“We are having the wrong conversation about public safety in the Northern Triangle”

By Janey Fugate

May 13, 2021   |   0 comments

How a cost-benefit analysis and other data offer insight into solutions about violence and migration 

The flow of migrants from the Northern Triangle has reached staggering levels in the first months of 2021, spurred by an economic downturn, hopes that the Biden Administration will be more lenient on asylum seekers at the border and the continued high levels of conflict and insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El SalvadorWhile moderate progress during the last decade has addressed one of the key drivers of migration – violence – there is still much debate among political and development circles on the most effective methods to foster safer communities in Central America 

In this Q&A, Enrique Roig, Director for Creative’s Citizen Security Practice Area, and Project Director Erik Alda, PhD, a criminologist with a strong focus on methodology and data analysis, discuss where violence prevention initiatives are headed. Bringing one of Creative’s past projects to in the region to bear, they examine the efficacy of employing a public health approach to reducing violence, using cost-benefit analysis methods to measure the programs’ success and their recommendations as a new U.S. administration offers opportunities for development practitioners to re-engage in Central America 

Can you give us a sense for what violence reduction methods have looked like in Central America and for what the U.S.’s policy is likely to be in the Northern Triangle moving forward?  

Enrique Roig

Enrique: We know that the Biden Administration is very focused on corruption as an underlying driver for migration. Corruption is a systemic problem that affects every aspect of governance including economic growth and security. The White House National Security Council and State Department have sent strong messages regarding U.S. government concerns. At the same time, drug trafficking and the role of criminal organizations continue to penetrate the political establishment. In El Salvador and Guatemala, there are strong concerns around politicization of the judiciary branch and impunity for those implicated in corruption cases. 

The Northern Triangle has seen a reduction in homicidesthough the rates remain high, disappearances have increased, extortion is rampant and gender-based violence is on the rise particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic. High rates of impunity for homicides in the region undermine law enforcement, weakening the deterrent effect for even the most minor offenses. Criminal justice resources are limited to begin with 

In some contexts, mano dura (heavy-handed) actions by police have been associated with short-term reductions in overall violence, but they threaten the longer-term goals of violence reduction by fomenting distrust of security forces in high crime communities. There is still a significant knowledge gap in Latin America about how to deal with gangs and organized crime, which also leads to lack of clarity around the most effective use of resources to address these different phenomena. 

What about the development community’s approach? 

Enrique: The politicized, heavy-handed responses of governments that prioritize law and order is a global phenomenon that has done little to address the social inequities that lead to violence in the first place. We are having the wrong conversation about public safety – one that so far has been devoid of the evidence of what we know works from public health and the underlying root causes to violence and its connection to gun trafficking and counter-narcotics strategy. See the CARSI report for the Drug Policy Commission: CARSI study.

But there is an opportunity now to have a new conversation, which will require a thoughtful, data driven approach that reimagines how we can address violence and safety effectively, one grounded in a common sense of purpose and solidarity across partisan divides. 

This has been done before under the leadership of then Vice President Biden with a focus on strategies to balance policing with whole-of-community social programs to reduce violence in neighborhoods throughout cities in the Americas. We are moving in this direction in the United States and now is in the moment to do the same in the international development space. 

With a clear body of research, data and implementation experience on evidence-based violence prevention and reduction programs, the developmencommunity can better guide investment of resources towards clearer roles of responsibilities and outcome measures.  

Given the complexity of these issues and the array of violence prevention methods, how do you measure crime and violence prevention projects’ impact? 

Erik Alda

Erik: There are many ways to rigorously measure the impact of a crime and violence prevention program, including experimental, quasi-experimental, and qualitative evaluations. USAID’s Proponte Más offers a good case study. In that project, we addressed violence primarily by strengthening families through family counseling in targeted hotspots in Honduras.  

