Developing countries are experiencing a rising tide of violence linked to criminality, gang wars and organized crime. Violent crime is particularly acute in Latin America and the Caribbean (LAC) region. According to the Global Burden of Disease (GBD) estimates, the share of the LAC region in the total number of world deaths from firearms was 49.6% in 2010, and these deaths cut lives prematurely by an average of 61.5 years. The region is home to 41 of the top 50 most dangerous cities in the world.  Between 73,000 and 90,000 of all homicides in the region committed yearly are caused by firearms. This is three times higher than the world average.  From casual affiliation to gangs in schools and neighborhoods, to full-time armed participation in international drug cartels, youth are the biggest target – and victims – of this conflict.
The Stanford International Crime and Violence Lab seeks to develop scientific and action-oriented research to assist community organizations, government agencies, policy-makers, police departments, and other relevant players in Latin America - and eventually elsewhere in the developing world - to reduce violent crime and its devastating consequences. Latin America foreshadows a challenging conundrum for global development. As the world urbanizes, a greater proportion of the poor are living in cities. Without improved governance, violent crime will impact the poor disproportionately, preventing them from escaping poverty. More scientific knowledge is needed to understand the causes and consequences of the violence epidemic, and what interventions are feasible to reduce crime and improve security.
Our mission is to apply the tools of scientific research to better understand the causes of violent crime; to gather, geo-reference and analyze data on violence and crime; and to evaluate policy innovations aimed at reducing violence, improving policing, restraining human rights abuses, strenghthening local governance and giving opportunities for at-risk youth – assessing what works, what doesn't and why. One of our core objectives involves the conceptualization and adjustment of approaches and “best practices” derived from U.S. cities to better respond to local conditions and demands in the developing world. But we need to move a step further. The challenges of reducing crime and violence are far greater in developing countries because basic rule of law institutions and legitimate law enforcement apparatuses are often lacking.
In Latin America, it is not uncommon for criminal organizations to operate with impunity and in conspiracy with parts of the government and elements of the police. The fast expansion of the drug market in the region during the 1980’s - particularly intensified by the introduction of the highly profitable cocaine business in the Andean region - has turned Latin America into a world’s hotspot for drug trafficking and production. Mexico is today the main drug supplier to the U.S. with the cocaine production market being largely concentrated in South America. Additionally, Central America’s position as the “business corridor” between South America and the U.S. has brought about devastating consequences for the already socially and economically fragile region.
The heavy presence of youth and young adults in the world of criminality (particularly male youth) is an issue that has been gaining increasingly more attention in the agendas of policy-makers and politicians in developing and developed nations. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 250,000 children and youth between the ages of 10-29 are victims of homicides on a yearly basis worldwide. This number represents 41% of all homicides committed globally.  Many of these casualties are the consequences of criminal violence and drug trafficking-related activities.
Throughout Latin America, there are millions of youth between the ages of 15 and 29 that are neither working nor studying (Not in Employment, Education or Training - NEET). In Mexico – the second-largest country in the region - the NEET youth population adds up to 8 million (this number represents a quarter of all young people in Mexico at the appropriate age to enter university or initiative their career).  In Central America, the World Bank calculates that around 30% of youth living in urban areas aged 15 to 24 are underemployed and do not study.  With scarce options for a quality education, prospects for gainful employment and the possibility for future economic sustainability, on a daily basis, young individuals from poor communities throughout Latin America are exposed to a violent environment with easily accessed – and often attractive - gateways into the world of criminality.
Given the widespread and strong participation of youth in criminal violence activities in Latin American and U.S. cities, there are some important questions that calls for further attention and analyzes. What kind of programs should be developed – and with what orientation/curriculum – in order to attract (and maintain) affected youth in educational and career-oriented programs? What is the impact of context-sensitive entrepreneurial programs for youth in areas of risk and who is involved in their establishment?
The police are the violent arm of the state in charge of guaranteeing public security. The line separating violent crime and violent state action is clear when police use of force is constrained by rule of law. Abuse of police force and violent crime represent two faces of the same coin and generate spirals of violence.
More scientific research is needed to understand what strategies and interventions are effective in improving police accountability and proximity to citizens, particularly in poor urban neighborhoods. Moreover, we need to gain knowledge about what strategies work best to transform institutional inertia, including the cultural, individual, and contextual factors that lead police officers to behave in abusive and violent manners. Finally, more understanding is necessary regarding the use of institutional and technological innovations to better monitor the police, enhance its technical expertise, and reduce excessive use of force and corruption.
