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Citizen security: Colombia’s experience

Political scientist, journalist, and citizen security expert, Andrés Restrepo was Bogota’s undersecretary for Citizen Security Affairs for more than six years. In this interview he summarizes Colombia’s efforts to improve citizen security.

What was the situation in Colombia before the strategy to reduce crime and violence was changed?

At the start of the 1990s, Medellín had a homicide rate of 381 per 100,000 persons. Bogotá’s rate was 86 per 100,000 persons. The discussion at that time was the same as the one today in Central America: how to stop the violence to promote development.

In Colombia, the convergence of two fortuitous developments led to a systematic process of managing citizen security. One was a paradigm shift: The end of the Cold War caused a dramatic shift in the concept of security throughout the continent that forced us to look inward, to the security of our own cities and citizens. This change in focus was accompanied by a second favorable development, which was that the 1991 Constitution created a framework for managing security, not only from the perspective of citizen rights, but also in giving concrete responsibilities to local authorities for administering public order and security, except in cases of obvious national interest.

So local governments began to discuss what would be the best institutional structure to respond to this challenge. The answers varied according to the state of institutional development of each jurisdiction. In the case of Bogotá, an undersecretary of security was created under the Secretariat of the Municipal Government. Other Colombian cities chose special advisors attached to the office of the mayor or under the municipal government secretariat. Over time a common response has emerged. Most large cities now have an undersecretary, whose specific nature reflects its specific circumstances, institutional structure, and security problems that must be addressed.

What was the new approach? How did it differ from the previous one?

There’s an integrated approach that demands a solid institutional security structure, intensive training for the operators (security forces, civil authorities, and citizens), a great capacity for coordination and consultation, considerable political will and decision-making capability, and strong citizen and private sector participation. This serves as the foundation for "collective security pacts," in which everyone works toward a common goal: more and better security.

How did the IDB become involved in this issue?

In parallel to the other developments, two discussions led to the IDB’s involvement. The first was the definition of a public security policy, which paradoxically was achieved in the cities before the national level. Then the IDB pressed for the need to define plans and long-term, sustainable programs, where results could be measured and achieved. This marked the emergence of the violence and crime observatories in Cali as well as in Bogotá and Medellín. In the end, Bogotá’s observatory became the largest in Latin America and a training center in the field for the entire region.

The experience of Cali, under former mayor Guerrero, was also very important for its enormous epidemiological contribution to the analysis of crime and other violence. In fact, a project to standardize regional indicators is being carried out today by the IDB and CISALVA, of the Universidad del Valle, in which the former mayor and some members of his team are taking part.

The IDB provides technical experience and promotes dialogues with the mayors of major cities in which it explains the need to define a clear citizen security policy, the importance of well-planned security management, and the need for local security plans. The next step is a discussion on financing citizen security and the importance of adapting regulatory mechanisms so that the plans can be properly applied in a particular geographical context.

In the case of Bogotá, the issue resulted in the Code of Coexistence, which was drafted with citizen participation. The code sets forth the precepts of good citizen behavior and the application of sanctions. The same process was then carried out in Medellín. The IDB participated in all of these processes, working with local authorities to create experiences that would then be replicated and improved.

Local management of public safety entails additional costs for cities. How do you view this subject?

In Colombia there has been a lengthy discussion on how to best finance the cost of security. Security funds were established that received contributions from each public works project. This instrument has been very important. The IDB has contributed to the analysis of how to improve financing for security. In fact, meetings of the Committee of International Friends of the Central American Security Strategy have taken note of this issue, which is considered of utmost importance. We must systematize the region’s experience in this field, where the mechanisms are so diverse.

Which have been the most effective programs?

The IDB arrived in Medellín, Cali, and Bogotá at precisely the time when these cities were most affected by violence. Due to the serious work that was carried out with local authorities and other important stakeholders, such as the police, civil society, and the private sector, these trends were reversed. Bogotá now has a multi-year security plan and has identified its most critical districts. Meanwhile, Medellín has made significant progress in recognizing the importance of comprehensive action in addressing matters of citizen security. What is known today as the "Medellín laboratory for coexistence and citizen security" also serves as a mechanism for ongoing consultation by countries throughout the region.

Perhaps the most notable development has been the observatories. This is one of the greatest contributions that Colombia can make to other countries. All cities with observatories have been able to manage citizen security in a more systematic way, since they now have mechanisms for monitoring the conduct of criminal behavior. They also provide a way to track compliance with specific targets for reducing crime rates, which began appearing in local development plans. This approach is being put to use in Central American countries.

Developments in Brazil and Chile also serve as reference points for the region in other aspects of citizen security management. The experience of the Chilean police is one example. Another is a methodology for taking action in critical areas that are greatly affected by violence, which is being developed in several cities in Brazil. The IDB serves as a disseminator of good practices and experiences.

What explains the spikes in levels of violence and crime?

Violence and delinquency are cyclical. Criminals are highly mobile and take advantage of any opportunity or institutional laxity. This is why systematic and sustainable management in security is so important. In the case of Colombia, for example, after the demobilization of the so-called "paramilitary" forces, a marked qualitative change took place in criminal behavior that today demands renewed efforts.

What is the agenda going forward?

We must continue working to strengthen institutions―we ourselves must be organized in order to take effective action against organized crime. We must train more and better civil servants to manage the process of security governance, improve the quality of the police force, foster technological innovation for security, emphasize prevention in work with youth, and disarm citizens. It is also essential to strengthen the judicial and penal systems, never losing sight of the need to respect human rights and democratic freedoms.

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