Crime in urban areas: A heavy burden for regional cities

Homicide rates in South American cities peaked during the 1980s and were reduced during the 1990s. The challenge nowadays consists on reducing it in inner cities

By: Fernando Prada

Crime in urban areas in South America reached alarming levels during the 1980s due to a combination of a growing population, drug-trafficking, political violence and terrorist groups acting in rural and peri-urban areas that surpassed the capacity of national and local governments to cope with them in a context of economic crisis. Homicide rates (homicides per 100,000 habitants) in Colombia grew from 20.5 to 89.5 on average from the end of 1970s to the end of 1980s, from 2.4 to 11.5 in Peru, from 6.4 to 10.3 in Ecuador, and from 11.5 to 19.5 in Brazil. By 2004, the year of the last consolidated data available from the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (ONUDC), this rate has reduced in Colombia (36.0) and Peru (5.1), but it has increased in Ecuador (15.0) and Brazil (28.6).1 The situation has radically changed in the 2000s: Crime is consolidating as an urban phenomenon and translating into regional cities.

Nevertheless, crime is unevenly distributed across cities. Figure 1 presents data for selected cities in Latin America, showing that crime is higher in inner cities such as Medellin, San Pablo, Cali and Recife compared to national capitals. Moreover, Acerco and Cardona (2009) find that homicide rates in Colombian cities are higher in inner cities than in Bogota (19). For example Barranquilla, Santa Marta, Cali and Arauca present rates of 32, 49, 70 and 101 respectively in 2007.2 However, data on the explosion of crime in inner cities has been more anecdotal. In Peru, crime has been growing in emerging regional cities such as Ica, Chiclayo and Trujillo, cities marked by a combination of economic prosperity, growing population and lack of government capacity to control crime.3


The perception of insecurity has been growing and cities are willing to take action and learn from other experiences in the region to cope with this problem. Recently, 41 regional and capital cities in Latin America signed an agreement with the IADB, the “Manifiesto de Bogotá” to reduce crime (April 2010).4 To cope with growing   crime,   these   cities

Figure 1. Homicide rates in selected cities (2004)

Fuente: Adapted from PNUD (2004), Proyecto Regional de Gobernabilidad Local en América Latina LAC-SURF.

propose increasing the use of new surveillance technologies, harmonizing data collection on crime, improving coordination between police forces and local authorities and increasing financial support to and collaboration with local communities.


Cities in South America already experienced high crime rates in the 1980s and were successful at reducing them. Nowadays the challenge is different because crime is blooming in regional cities where government capacity is lower and the infrastructure to cope with crime is still developing. International cooperation can help cities raise awareness about crime and find cost-effective solutions by promoting inter-city technical cooperation, exchanges of experience, and harmonization of approaches that respect human rights and unique local characteristics.

1 Acerco, H. (2009), Violencia, delincuencia y gobiernos locales en América Latina (Chart 1 in page 2). [accessed: August 2010].

2 Acerco, H. and Cardona, S. (2009),  Medellín, Bogotá: Del autoritarismo y anarquía a la garantía civilista de los derechos ciudadanos. Mejoría de la seguridad ciudadana.

3 See for example:  Puell, L; F.  Valle and V. Alarcón (2010), “El Hampa se apodera del norte del Perú.” In: Perú 21, Lima, March 14th 2010. [accessed: August 2010].

4 See:

Las opiniones expresadas en el boletín son de responsabilidad de FORO Nacional Internacional y no de la Fundación Rockefeller.
  • Miscelaneas
  • Artículos Recientes