What can criminologists do when they work in countries with very high crime rates? What proposals can they make for bringing crime rates down? This was the topic I addressed when invited to talk (via Skype) to Criminology graduates in Mérida, Venezuela, in March of this year. Venezuela saw its crime rates increase dramatically from the mid-1990s onwards and now has some of the highest crime rates in the world. In 2013, the murder rate was estimated at 79 per 100,000 habitants (which compares with a murder rate of 1 per 100,000 for the UK). Such is the sense of urgency and crisis that the usual crime prevention measures, which often require long-term development, don’t seem to be appropriate.
However, one answer to the problem might be found in policies that have been adopted, with apparent success, in some other parts of Latin America. For example, the city of Medellín, Colombia, with a murder rate above 350 per 100,000 in the early 1990s saw a substantial decline to about 25 per 100,000 by 2005. How did they do it? By developing urban infrastructure to improve and integrate low income neighbourhoods, improving urban management, increasing citizen participation and, importantly, negotiating with violent actors. In other words, they established or increased the presence of the state in order to pacify the urban
environment. Many of these solutions look interesting, feasible and defensible. The worry relates to the negotiation: is it designed to dismantle violence as a form of control, or only to regulate it? That is a dilemma for criminologists as well: how do they engage with, confront and defuse systems of violence?
Chris Birkbeck, Professor of Criminology
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