III Regional Meeting on the Prevention of Crime: Embracing Alternative Approaches

This week I attended an excellent seminar in Antigua de Guatemala as part of the EurosociAL program, organized by the International Juvenile Justice Observatory (OIJJ), the European Forum for Urban Security (EFUS), and the Council of Ministers of Justice of Ibero-American Countries (COMJIB), in collaboration with France Expertise International (FEI), to discuss the issues of prevention and public security.

On July 6, the morning of the conference, most of us were woken by the rumbling of a large earthquake. While the earthquake posed no immediate harm, it was a reminder of the fragility with which too many in the Americas live.

During the conference we were all struck by the paradox that existsin much of Latin American and the Caribbean.Despite significant periods of economic growth and democratic stability (among other achievements), the region has also become one of the most violent in the world. Indeed, according to surveys like Latiobarometro and LAPOP, insecurity and public safety remain a major threat to most of our countries and a significant concern to our citizens.

While the issue of violence is one that affects us all we are concerned by the devastating way in which it affects our youth and women; according to Regional Human Development Report 2013-2014, published by the United Nations, 80% of crimes are committed by youth, and in most cases committed against youth. It is therefore not a coincidence that a large number of unaccompanied minors arrive each day to the USA from the LAC region.

This violence and insecurity affects countries and regions within countries in different ways, but again according to the surveys I mentioned earlier, there is a broadly felt perception(reality) that in manycountries state institutions cannot protect the fundamental rights of citizens to public security. In this way, security (or rather, the lack there of) has become one of the greatest threats to the democratic institutions.

At the OAS we apply the concept of Smart Security to promote cooperation among OAS Member States and other bodies of the International System Security; and also assess, prevent, address and respond to security threats. Smart Security is executed in the following 5-steps:

  1. Identify problems through objective, evidence-based diagnostics and observatories;
  2. Develop sustainable programs and project proposals, taking into account the  specific needs, and capacities of Member States;
  3. Build on and adapt existing best practices or models;
  4. Create a multidimensional approach in addressing challenges to ensure a systemic response; and
  5. Evaluate project outcomes, in addition to the results.

In applying our Smart Security approach, we have assessed the National Security Systems of 6 countries, on an as-requested basis. In many cases, we have found – surprisingly, that the problem is not always a matter of insufficient resources, rather it is the lack of coordination among security agencies and/or entities. In jurisdictions with strong leadership, where the government is able to harness a coalition of stakeholders in a unified force; the private sector, schools, municipalities, church and community, social services, police, health services, NGOs and donors — the impact over time is remarkable. This multi-stakeholder effort allows the governments to identify gaps and solve problems identified as priorities, making evidence-based investment in their respective areas.

These assessments have also shown that sometimes we forget that “rule of law” does not only refer to law enforcement, particularly if we are trying to prevent crime, not just react to its consequences. For public security to be seen as a public good you first need to build public trust so that the public has confidence in the institutions ability and capacity to provide citizens with the protection, justice, security, education, and opportunities, that they seek. This notion was echoed in our Report on the Problem of Drugs which presented possible scenarios for how to address the issue of drugs and insecurity in the Americas; one of these scenarios is titled “Together”. In this scenario, experts noted that efforts to address the security problem in the Americas have thus far been insufficient, inadequate, and fraught with weak institutions. In order to control the criminal phenomenon, we need to strengthen the institutions of our states, but also ensure that these institutions are professional, transparent, and well coordinated.

In addressing crime and violence, moreover, we must apply the evidence we have already gathered: repressive, tough-on-crime policies do not work; those most successful models/institutions are instead those which are based on the needs and capacities of local communities and governments; and of course those that focus on an integrated multidimensional solutions.

This is precisely what we have tried to promote in El Salvador through the peace process known as a “truce”. In this case, we have participated in the mediation of a cease-fire between violent gangs which in the short-term reduced the rate of homicide and violence giving stakeholders the opportunity to create time and space for a more integrated and sustainable solution.

Similarly, I attended a similar seminar in last month which operated under this same premise, emphasizing prevention and integrated solutions. Hosted in Managua, the seminar showcased a German Cooperation project called PREVENIR in which best practices regarding prevention strategies were compiled and used by local governments. PREVENIR worked with the police force of four different countries to successfully implement these strategies, even though the municipalities have no hierarchical authority of the police.

By nature I am a unsatisfied optimist, my take away from this and other similar meetings is that while we still have a lot of work to do the concepts of crime prevention and public security has now gone mainstream. Countries and authorities are moving beyond the repressive law enforcement approaches, as demonstrated in the last OAS General Assembly where Member States approved by consensus the creation of an Inter-American Network of Crime and Violence Prevention; an idea and concept whose time has more than come.

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