From repression to opportunities: Two approaches to violence reduction in Latin America

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Photo: Palmira Mayor’s Office

Daniela Reina

​According to Amnesty International, the authorities in El Salvador have committed “serious human rights violations” since President Nayib Bukele decreed a state of exception in early 2022. His aim was to punitively combat the gangs allegedly responsible for a wave of killings that left 87 people dead in a single weekend.

According to this report, in the first nine months of that state of exception, more than 60,000 arrests were made, without warrants or in flagrante delicto. Since then, the media have warned that at least 170 deaths have been caused by the government's repressive measures.

As a result of these arrests, El Salvador has the highest incarceration rate in the world (1927 prisoners per 100,000 inhabitants, compared to the world rate of 152 per 100,000 inhabitants), which means that 1% of the entire Salvadoran population is imprisoned. And less than a month ago Mauricio Arriaza Chicas, director of the National Civil Police of El Salvador, declared that the homicide rate in his country had fallen to between 2.3 and 2.4 per 100,000 inhabitants as a result of the measures adopted.

These incidents, which have undoubtedly triggered a human rights crisis in El Salvador due to their exclusively punitive nature, are in stark contrast to the social prevention of violence strategy implemented in 2020 by Mayor Óscar Escobar in Palmira, Colombia. The year before, Palmira shared the list with San Salvador of the 50 most violent cities in the world (as ranked by the Citizen Council for Public Security and Criminal Justice of Mexico and The Economist). Historically, both cities have reached peaks above 110 homicides per one hundred thousand inhabitants.

Palmira’s strategy is called Pazos (for “Peace and Opportunities” in Spanish) and was conceived as an innovative alternative to prevent and reduce violence, addressing its structural causes in a comprehensive way. The traditional (confrontational and punitive) measures to reduce urban violence had not been effective in the Colombian context. Unlike the confrontation measures of Bukele’s government, the Pazos strategy focuses public, private and international cooperation efforts on the areas with the highest incidence of lethal violence among the population, and on the main perpetrators and victims of violence – young people between the ages of 14 and 29. With this focus, Pazos envisages the execution of various programmes in five components: disruption, intervention, prevention, safe environments and access to justice.

The results of Pazos are promising in terms of violence prevention and peacebuilding. In April 2021, for example, Palmira left the ranking of the 50 most violent cities in the world after being included in it for seven consecutive years. In October 2022, the city won the UCLG Peace Prize at Daejeon, South Korea. And before the end of the year, Palmira achieved its lowest homicide rate in 17 years, with 42 fewer cases than the previous year.

The international philanthropic organization Open Society Foundations, one of Pazos's allies, carried out an impact study that showed that indeed there was a causal relationship between the strategy's focus on young people and the reduction in Palmira’s homicide rate.

Last June, a delegation of more than 30 international experts in violence prevention and peacebuilding from the Peace in our Cities international network visited the city of Palmira to learn first-hand about the Pazos strategy and its results.

Mayor Óscar Escobar’s mandate ends on 31 December. Now he is debating his public crime prevention policy in the Municipal Council. Palmira is the first Colombian city to formulate and develop such a policy, which is, of course, based on the Pazos strategy. The support of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime was essential in reaching this milestone. It is worth noting that the mayor took over the city with a homicide rate of 80 per 100,000 inhabitants, and that the Pazos strategy aims to reduce this indicator to 66 by the end of 2023. ‘Peace and opportunities’ are his legacy, and with this unique strategy, he hopes to present an alternative to local governments in a region where punitive approaches are popular but unsustainable, threatening Latin America's democracies and the Rule of Law.


This entry has been inspired by the Berlin Summer Dialogue 2023 "Can cities save the world? The impact of city networks and city-partnerships for peace and development", an event organized by the Development and Peace Foundation (sef:) in cooperation with the German Corporation for International Cooperation GmbH (GIZ) and the federal state of Berlin. Since 2010, the conference has established itself as a successful format that offers international experts the opportunity to exchange views on current issues surrounding international responsibility in crises and conflicts in an atmosphere of mutual trust.


Daniela Reina, Cooperation Commissioner, Mayor’s Office of Palmira, Colombia