Drivers Of Violence In Mexico City – And What South Africa Can Learn From It. 25/2/2016

Published at Safer Spaces

In Mexico City, crime and violence have a significant impact on people’s lives. Surveys show that almost one third of adults have been victims of crime in the last year while even more than that – close to half of all adults – report feeling insecure in their communities. This begs the urgent question as to what can be done to reduce violence and crime.

A new study reveals, however, that apart from what to do in order to reduce violence and crime, it is equally important to know where to do it. The peer-review study – What Explains Criminal Violence in Mexico City – by the Brazilian-based Igarapé Institute and the Mexican Centro de Investigacio y Docencia Economicas (CIDE) explores the correlation between drivers and spatial patterns of criminal violence in Mexico City.

The study’s authors – Carlos Vilalta and Robert Muggah – find that crime and violence are highly concentrated in certain neighbourhoods. More than half of all criminal investigations occurred in 20 out of Mexico City’s 76 municipalities. Of these, just ten municipalities are identifiable as hot spots that account for more than a quarter of all reported crimes.

Looking into the social characteristics of these municipalities, the study reveals a strong relationship between high-crime areas and what criminologists call ‘social disorganisation’ and ‘institutional anomie’. This means, as the authors point out, crime is correlated with underdevelopment, income inequality, low voter turn-out, and the extent of family and/or social cohesion.

 Criminal violence is rarely spread evenly across a city – it rather tends to concentrate and densify around hot spots that share certain socio-economic characteristics.

While this may not come as big a surprise to practitioners working towards preventing violence and crime, the study adds important evidence to the fact that criminal violence is rarely spread evenly across a city – it rather tends to concentrate and densify around hot spots that share certain socio-economic characteristics.

The authors stress the importance of taking family disruption into account when designing crime prevention strategies. Stronger law enforcement is just one part of the equation. Even more critical are social protections for female-headed households, investment in parenting skills, and targeted child-care provision in low-income areas.

 Need for targeted, comprehensive prevention strategies that combine elements of law enforcement with strong social development interventions.

This provides evidence that targeted, comprehensive prevention responses are central to reducing criminal violence. These should (a) focus more strongly on identified hot spot areas; and (b) combine elements of law enforcement with strong social development interventions that “seek to limit family disruption and associated vulnerabilities (e.g. food poverty, childcare needs, etc.) rather than only address strategies around mitigating its consequences (e.g. alcoholism, drug-use, intra-family violence, etc.).”
What can South Africa learn from it?

While the socio-political context and history of Mexico City is different to South Africa, the study’s findings and policy recommendations point to at least three thought-provoking issues regarding violence and crime prevention in urban centres:

 Study the location and social characteristics of areas where the majority of criminal violence takes place

 Before designing any prevention strategy, it is vital to have a detailed understanding of the spatial distribution of crime patterns across a city. The study shows that criminal violence is not spread equally but concentrates and densifies around hot spots. Thorough research helps identify these hot spot areas as well their socio-economic characteristics.  Develop targeted, comprehensive prevention strategies that combine law enforcement with strong elements of social development
 Informed by thorough research, crime and violence prevention strategies can be developed that target in particular the challenges identified in hot spot areas. This means that complementary to law enforcement, strong elements of social development interventions need to be included that address issues ranging from parenting and early childhood development to support for single-parent households, education or youth employment.

 Such a comprehensive strategy requires the cooperation of a wide range of actors well beyond the police or justice system, including government departments such as social development and education as well as civil society and NGOs active within the communities. Safety is everyone’s business; it cannot be achieved by one actor alone.
 Ensure that comprehensive prevention strategies are properly resourced

 A comprehensive crime and violence prevention strategy won’t have any impact if it is not properly resourced. Necessary contributions from all involved actors and departments need to be identified and guaranteed. Moreover, resources need to be deployed where they are most needed – this may require the re-distribution of existing resources into identified hot spot areas.

The study makes an important case for focusing violence and crime prevention strategies and resources on areas that are characterised by high rates of criminal violence. The authors provide evidence that such a targeted approach may lead to significant reductions in crime and violence.

For South Africa, such a focus on evidence-based spatial prioritisation may help deploy scarce resources more efficiently – and hopefully promote a turnaround of criminal hot spots into safe areas that radiate safety well beyond their borders.