the construction of citizen security 6. Increase human development opportunities for young people 7. Tackle and prevent gender-based violence in the domestic/ private and in public spheres; 8, Safeguard victims’ rights; 9. Regulate and reduce “crime triggers”, such as alcohol, drugs, arms and weapons through a comprehensive public health perspective 10. Strengthen international cooperation coordination and evaluation mechanisms.

The regional HDR assesses citizen insecurity in 18 countries: Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Venezuela.

Contact information

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