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Crime in Rapidly Growing Inner Cities on the Rise in Latin America

Urbanization at a rate beyond the absorption capacity of already existing cities has for a long time been known as a major issue in developing countries, in part because it is connected with increased rates of crime. While "crime in urban areas in South America reached alarming levels during the 1980s ... the situation has radically changed in the 2000s: crime is consolidating as an urban phenomenon ... in regional cities."

The below "figure 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 ... 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.

"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 "Manifesto de Bogota" to reduce crime. To cope with growing crime, these cities 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 the crime is still developing."


Economists have debated the effects of development and the associated rapid urbanization on crime rates for many decades now. Through countless studies looking at issues ranging from gender equality, population density, country GDP, interpersonal trust, and everything in between, the only indicator that consistently shows statistical significance for causing increases in crime is the GINI coefficient, an indicator of income inequality.

Rapid urbanization tends towards increased crime rates as it increases income inequality--more and more poor people from the rural areas migrate to the cities in search of the high paying jobs that few people are fortunate to get. In the end you are left with a large urban population suffering from poverty and without their social safety nets associated with living in the rural areas, but closer to wealth. The bottom line is that while increasing police capacity and taking other such measures to curb crime may be effective - it will not deal with the root of the issue and simply push crime to other areas as we are seeing happing now in the regional cities.

Seeing that Latin America is increasingly recognized as the region of the world suffering from the highest levels of inequality, we can expect to see continued increases in crime rates. To get to the root of the problem, issues of gross income inequality must be dealt with.

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FORO Nacional International, August 2010, pg. 3: