Report of the OAS Secretary General, Jose Miguel Insulza, on the Public Security Situation in the Americas

October 7, 2008

(Presented at the second plenary session, held on October 7, 2008)

The generally accepted standards for recognition of the existence of an epidemic are 10 cases per 100,000 inhabitants. According to the World Health Organization’s World Report on Violence, in 2002 the homicide rate in Latin America and the Caribbean was already 22.9 persons per 100,000 inhabitants. This single fact makes our region the setting of a genuine epidemic, which is taking more lives than any disease afflicting us today.

This situation is even more serious in a considerable number of large cities, where homicide rates range from 40 to 120 per 100,000 inhabitants. In Central America the rate reaches, on average, 36 cases per 100,000 people. In El Salvador, according to official data, homicide reports totaled 55.3 per 100,000 inhabitants in 2006; in Jamaica, 49.1; in Guatemala, 45.2; in Venezuela, 45; in Honduras, 42.9; and in Colombia, 37.3. The situation is similar in the Caribbean where, although the rates are somewhat lower than in South America, they are still significantly above the global average.

This picture is even worse among our youths. Young people tend to be the main victims of violence. In fact, violence is the leading cause of death throughout the region among youths aged between 15 and 29, with a rate of 83.2, and the rate is even higher for young people in the middle and low social strata, with over 100 cases per 100,000 inhabitants.

Not only does the region suffer from extreme violence due to homicides, caused in large part by other criminal activities and mainly by drug trafficking, it also suffers from numerous other day-to-day common criminal acts, such as robbery, kidnapping, sexual abuse, criminal youth gangs, and domestic violence.

It is true that the scope and gravity of this phenomenon differ widely among our countries. However, despite these differences, there are strong ties of violence and crime among our subregions and countries. The best example of this is trafficking in illicit drugs and related crimes. Another example is the events of September 11, 2002, which pointed to the need to update security structures related to the transit of persons and goods.

In short, the fact of the matter is that differences between subregions, countries, and even cities within a country cannot be ignored, but that globalization of crime and violence is the overarching feature. Moreover, this form of globalization allows criminal activity to increase the use of technology, its organizational capacity, and its level of violence. This is the principal characteristic of such activities as drug and arms trafficking, trafficking in persons, and transnational criminal networks that organize this illicit trade.

This activity is known as organized crime. Possible explanations for its increased importance in the region are diverse. Prominent among them are increased drug use, the easy procurement of firearms, modern communication and banking systems, porous borders, weak institutions associated with the criminal justice system, police corruption, and a judiciary that, according to opinion polls, is considered inefficient, sluggish, and unjust in almost all countries of the region.

It is easier to understand the challenge that organized crime poses to governments when one is aware of the revenues it generates. The Andean subregion is responsible for approximately 90% of the total global production of coca leaf and cocaine. About 900 tons of the drug are produced every year, with a market value of $60 billion, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. In general terms, drug trafficking generates income of approximately $320 billion per year, a figure higher than the GDP of most of our countries.

Drug production and marketing degenerate into local consumption problems, which often entail retail drug sales or microtrafficking, with those carrying out this activity often paid in kind for selling at the local level. The result is a significant, tragic series of secondary effects, such as ties to criminal gangs, prostitution, the illicit arms trade, and other types of criminal activities.

And drug trafficking is not the only criminal activity that has prospered. According to the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), human trafficking generates annual revenues of $9.5 million around the world. The transit of firearms and ammunition as well as kidnapping and associated crimes also belong to the category of criminal activities whose impact and consequences have increased.

Because of the high revenues organized crime generates, it plays an important part in the corruption of individuals and institutions. According to Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Transparency Index, 20 out of 28 of the countries of the Hemisphere have a score below 5, which indicates the perception of a serious level of corruption in the national sphere. Furthermore, 11 countries have a score of 3, or lower than 3, which is indicative of a perception of endemic corruption.

