In the mid-1990s, the Colombian city of Cali was arguably the most violent place on earth, its soaring murder rate linked to the country’s civil war and brutal drugs trade.
But while its problems are far from being over, the city’s homicide rate halved between 1995 and 2018 due to a range of interventions to tackle poverty and increase education and employment opportunities.
Now a leading public health expert has called on the authorities in England to look to South America as a means of tackling a rising wave of violent crime.
Writing in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, Professor John Ashton argues it was Cali – not Glasgow – where a public health approach to tackling violence first began.
Last year in response to a growing number of deadly stabbings, London set up its first Violence Reduction Unit, a model developed in Glasgow under the auspices of Strathclyde Police.
The VRU has been credited with helping reduce the number of homicide cases across Scotland by 47 per cent from 115 to 61 between 2007/8 and 2016/17, with Glasgow responsible for a third of the overall decrease.
Professor Ashton said: “The current popular refrain for a public health response to violence is being linked to recent efforts in Glasgow which seem to be having some impact. However, the roots of this approach can be traced to systematic work in Cali over the past 30 years.
“The UK is now at a stage which requires stronger community organisation and participation linked to whole systems action, if knife crime and street violence is to be reduced. We have much to learn from our colleagues in Cali.”
Professor Ashton describes how, faced with a toll of over 1,000 drug-related homicides each year, the mayor of Cali, public health professor Rodrigo Guerrero, and his colleague Dr Alberto Concha-Eastman, adopted a classical public health model to tackle the problem.
Interventions in Cali included restriction of alcohol sales and access to weapons, police surveillance and enforcement using 24-hour courts and a holistic approach to poverty reduction, increased educational and employment opportunity and the mobilisation of communities, especially the mothers of young men who were fearful that their son would be next in the mortuary.
But while the homicide rate fell from 100 per 100,000 inhabitants in 1995 to 47.3 per 100,000 last year, it remains one of the world’s most dangerous cities.
In contrast, the homicide rate in Scotland was 1.1 per 100,000 in 2017/18.