Study: Central America crime prevention works

By Jillian Slutzker

November 5, 2014

Community-based crime and violence prevention programs are succeeding in improving security in at-risk neighborhoods across Central America, according to a new study by Vanderbilt University’s Latin American Public Opinion Project.

The three-year study, which assessed citizen’s attitudes, perceptions and behaviors surrounding crime and violence in their communities after years of intensive community-based prevention activities, found that 51% fewer residents reported being aware of murders, extortion or blackmail.

Commissioned by the U.S. Agency for International Development, the study reported that 35% fewer residents reported avoiding dangerous areas out of fear of crime, 25% fewer residents reported being aware of illegal drug sales and 14% fewer residents perceived youth in gangs as a problem.

Stemming crime in a region with the highest murder rates in the world and neighborhoods plagued by nacro-trafficking and gang violence is a prerequisite to achieving long-term sustainable growth.

“We can’t succeed as a development agency unless we also help reduce crime and violence,” said Mark Feierstein, Associate Administrator for USAID, speaking at an October 30 event at the Wilson Center to discuss the study’s findings. “What this [study] shows is that prevention does in fact work….What we need to do now is scale this up and scale this out.”

Scaling up and scaling out, however, requires increased support—political and monetary—from the U.S. government, other donors and Central American governments.

Guillermo Cespedes, Crime and Violence Prevention Advisor at Creative Associates International, says the promising results of the study should only serve to bolster support for prevention programs.

“This study in fact gives us tools to develop more political will,” said Cespedes, who is the former Deputy Mayor of Los Angeles for Gangs and Violence Prevention. “I’m not sure that it would make sense for an elected official to take on a problem that doesn’t have a solution attached to it. So I think this study is extremely important in unpacking it….really looking at the ingredients that make programs successful rather than the label of a program.”


Youth and community at the core of prevention

Over the study period, USAID-funded community-based interventions deployed a comprehensive package of crime and violence prevention activities.

“It wasn’t one single medication. It was a public health model recognizing that the problem of crime and violence is complicated and requires a multifaceted treatment,” said Mitch A. Seligson, Founder and Senior Advisor of the Latin America Public Opinion Project.

Prevention initiatives in crime-affected communities included launching municipal crime prevention committees, improving street lighting and establishing youth outreach centers that provide a safe place for at-risk youth for recreation, mentorship, and job training instead of engaging in gang activity or violence on the streets.

The outreach center model was pioneered by Creative in 2006 in Guatemala and has since provided youth in at-risk communities throughout El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala and Panama with safe spaces and programs that address the factors that make youth vulnerable to violence. Creative has launched 201 outreach centers around the region.

Cited in the study, an outreach center coordinator in for Creative’s Alianza Joven Honduras program noted the effect the outreach centers have on getting kids off the streets, where violence occurs, and in the process improving community members’ perceptions of security.

“At the Outreach Centers…all these children, they have been out on the streets for a good while, and lately, at 2 p.m. when we open our doors, they’re waiting at the gate,” said the coordinator. “….Before, they were out on the streets, and they would jump up on the cars and do violent things….Now they come over here, and this is their entertainment place.”

The study found that the outreach center methodology, along with family-centered secondary prevention activities that work to change the behavior of at-risk youth, and community initiatives that partner with religious authorities, school administrators and community leaders, are effective approaches to crime prevention and smart alternatives to the “lock them up” model of previous years.

“We think of crime prevention as the purview of the criminal justice system, and there are lots of other levers that we have,” said Roseanna Ander, Founding Executive Director of the University of Chicago Crime Lab, who spoke at the event on the study’s findings.

The power of perceptions of security

The study, which analyzed interviews with 44 focus groups and more than 29,000 respondents, including teachers, police officers, youth and community leaders, compared 65 treatment communities to 62 control communities in a randomized control trial across El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama.

By assessing perception and behaviors rather than relying solely on police reports, the researchers were able to gather a more accurate reading on the changes in citizens’ daily lives and feelings of security.

“Reporting crime is inversely related to the amount of crime,” explained Seligson.

In Honduras, which has the highest murder rate in the world and soaring levels of violent crime, for example, less than one-fifth of survey respondents were willing to report crime for fear of retribution among other reasons. In Panama, on the other hands, levels of crime are lower but victims were more willing to come forward.

“We want more than the police can give us,” said Seligson. “That is, just the recording of a burglary or robbery doesn’t tell us everything we need to know. [In this study] we have a lot more information in terms of people’s fears of walking through their neighborhoods. We can’t get that out of a police report.”


Prevention now or pay the price later

Investing in crime and violence prevention today is a cost-effective alternative to dealing with the consequences of leaving communities in Central America to tackle these problems alone, the study’s authors noted.

In fiscal year 2014, 68,541 unaccompanied children from Central America immigrated to the U.S. and were apprehended at the border, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection.

For many of these children, risking the dangerous journey alone to the U.S. in hopes of a safer, brighter future represented their only chance of escape from targeted threats of violence and poverty back home.

Creative’s youth outreach centers, along with a comprehensive package of community-based prevention activities, is tilting the balance so that youth can remain in their communities and still have opportunities to grow, learn and thrive in a safe environment.

Prevention of course has its costs, Feierstein says, but he says it is more costly not to do it.

“We’re seeing the impact on the economies and just the social fabric in Central America. We’re seeing the immigration impact…,” he said. “We can either make very relatively modest investments in these regions, or we can spend a lot more money on our side of the border dealing with the children who are coming here.”

In its concluding policy recommendations, the study supports Feierstein’s assessment. Its first bold recommendation reads, “Make community-based violence prevention programs a frontline weapon in reducing crime and violence.”

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