Moreover, a large number of countries in our region are affected by the presence and activities of criminal gangs, originally youth gangs. Over the years these gangs have changed their characteristics and their ways of operating. Their members may be as young as eight years old, but their hard-core segment is made up of adults older than 21 and up to 40 or 50. They operate in a manner similar to organized crime’s and commit crimes ranging from retail drug sales to kidnapping.

Unfortunately, we are forced to admit that violence has taken root in the region as a way of settling all types of day-to-day conflicts and is manifested in numerous ways, not only in public settings but also in the homes of a large part of the population. There is no doubt that one of the principal scourges we are facing is the magnitude of domestic violence, mainly against women and children but also against the elderly. Depending on its definition, domestic violence affects between 25% and 50% of all women in Latin America. And we must bear in mind that in many cases women are brutally murdered by close relatives and spouses.

Violent acts take place every day not only at home but also in schools. Studies conducted in different countries of the region point to high levels of violence, aggression, and physical punishment in schools, which go so far as to seriously impede young students’ ability to concentrate.

The loss of material goods is also one of people’s major concerns. Over and above the violence that victims generally suffer in these cases, the symbolic and material losses associated with these crimes leave a deep mark on them, which redefines their daily lives and increases their feelings of insecurity. In most countries of the region, reports of this type of crime have increased in the past few years.

Over time, the gravity of the situation described thus far has had an inevitable impact on public opinion, which, according to various national and regional surveys, ranks insecurity among the top two or three most serious concerns, outranked – when it is outranked – only by poverty or unemployment.

Information provided in the regional survey, “Latinobarómetro, has shown a twofold increase in this perception between 2003 and 2007. Last year 63 percent of those surveyed said that their county was very unsafe and 73 percent that they were constantly fearful about becoming victims of crime.

The situation described above is directly linked to growing citizen distrust of institutions responsible for crime control and prevention. Do our institutions deserve this increasing distrust?

Let us consider first the ministries responsible for public security. In most of our countries, they generally have responsibilities in addition to those directly linked to this topic, which is one of the reasons it is difficult to consolidate effective leadership in the area. Added to this is the limited development of their technical capabilities, institutional precariousness, ongoing processes of change and redefinition, limited stability of the personnel in charge, and little or no follow-up or evaluation of the programs and initiatives implemented.

One constant feature of this reality for the ministers of the region has been the extent to which public security issues are controlled by institutions. Another factor that cannot be overlooked is the absence of public policies that establish clear goals and objectives in this regard. Some countries have developed national plans, but these plans have not led to effective procedures for following up on the achievement of goals or have been substantially altered within a short period of time. Most countries do not have any securities plans or policies at all.

Another serious challenge facing the ministries is how to deal with the absence of quality data and ensure a certain uniformity of data, thus enabling comparability of available information. It is apparent that in public security, unlike other areas, there are no parameters that set international standards and guarantee uniformity and continuity in decision making. This is the role played, in their respective spheres, by the Pan American Health Organization, the International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. However, police data or data on the administration of justice have never achieved an equivalent position. As a result, in many countries data differ according to the source consulted, and in more than a few cases governments themselves avoid providing information for reasons of internal policy.

Without reliable data for systematic follow-up, monitoring, and assessment of the crime situation, it is difficult to tackle the problem and take appropriate decisions, whether in the design and implementation of public policies or in the generation of legal tools for making justice more effective.

The two basic data collection tools for crime and related activities are at present crime report records and victim surveys. Various Latin American countries have begun to develop report record systems that can generate data in an integrated way. In Chile, the National Crime Data System has existed since 1999, and Mexico has launched the “Mexico Platform.” In Ecuador, the Ministry of the Interior developed the Technical Executing Unit of the National Citizen Security Plan, in which the National Citizen Security Observatory was built. These are not the only cases but serve to show the many efforts made toward consolidating more effective criminal data systems.

