In 2014, Honduras was considered the most violent country in the world not at war.
San Pedro Sula, the city at the focus of a recent New York Times article , reported a homicide rate of 142 for every 100,000 people. New York City, in comparison, had a 2014 homicide rate of 3.9 per 100,000.
But today, Honduras has moved out of the number one spot, and the homicide rate for San Pedro Sula has come down by 62%.
Sonia Nazario, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of the Times article, attributes much of this decline to violence-prevention efforts funded by the U.S. government. These efforts, including activities funded by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) and the State Department’s Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, focus on high-violence areas, funding to community organizations, and provision of support to at-risk individuals, such as mentoring and counseling to youth and families.
Many reactions to the article focused on the history of U.S. involvement in Honduras, including the impact of U.S. deportation policy and response to the 2009 coup. While these critiques are important and should be part of the broader conversation, they should not detract from a central point: Violence can be prevented.
Every day, cities across the U.S. are preventing violence through the focused, collective efforts of law enforcement, community members, service providers, and religious leaders. This approach, which Nazario mentions in her article, builds on the Boston framework pioneered by – among others – David Kennedy, founder of the National Network for Safe Communities.
The approach does not follow any specific script: Every city is different, just as every country is different.
However, certain themes remain consistent. In the most troubled communities, violence is driven by a small number of people at very high risk for victimization and offending. At the National Network for Safe Communities (NNSC), we have seen time and again that these high-risk people will respond to direct communication of community standards against violence, prior notice from law enforcement about the legal consequences of further violence, and a tailored offer of help.
There is a striking consensus on the effectiveness of this method, most commonly referred to as focused deterrence. A new book from criminologist David Weisburd ranks it the most effective strategy for reducing gun violence. And diverse cities are using it to save lives and set strong foundations for public safety.
- New Orleans saw a 32% decrease in homicides involving members of street groups;
- Oakland has reduced nonfatal shootings by almost 40%;
- In New Haven, monthly shootings dropped 73% on average.
These cities have created this impact while also limiting the unintended damage of heavy-handed enforcement and incarceration on communities already facing the burdens of poverty, marginalization, and social fragmentation.
What is different about focused deterrence efforts in the US and the work being undertaken in Honduras is the level of focus. Efforts in the US relay messages directly to individuals actively involved in group violence, whereas in Honduras many of the efforts described above are geared towards those “at-risk,” but not yet involved in group violence. According to Nazario, leaders in the neighborhood of San Pedro Sula that she interviewed see this as a “critical omission.”
At the NNSC, we have been considering how focused deterrence and its underlying principles of enhancing legitimacy, do no harm, and strengthening community prevention capacity could support violence prevention in the so-called “Northern Triangle” of Central America, comprising Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala—all of which have registered some of the world’s highest homicide rates.
We know that heavy-handed enforcement is not the answer. We know that mano duro [iron fist] policies of the past in Central America have done little to “solve” their violence problem.
In contrast, in Honduras, Nazario has shown us how the voice of the community in advocating for peace through religious leaders, local leaders and activists is an important ingredient in violence reduction. We believe their voices should be further strengthened and that local and national institutions should support and protect these indivuals.
At the same time, we recognize that the burden of change must come from those engaged in violence. Local and national institutions must support this change through legitimate and strategic law enforcement and outreach efforts to help those ready to move away from violence. We know that the police must be a part of the solution and that addressing challenges of police legitimacy is paramount. And finally, we also know what may feel like a hard truth to some: Honduras and its U.S. partners will not be able to eliminate the gangs. Not in the short term.
But the experience of U.S. communities suggests that lives can be saved and relationships can be repaired by adopting focused deterrence.
We don’t know precisely what focused deterrence would look like in Honduras or the Northern Triangle; as mentioned above all cities and all countries are different. However, there is strong reason to believe the core principles can help to reduce violence in these contexts. A recent USAID-funded meta-evaluation on what works in reducing community violence found it to have “the largest direct impact on crime and violence” among the 30 strategies reviewed, and recommended that “funders could launch a multi-site experiment of focused deterrence across the three countries in the [Northern Triangle] region.”
As Nazario’s article and the responses to it have made clear, foreign involvement in Honduras has not always come without cost. Honduras has a unique history, grounded in a political, economic, and social context that differs from the U.S.
The approach described above is not a one-size-fits-all; it deals with issues of legitimacy, trust, over-policing and under-protection, which are highly context specific. There are very real reasons for trust to have broken down, there are powerful corrupting forces at play, and political realities have and will influence the overall context.
But as we have seen, locally-driven efforts that concentrate on the right places, working with the right people, can reduce violence.
The decrease in violence in Honduras should be commended— as should the brave people putting their lives at risk every day to stand up for peace.
Yet violence in Honduras remains at epidemic levels and continues to devastate communities, inhibit growth and destroy families. Sustained, collective action has helped to reduce violence in some of the most violence-plagued communities in the U.S.
We believe it can do so in Honduras and elsewhere in the Northern Triangle as well.
Rachel Locke is a Senior Policy Advisor with the National Network for Safe Communities at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She welcomes comments from readers.