The program team designed an impact evaluation to measure the validity of the family intervention model and our efficacy in violence prevention. Youth were randomly assigned to treatment and control groups and both groups underwent the IMC assessment. The treatment group received the six-month counseling program while the control group awaited treatment until both groups were re-evaluated using the IMC-R to measure results or changes after the six-month period.   

The evaluation determined significant reduction in risk factors 

  • After completing six-month counseling program, 78.1 percent (250 of 320) of youth who began treatment at a secondary level of risk reduced their risk levels to a primary level;  
  • 20 percent (64) remained at the same level of risk;  
  • 1.9 percent increased to a tertiary level of risk by self-reporting as belonging to a group that engages in criminal behavior;  
  • Of the 52 youth who began treatment at a tertiary level of risk, 53.8 percent (28) reduced their risk levels to a primary level of risk. Not only did the number of risk factors drop, they no longer self-reported belonging to a group that engages in criminal behavior;  
  • 26.8 percent (14 youth) no longer reported belonging to criminal groups but showed no reduction in the number of risk factors, and therefore remained at a secondary level of risk; 19.2% (10) of youth remained at a tertiary level of risk and reported as belonging to a criminal group and presented four or more risk factors. 

Tell us about the cost-benefit analysis you conducted for Proponte Más. 

Erik: In addition to the experimental evaluation, we conducted a cost-benefit analysis (CBA), which is a useful tool to examine the economic impact of violence prevention programs. They require a comprehensive examination of the program, including its intended objectives, program operationalization and its costs and the benefits it yields to program participants and to society.  

We modelled our CBA after the approach developed by Cuesta and Alda (2021)It is a simple CBA where we monetized program benefits as the costs by the programWe particularly focused on costs averted in health, criminal justice and the economically productive lost years resulting from violence. Using a reasonable set of assumptions, we find that Proponte Máyields societal benefits in terms of violence reduction. The overall dollar value of the benefits rage from $2 million to $19 million, depending on the model and the discount rate employed. The more conservative model yielded lower, yet still positive, benefits, whereas the less conservative model yielded larger benefits. These results where corroborated by additional, robust checks using different scenarios.  

A family counselor from Proponte Mas sits with a mother and son she counseling living in one of San Pedro Sula's most dangerous communities.

What did the results of your cost-benefit analysis reveal about the effectiveness of violence prevention interventions?  

Enrique: We conducted a cost-benefit analysis of Proponte Más to examine whether program benefits outweighed its costs. As noted above, we found that the social benefits in terms of violence reduction and migration prevention outweighed overall program costs. In addition to the impact evaluation findings, the cost-benefit analysis exercise suggests that programs that focus on targeted prevention approaches are a sound investment.  

The results of our study provide additional support to research showing that prevention approaches to violence far outweigh the costs of reactive responses. Our findings are particularly relevant for Central American countries where populist punitive strategies are still trending 

Erik: The evidence demonstrates that in order to reduce group-inspired violence, the focus needs to be on changing behaviors as opposed to attacking group identity. Applying this epidemiological public health approach to CVP involves examining the factors that increase or decrease the risk for delinquent behaviors and identifying the protective factors that can be strengthened through targeted prevention interventions. 

It can be hard to see the impact of violence prevention projects on a macro-level, but can you speak to their success in communities and the part they play in broader efforts to promote prosperity in the region?  

Enrique: The public health framework for violence prevention was developed by the Centers for Disease Control and applies an epidemiological approach by organizing responses to community violence based on a differentiated risk approach that focuses on places, people and behaviors. Using this approach, violence is treated as a disease, with careful diagnosis of those infected in hotspots, targeted interventions to interrupt transmission of violence, and preventive measures to keep those at risk from infection. This requires a focus on where violence is taking place and individuals most likely to engage in delinquent activities.  

While the evidence points in this direction in terms of targeting, it also potentially leads to abuses by law enforcement when certain communities are singled out and discriminated against given the violence dynamics. Navigating this scenario with a more public health approach is critical.  

This is the kind of intervention we want to see more of in programs designed to bolster public safety and address underlying causes of migration in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. 


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