Studies on victimization are designed to provide data on victimization as a complement to police data, in order to categorize the criminal acts that the reports cannot address. The United States Department of Justice has been carrying out the National Crime Victimization Survey (NCVS) since 1972, and in Canada complete victimization surveys have existed since 1988. In Latin America and the Caribbean, only a small group of countries have established mechanisms for collecting data on victimization in addition to their crime records systems. One of these countries is Argentina, which, through its National Criminal Police Office, used this instrument in the country’s largest cities from 1997 to 2003. For its part, Colombia has had a victimization survey since 1996, which it conducts together with the Bogotá Chamber of Commerce and the city’s mayor’s office. The Metropolitan District of Quito also conducted victimization surveys in 2003, 2004, and 2008. The National Urban Citizen Security Survey carried out by the Ministry of the Interior of Chile and the country’s National Statistics Institute constitutes a major step forward in providing yearly national data, with a focus on urban areas.

I must insist that access to crime data has an impact on the capacity to address the problem. And I also must insist on the inadequacies in this area. Today it is easy to note discrepancies in the figures provided by different institutions in a single country, as well as technical and technological weaknesses in data collection and presentation, in addition to difficulties in access to these data by the public at large. This situation merely increases the lack of confidence in official figures and seriously affects the quality and relevance of related public policies.

Now I would like to refer briefly to our police institutions. In many of our countries, these institutions have been the subject of important reforms in recent years and significant personnel increases. Their budgets have also risen significantly and, while the main component of this expenditure has been for salaries, several countries are paying special attention to infrastructure and technological development. Lastly, I would like to emphasize that democratization processes, especially the justice reforms of recent years, have led to the establishment of civilian institutions dedicated to research in many of our countries.

However, I should also point out those important areas in which the structure and operations of our police are severely inadequate, inefficient, and ineffective. I should begin by pointing out that precarious salaries and social benefits are a common trait among most of the police in the region. In many countries, the bulk of the police have very low salaries and inadequate health, educational, and housing benefits.

This instability of police work goes hand in hand with minimum requirements for admission into the force, especially for junior officers or troops assigned to patrol duty, which in some cases do not even call for completion of high school or middle school. Likewise, police training methods are far from optimal. In many countries, the urgency of increasing the number of officers dispatched to provide surveillance and security has led to a reduction in the number of hours of police training.

Other common police problems in the region that need to be solved in the short term to achieve effective and efficient public security management are the extreme concentration of power in a small number of high officials, police participation in the oversight of prisons, and limited career development possibilities for police. In addition, in many of the region’s police forces, existing doctrines, visions, and missions are inadequate for modern times, police work is not focused on what is essential, and the roles and functions of the police are not clearly defined. Likewise, there is little coordination with other institutions, a clear absence of mechanisms for internal control, scant external control from the government and civil society, and, of particular concern, serious corruption problems.

Ministers and friends:

We have to admit that the extent and intensity of crime and the shortcomings or weaknesses of our institutions in combating it drastically impair the quality of life of the population and lead to widespread fear, which, in turn, poses a direct threat to the stability of democracy and to the feasibility of economic and social development.

The root causes of this phenomenon are to be found, primarily, in organized crime; above all drug trafficking and related offenses and the corruption they generate. Much of the street violence afflicting citizens is related to that scourge, which, we can safely say, no country in the region is completely free from.

Then there are also socio-economic factors. Although poverty in itself is not the explanation, there is indeed a very clear correlation with crime when poverty is combined with other factors, such as the inequality, marginalization, and exclusion endured by a very large segment of the population.

Other causes have to do with urbanization. The vast majority of Latin American and Caribbean cities have grown with no urban planning, with inadequate, and in some cases nonexistent, basic services. Whole sections of those large cities are, moreover, bereft of any presence of the State and characterized by so-called “informality.” They constitute alien economic, social, and cultural spheres, impenetrable to laws and institutions. In extreme cases, whole districts within cities are controlled by organized crime.

Mention must also be made of factors that have to do with attitudes, values, and culture. Individual success, associated with material success, tends to be regarded nowadays as a significant benchmark of social standing. In that kind of setting, urban life exacerbates the contrast between the opportunities and benefits of a modern lifestyle and the impossibility for many people of achieving them through legal means.