One of the biggest enablers of criminal organizations in developing countries is the tacit support of the communities in which they are embedded. This often comes in the form of protection of, or complicity with, state actors and businesses. The presence of drug trafficking organizations is not a new phenomenon in Latin America. What is unprecedented is the way in which these criminal organizations have shifted their activities from focusing primarily on the shipment of illegal drugs to international markets, toward diversifying into local criminal activities that pray on citizens, such as extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, and in general, the collection of protection money. Much of the focus of recent scholarly work has been in understanding the dynamics of violence; however, it is necessary to provide an understanding of why drug trafficking organizations adopt particular strategies of extortion, and also co-optation, in their interactions with the civilian population, and what enables communities to coordinate against criminal gangs.
The Stanford International Crime and Violence Lab is developing new research methodologies, including survey experimental designs, to better measure and understand the interactions between criminal organizations, governments, and civilian populations. Lethal violence is not the only or most pervasive danger; citizens are trapped in networks of extortion and coercion where both drug trafficking organizations (DTOs) and the police prey with impunity. We seek to develop knowledge about how extortion works, how businesses and communities cope with criminal mafias or coordinate vs. them, and how these impact violence, extortion, and economic activities. We also seek to contribute to the development of research methodologies by developing and piloting survey and field research strategies to conduct work and collect data in mafia-ridden environments.
At the Stanford International Crime and Violence lab, our mission is to use the tools of scientific research to evaluate what does and does not work. Our projects rely on a combination of methods: (1) we use experimental and quasi-experimental methods to understand efficacy in the areas of crime prevention, crime deterrence and policing, and correction and sentencing; (2) we use survey experiments to analyze and measure victimization, including extortion by criminal organizations and the police; and finally, (3) we use qualitative methods to better understand basic mechanisms, the process by which innovation in policing or corrections might influence violence and crime, and how cultural and institutional norms develop and change.
The reliance of Randomized Control Trials (RCTs) on criminology has gained increased momentum in recent years. Although we applaud this trend, we also note that interventions in the area of violence and crime are not often amenable to this form of highly controlled evaluations. For example, the Mexican government approached us to evaluate the effectiveness of a strategy to deter violence by arresting drug cartel kingpins. However, it would have been absurd to ask the government to randomize arrests. Our approach was to employ quasi-experimental methods in order to provide a best estimate. Similarly, in partnership with the Military Police of Rio de Janeiro (PMERJ) and Rio's Secretariat of Security (SESEG), we are in the process of conducting an evaluation of the Pacifying Police Unites (UPPs) -- a form of proximity police introduced in over 40 favelas -- using a quasi-experimental design. Both of these impact evaluations have provided critical feedback to policy-makers about the implications of their strategies. Additionally, these projects have allowed us to gather and process incredibly detailed and confidential data on crime and violence.
Recognizing the complexities of poverty reduction work in the developing world and the need to engage multidisciplinary scholarship in search of solutions for on-the-ground challenges, the Institute for Innovation in Developing Economies (SEED) at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business (GSB) awarded the Stanford International Crime and Violence Lab with funding from the Global Development and Poverty Initiative (GDP) for its innovative and groundbreaking research projects in Latin America. GDP is administered by SEED in collaboration with Stanford’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI).
The Stanford Crime and Violence Lab initiative received the second-largest portion of the GDP grant ($925,000) for capacity-building and the expansion of research projects throughout Latin America and the U.S. The award will support the development of a research platform focused on examining criminal violence in developing countries, its causes and consequences, and the design of practical solutions for increasing security among the poor.
Another important financial partner supporting the Stanford Crime and Violence Lab includes Freeman Spogli Institute’s Policy Implementation Lab, an initiative that aims to bolster impact-oriented international research, problem-based teaching and long-term engagement with urgent policy implementation problems around the world.
Stanford International Crime and Violence Lab seeks to enrich policy-oriented and multi-dimensional research on crime and violence, shedding light to the potential on-the-ground impacts that can be driven by academic engagement with different stakeholders in knowledge production aimed at helping alleviate the effects of violence and conflict on the poor and society as a whole.
The financial assistance and technical support from the GDP initiative and the Policy Implementation Lab will be fundamental for the development of this work moving forward.
Stanford International Crime and Violence Lab receives support from:
Inter-American Development Bank
The Minerva Initiative
SEED - Global Development and Poverty Research Initiate (GDP)
Stanford International Policy Implementation Lab
TASER International Inc.