Comprehensive strategies to reduce urban violence in Latin America

6 November 2020
Comprehensive strategies to reduce urban violence in Latin America

Latin America is the region with the highest homicide rates on the planet. Megacities, cities of medium size, and even small urban clusters have morphed into territories where homicidal violence occurs daily. According to data from the Small Arms Survey, in 2017 alone, more than 589,000 people died violenty in the world. Most of these deaths are concentrated in Central and South America and are directly tied to homicides in countries where there is no armed conflict. In the region, more than 75% of homicides are committed with firearms, which is far higher than the 50% global average1.

Furthermore, the situation imposed by the pandemic presents a dark forecast regarding the rise of violence and criminality. The present context creates a special challenge for the control of legal and illegal markets of arms and ammunition, and this task hasn’t been prioritized during the pandemic response among the multiple tasks which are confronted by the relevant institutions.

Factors and risks associated with armed violence 

Armed violence in Latin America has a direct relation with the ever-increasing proliferation of illegal markets. These markets reinforce territorial control and protection mechanisms that may be unaffiliated to State institutions or local governments. In addition, there is an increase in turf clashes with heavy calibre weapons between criminal groups and between these same criminal groups and State security forces. But where do the weapons and ammunition that these groups use come from?

All the countries in the region import weapons and ammunition and some produce them. But beyond the legal market, the presence of illegal markets of weapons is undeniable and it has a strong connection with drugs and human trafficking. Nonetheless, the existing data recognizes that many of the associated incidents of armed violence are committed with firearms which were legally produced and registered in national registries.  In this sense, the risks associated to the presence of arms in societies are not well understood by most political actors and citizens. Even though international literature confirms that the presence of arms has a direct link with the context of violence2, the public debate is not appropriately informed. 

Arms and ammunition control initiatives in Latin America

Despite this complicated context, legal frameworks have been improved and more effective mechanisms and actions have been implemented to tackle the illegal markets and to regulate gun ownership within the population. Furthermore, multiple observations highlight the necessity of better control of weapons and ammunition produced in each country, as well as their use by the armed forces, law enforcement, and the emerging industry of private security. Significant regional tools also exist, such as the “Model Legislation of the Organization of American States on the Marking and Tracing” which offers a specific framework for the regulation of the marking and tracing of ammunition3. These types of initiatives have substantially moved forward in countries such as Argentina, Brazil, or the Dominican Republic. While legal frameworks and policy design have shown some progress, the great challenge continues to be their implementation.

One of the current national challenges is the generation of evidence which would allow to make informed decisions to tackle arms and ammunition trafficking and misuse. Some municipalities (Rosario in Argentina, Miraflores in Peru, Minas Gerais in Brazil, for example) have launched initiatives to gather evidence, transform it into actionable information, and then leverage the feedback to inform national arms and ammunition control systems. This process is key to identify the use of weapons in crimes and their origins. Nevertheless, one of the major outstanding needs is to consolidate data sets and databases to include all registered weapons in a country (including those of law enforcement and the military) to ensure the traceability in case they are used in criminal actions. On the other hand, the collection of disaggregated data on femicides with firearms has become more common, such as in the case of the Observatory of Violence of Honduras4. These types of initiatives may help us to analyse gender-based violence from a more comprehensive perspective.

Lastly, in Latin America multiple initiatives of gun buy-back programs or voluntary surrender of weapons have taken place with the participation of civil society and through public-private partnerships. While the impact of said initiatives hasn’t yet been determined with precision, it is evident that they allow to visualize the problem, highlight the danger that the presence of firearms represent in the communities, and emphasize the need to coordinate information registries related to weapons and ammunition.

Linkages to Agenda 2030

Beyond arms control measeures, one of the main challenges in the region is to better understand the presence of risk factors linked to armed violence and recognize the importance and the limits that armed violence imposes on development processes throught Latin America. For this, the Agenda 2030 and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can provide a framework of analysis and action on those factors (SDG 1: No poverty, SDG 3: Good Health and Well-Being, SDG 4: Quality Education, SDG 5: Gender Equality, SDG 10: Reduced Inequalities, SDG 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities, SDG 16: Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions). 

In countries with high levels of criminality, armed violence is perpetraded by gangs and organized crime using similar recruiting mechanisms of children and young people to those in conflict. Additionally, the presence of armed groups in various territories of the region heightens the violence against girls and teenagers, mostly in  cases of sexual violence. All these previously mentioned factors create a clear barrier for the multidimensional development processes of our countries. 


The experience in Latin America shows the necessity to move towards an agenda that is much more comprehensive in order to reduce armed violence and to focus not only on its concrete manifestation (the use of weapons to resolve all kinds of conflicts), but also on its risk factors. To be able to move forward in this multisystemic perspective, there is a need for adequate information systems to provide a detailed analysis of the problem, as well as for monitoring systems to capture and analyze effectiveness of policies designed to counter such threats and risks. 

In the COVID-19 context in which the Latin American region faces, it is ever so important to consolidate efforts and take opportunities to fight against criminal groups – who will seek ways to consolidate and in some cases expand their territorial presence, exploit political corruption and exercise intimidation on populations. Without coordinated efforts to address this threat, weapons will become the daily instruments to control citizens and to install alternative justice systems.

Despite the progress achieved by local and State governments, comprehensive efforts to reduce armed violence are not a priority and lack the necessary funding. Strategies of comprehensive transformations are long-term initiatives, but they require early victories to show to the various national and international actors that progress is on the right path. In this process of reduction of armed violence, comprehensive answers are required to increase the capacities at the local, regional and global levels. Otherwise, the landscape of economic desolation characterized by increased inequalities and poverty will be met with the strengthening of criminal governance and homicidal violence. 

Lucía Dammert is an expert of urban security, crime and governability in Latin America, a tenured professor at the University of Santiago of Chile and a Member of the Advisory Board of the Secretary-General of the United Nations on Disarmament Matters.