Another key element in the insecurity so widespread in our region has to do with family relations. A high percentage of families are one-parent households, in which the father or mother is an adolescent, or with multiple offspring, lacking social protection and living in overcrowded homes that induce or exacerbate conflict, maltreatment, and violence, especially among the least privileged segments of society.

It is also vital to look at the real circumstances in which young people live. In Latin America and the Caribbean, 21 percent of young people do not either study or work. Every day they are likely to either provoke or be victims of violence because of the lack of employment opportunities, the impossibility of receiving a decent education, and zero access to recreation facilities or a healthy community life. It is hardly surprising, in that scenario, that drugs and alcohol are taking an increasingly heavy toll on the youth in our region, even on minors.

Another major factor is the culture of lawlessness that pervades our societies, in which conflicts are settled by people taking the law into their own hands, generally through acts of violence. Reinforcing that culture is the fact that States, often lacking in legitimacy themselves in the eyes of citizens, are incapable of dealing with problems and conflict through institutional channels.

Impunity is another facet of the culture of lawlessness, because in our countries, generally speaking, the vast majority of misdemeanors and many more serious crimes go unpunished, aggravating the victims’ sense of defenselessness and humiliation. Failure to punish criminal offenses is an incentive for criminals to expand and repeat their crimes.

Special mention must be made of the difficulties faced by our police forces. The obstacles they face are so dire that too often they are regarded as being ineffective, untrustworthy, and lacking in credibility.

Last, but by no means least, we must mention the problems of our prisons. Everything in that sector poses, we must admit, not just a problem but a serious problem: from the rudimentary or nonexistent classification and separation of inmates to run-down infrastructure and overcrowding. One of the most serious problems is the inability to exert even internal control inside prisons, which has led to numerous crimes being repeated inside them and, even worse, to the ongoing management of major criminal activities outside by prison inmates. The prisons are the Achilles heel of our criminal system and the focal points of the worst violations of human rights. That is why we have a prison population with such a high propensity to violence, such a high percentage of drug addicts, veritable AIDS and tuberculosis epidemics, and high suicide rates, as well as other grave problems.

I have to say that the explanatory factors I have attempted to describe only help us to grasp the phenomenon of citizen insecurity if they are seen to be interrelated. It is essential to understand that the problem of insecurity cannot be construed solely as the sum of the crimes our society endures. It has to be seen as a wider, more deeply-rooted phenomenon that comprises those individual crimes but goes beyond them to create a whole social environment.

We have to understand that citizen insecurity is, basically, an atmosphere of fear and uncertainty that prevents people from fully exercising their rights and freedoms. That is to say: an atmosphere brought about by violent behavior and criminal practices that actually or potentially threaten the life, bodily integrity, and property of the majority of the members of a community and all too often remain unpunished.

This citizen insecurity is doing grave harm to all the countries in the region. That harm is evident in the human, social, political and economic costs paid by society as a whole, but particularly by the poorest and most vulnerable groups within it.

As a result of crime and violence, in absolute terms, more than 100,000 lives a year are lost in the region. The human cost includes, in addition, the millions of direct victims of non-lethal crimes, who suffer grave and long-lasting consequences. Another part of the human cost is the existence of almost 4 million people deprived of their liberty, many of them convicted by the courts, others trapped in interminable court cases, and many who have served their sentence but, due to inefficiency in the system, are still in prison.

In the political sphere, deep public concern with crime and the widespread perception that the State is incapable of addressing the problem effectively have intensified the crisis of legitimacy and trust in the still fledgling democratic institutions of the Hemisphere. Crime also undermines the culture of rights and freedom and tends to spawn new threats to human rights. The fear and indignation that citizens feel when faced with criminal acts may lead us to think that freedoms and rights actually aid and abet the criminals. Sometimes the regulations governing the actions of the security forces may even strike us as a constraint on their effectiveness. There may even be cases in which people rail against fundamental rights, such as the presumption of innocence until proven guilty or due process of law, because they see them as favoring criminals.

