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A multilateral response to rising crime

Widespread violence, rising crime rates and terrorism contribute to create a climate of global insecurity that threatens many Latin American countries' hardly-earned democratic stability. National States must achieve much greater effectiveness and legitimacy in handling security issues in order to stop the growing popular disbelief in democratic institutions, which – as Latinobarometro's polls show with sobering regularity – are increasingly blamed for economic and social problems that affect Latin America.

This was the main conclusion of the day-long international conference “Fighting Urban Crime: Citizen Security in Latin America and Europe,” organized in London on June 17 by the Special Office in Europe of the Inter-American Development Bank, in association with Canning House and the CIDOB Foundation (Centre of International Relations and International Cooperation).

According to the Spanish jurist Joan Prats, Executive Director of the International Institute on Governance (IIG), security is a major dimension of Latin American political and institutional development. No significant long-term result in fighting criminality will be achieved without effective political and institutional reforms, in order to diminish the region's appalling inequality of wealth distribution. “But reforms will not happen without political conflicts,” Prats warned. “We cannot confuse institutional development with the building of roads.”

At the same time, good policies at the local level can achieve important goals in reducing crime rates and increasing social standards. Case studies were presented by Antanas Mockus (former mayor of Bogotá, Colombia), Elói Pietá (mayor of Guarulhos, Brazil) and Simon Milton (leader of Westminster Council, London).

“When I was firstly elected , in Bogotá the homicide rate was 80 per 100,000 inhabitants, that is about 3500 people killed each year. Ten years later, the rate dropped to 22 per 100,000 inhabitants,” recalled Mockus. Traffic fatalities also dropped by more than half in the same time period, from an average of 1,300 per year to about 600, thanks to a major informative campaign including the decision to paint stars on the spots where 1,500 pedestrians had been killed by cars. “Reducing crime and violence is not just a matter of repression but of education and culture as well,” Mockus said. “We have the task to educate people to legality.”

While all speakers acknowledged that urban crime is currently the most challenging threat to Latin American security, some stressed how the global political landscape dramatically changed after September 11, 2001 and March 11, 2004 terrorist attacks in the US and in Spain.

Narcis Serra, Spain's former Vice-President and former Minister of Defense, currently President of CIDOB Foundation, said that is not possible anymore to separate internal and external security issues. “Today we must talk of human security as a complete concept, and that implies putting citizens at the centre of everything”, said Serra. “We must look for non-military solutions to security problems, and we must always back UN-led initiatives. There are no real solutions to complex problems outside a multilateral approach.”

Returning to multilateralism is also indispensable for recovering political legitimacy, according to Mary Kaldor, Director of the Centre for the Study of Global Governance at the London School of Economics. If people and even governments don't have a real say in shaping their countries' future, no policy is likely to work.

For the IDB, citizen security is a serious development issue. The Bank's involvement responds to Latin American countries' needs, explained Mirna Lievano de Marques, IDB External Relations advisor. “Each country has specific characteristics, but there are general criteria for the implementation of good policies that are adaptable for the entire region, and the IDB is fully committed in helping this process,” she said.

Several of Mockus administration's successful projects on crime reduction, for example, were backed by the IDB. In the last six years the IDB has financed projects in Colombia, Uruguay, Brazil, Honduras and in El Salvador, aimed at reducing the levels of juvenile crime and violence through social prevention services, the strengthening of institutions responsible for security and the promotion of activities against domestic violence.

This was the second conference on security matters organized by the IDB in Europe. At its conclusion, there was a proposal to organize a seminar on the subject during the 2005 IDB Annual Meeting in Okinawa, Japan, in which local administrators from major cities in Europe, Asia and Latin America would discuss and exchange practical experiences on fighting crime and empowering citizenship.

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