Citizen insecurity is also costly in terms of the way people relate to one another and get organized as a society. Social and physical segregation is accentuated and, out of fear, whole districts frequently ban other citizens from access and transit. Another major social repercussion of citizen insecurity is prejudice and even the stigmatization of large segments of the populations, a phenomenon that can turn particularly nasty when it concerns minorities, such as immigrants or ethnic groups.

Finally, crime and violence exact a heavy economic price for our societies. Combating crime is a major component of government expenditure. In addition to that, and in different guises, people in all social strata feel obliged to spend part of the family budget on their own supplementary security precautions. There are also clear indications that generalized insecurity impairs financial decisions and investment opportunities, which have a direct impact on the region’s development. We should also bear in mind that the worst form of crime and violence, homicide, directly disrupts economic life. According to Inter-American Development Bank estimates, the economic costs of violence could total the equivalent of 14 percentage points of GDP in Latin America and the Caribbean.

Any analysis of public insecurity in the Americas needs to accord pride of place to a change of paradigm and to promote prevention as a core ingredient of public policies designed to address it. No purely law-enforcement-oriented activity can achieve the maximum social efficiency required to combat crime and violence in our societies if it is not accompanied by an adequate strategy of prevention.

Local governments should be the authorities best suited to implement violence prevention and control activities. Local governments are those closest to the problem and the forum in which citizens can convey their complaints, concerns and demands for solutions. At the same time, local governments are in a better position to work with the community on prevention. Success in the struggle against crime and violence requires, above all, smooth and flexible collaboration between the central and local governments.

Some prevention policies and programs in Latin America and the Caribbean have effectively reduced and prevented crime at the local level. Notable success was achieved, for instance in the cities of Bogota, Cali, and Medellin in Colombia, in which there was a significant turnaround in levels of violent crime, thanks to multisectoral and coordinated policies. At the hemispheric level, it is worth underscoring the work done by Canada to develop prevention policies and programs that have become a model throughout the world as well as the problem-oriented policing programs developed in the United States.


We have to acknowledge that the enormous demand for effective actions to address citizen insecurity is entirely justified. Security is a core part of human rights and when it is impaired other fundamental rights can no longer be fully exercised.

It is necessary, therefore, to forge security policies that, within the rule of law and strengthening the rule of law, are imbued with insight into the most complex causes of insecurity, address its immediate manifestations, and significantly reduce the possibility of it occurring in future.

I am convinced that such national public security policies must meet the following general criteria:

They must be democratic and they must abide strictly by the Constitution of the country concerned and by international treaties.

They must be implemented by police forces duly educated and trained to fulfill essential and specific functions in line with the security policies.

Public security policies must remain strictly under the command and responsibility of the democratic authority, which shall be governed by the contents of those policies, direct actions to be undertaken, and be answerable to the other institutions and the citizenry both for what it does and for the outcomes.

Security is a public good for which the chief responsibility lies with the State, not with private companies or groups engaged in that field.

They must be professionally designed and executed by experts tapping all the knowledge available and using state-of-the-art technology for dealing with the multiple forms of crime.

They must also be well informed, that is to say, based on extensive, verifiable, comparative, reliable and comparable information. That information must be public and accessible to the population.

At the same time, public policies need to be adequately funded. It is essential to ensure a proper correlation between the magnitude of the problem and the budgetary allocation for the policies that address it.

Those policies have to be equitable, that is to say, they must guarantee equality before the law and help to create equal opportunities for all. For that reason, they need to pay particular heed to at-risk segments of the population and to vulnerable groups and, above all, include a gender perspective showing how women are affected by insecurity.

Security policies have to envisage appropriate punishments and strive to put an end to the impunity characterizing the majority of crimes.

Public security policies also have to be comprehensive. On a more strategic level, they must combine enforcement and punishment elements with prevention and rehabilitation policies, while, at the operational level, they need to ensure crosscutting action by the State bodies involved and adequate social participation.

Prevention must be a core ingredient of any public security problem.

Security policies must also have an inhibiting function in the sense of exerting legitimate coercion aimed at dissuading potential criminals, or, if necessary, guaranteeing that criminal acts are punished. The proper functioning of the entire criminal system is what guarantees that this State function is fulfilled.

Public security policies must also have a rehabilitation function, that is, they need to contemplate procedures for achieving the rehabilitation of offenders as well as care for victims.

Public security policies must encourage the participation of local civil authorities, especially in the preventive aspects of security, but also in their relations with the police.

Responsibility for security policies lies with the State, which cannot abdicate that responsibility by passing it on to the population. Nevertheless, citizen participation is a right that citizens can exercise in matters of security as well as in others. They may even become major allies of the State in its endeavors.

Public security policies must also be transparent, in terms of both the information underpinning them and the results of those policies. Each facet and phase of those policies must be subject to oversight, with the same features, guarantees, and constraints as the other functions performed by the State and there must be formal and regular mechanisms for ensuring accountability vis-à-vis the community. Exceptions and areas in which information is confidential must be restricted to an essential minimum and be clearly defined in each circumstance.

All the above would be meaningless if public policies were to fail and if the population failed to perceive greater commitment on the part of the State and a gradual improvement in its security situation. It is therefore vital for these policies to be effective. To achieve that, they must strike a clear balance between immediate results and medium- and long-term policies.

Finally, public policies must be sustainable. Successful experiences have taught us that continuity in terms of those driving the policies or at least continuity in the approaches embodied in them, over a significant period of time, is fundamental. For that reason, it is very important for public security policies to become State policies, transcending a government’s term of office.

Ministers, distinguished guests, and friends:

The magnitude that the problem of crime and violence has acquired in our region requires us to act swiftly and decisively. Because of that conviction, the OAS General Secretariat has decided to foster a plan based on 6 areas to work on and three mechanisms for action:

The first area to work on seeks to provide guidelines and advice on developing legislative measures, public policies, and institutional reforms.

The second aims to provide technical support for constructing periodic, reliable and comparable indicators.

The third area to work on aims to strengthen rehabilitation and reinsertion as urgently needed policies.

A fourth area comprises efforts to improve police training. For several years now the General Secretariat has been promoting police training courses and it recently developed the Inter-American Police Training Program with a view to sharing information on successful experiences and getting them adapted and used by other police institutions. These activities need to be expanded and boosted. To achieve that, the General Secretariat proposes collaboration with police institutions that have experiences to share and it commits to continuing to promote the idea of establishing an Inter-American Police Academy.

The fifth area to work on seeks to find ways of involving the private sector in violence prevention, rehabilitation, and social reinsertion activities.

The sixth area, finally, aims to strengthen cooperation with the mass media.

The General Secretariat will foster efforts in these areas by using three mechanisms.

The first will be ongoing meetings and consultations with the governments of the region on security issues. This First Meeting of Ministers Responsible for Public Security in the Americas is a sign of that commitment and we hope to back and facilitate all the cooperation opportunities it gives rise to.

The second mechanism will be strengthening areas for cooperation among international institutions. The experience of the Inter-American Coalition for the Prevention of Violence, comprising the Inter-American Development Bank, the Pan American Health Organization, the World Bank, the International Development Agency and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention of the United States of North America and the OAS must be considered a first step in that direction.

Finally, we will maintain permanent consultation mechanisms with civil society and academia. The participation of civil society organizations in public security-related issues will constitute a major step toward achieving policies that have citizen support and are therefore sustainable over the long term. For its part, participation by academics can provide significant support for the empirical underpinning of the public policy options put forward.


Overcoming the challenge posed by crime and violence is not an unattainable dream or utopia, but the result of hard, day-to-day work that many have already embarked on and which I propose to reinforce collectively as of today.

I call upon the solidarity and recognized commitment of our States and their representatives to ensure that the complexities inherent in a task of this magnitude are overcome and that we are able to forge the spirit of cooperation and the practical tools needed to initiate this work here at this Meeting.

It is our responsibility to achieve that goal for the security, peace of mind, and well-being that all citizens of the Americas need and deserve.

Thank you very much.