Cutting Crime in Cortes
Community Involvement Helps Reduce Murders by Half in Five Years

September 20th, 2014
by Robert Armstrong

A funny thing happened in Puerto Cortes the last five years as Honduras was achieving global infamy for its out-of-control violent crime. Its murder rate fell by half. The policies used to achieve that reduction are reportedly being closely considered for adoption on the Bay Islands.

Staff at the 24-hour command center located at the Fire Department in Puerto Cortes monitor video feeds (up to 12 simultaneiously) from more than 100 security cameras located throughout the city and receive about 100 emergency calls a day. The center, with a staff of 12 working four shifts, has been operating since 2009.

Staff at the 24-hour command center in Puerto Cortes monitor video feeds (up to 12 simultaneously) from more than 100 security cameras located throughout the city and receive about 100 emergency calls a day. The center, with a staff of 12 working four shifts, has been operating since 2009.

“In 2014, if the trend so far continues, we’ll close with 49 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants,” said Cesar Zaldivar, citizen security coordinator for Puerto Cortes. In 2009 it was 102. That’s still too high, he hastens to point out. The standard for Latin America is 30 (Roatan’s rate is about 22). For developed countries the standard is single digits. But Puerto Cortes’s murder rate began dropping sharply just as that of the rest of Honduras was ascending to the top of the global tables.  

Zaldivar, a Puerto Cortes native, retired Honduran Army colonel and World Bank security consultant, has been coordinating security for Puerto Cortes since 2007. That year the municipality set out on a comprehensive anti-crime program, the cornerstone of which was a Citizen Security Commission, comprising representatives of different societal groups (Chamber of Commerce, labor unions, journalists, neighborhood councils) to support and monitor the criminal justice system. The commission meets once a month or as necessary. A working group meets every two weeks to evaluate crime data, coordinate activities of the commission’s professional staff and consider new anti-crime strategies. Representatives of the police, prosecutors and the emergency services attend the working group meetings as observers. The commission also receives citizen complaints about police behavior and refers them to the appropriate authorities for evaluation and action.  

Zaldivar said the law governing the Honduran National Police stipulated that citizen security committees had the right to participate in the planning, preparation and execution of police strategies. But he said few municipalities had taken the intitiative to set one up, and none had one like Puerto Cortes.   For example, he said, El Progreso has a committee on which the police and the prosecutors are represented. “So what happens? When there’s a complaint (about the police or prosecutors), it’s uncomfortable to deal with it … For that reason, we don’t have them on the commission … They operate, and the Commission evaluates, monitors, etc.”  

The Puerto Cortes anti-crime strategy has also included improved street lighting, a network of security cameras monitored round the clock from a central command center and a unified emergency phone number (100) that routs callers to a call center co-located with the video monitoring post. Puerto Cortes has also worked to improve the educational level of police officers assigned to the city and given active-duty officers time off to complete their secondary education.  

“We started in 2008 with the planning and socialization of the program,” said Zaldivar. “It was done with the Municipality’s own funds. Then the World Bank came in … they have supported us with Lps 25 million for prevention projects. … That’s where most of the money has been invested.”   The Municipality has supported sports programs, built playing courts, established a music school and a youth employment program and worked with the public schools to create programs to encourage non-violence.

Cesar Zaldivar was born in Puerto Cortes but spent most of his adult life posted throughout the country as an artillery officer with the Honduran Army. After retiring, he earned a diploma in security from the University of California at San Diego, became a security consultant for the World Bank and ended up back in his native town as security coordinator in 2007.

Cesar Zaldivar was born in Puerto Cortes but spent most of his adult life posted throughout the country as an artillery officer with the Honduran Army. After retiring, he earned a diploma in security from the University of California at San Diego, became a security consultant for the World Bank and ended up back in his native town as security coordinator in 2007.

“I believe more in a plan of social and human development than in a purely security plan,” said Zaldivar. “The police alone, the military alone are not going to resolve the problem. You have to involve civil society … I also believe a lot in education … The change factor in a society is education. We’re not going to see the results today or tomorrow … The results of prevention in general are seen in the medium and long term.”

The key to the Puerto Cortes strategy, Zaldivar said, was gaining the confidence of the population. Before, he said, citizens would not step forward to denounce criminal activity and give their names. Now they do.  

Getting police out of their stations and into the neighborhoods to gain the trust and support of the community is the centerpiece of so-called “community policing,” which  has been adopted as a strategy and organizing principle by many US cities in recent decades. A recent New York Times article reported that Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest and most crime-ridden cities in the US, has cut its homicides and shootings dramatically since 2012 by replacing its old police force with a new community-based one (and also transfering control of the police from the city to the county level and increasing the number of police officers). Earlier this month, Ferguson, Missouri, which gained international fame when a white police officer shot and killed an unarmed black teenager, announced it would create a new civilian review board for the police. It’s an idea whose time has come, but it has been slow to come to Honduras.  

The day after we interviewed Zaldivar he was to receive a delegation of municipal officials from throughout Honduras, including the vice mayor of Roatan, to study the experience of Puerto Cortes. In February Zaldivar traveled to Roatan to brief officials and interested citizens on the project. He gave them a copy of the governing regulations for Puerto Cortes’s Citizen Security Commission and helped them modify them to suit the circumstances of Roatan. Such a commission is part of the recently adopted plan to reduce crime on the Bay Islands, according to sources familiar with the plan.  

Zaldivar, who studied warfare at the Honduran military academy, said fighting crime was different from fighting a war in that there is no defined enemy and no defined front. Crime emerges from the fears of the population, he said, so only by working in conjunction with the population can it be successfully battled.

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Community Involvement Helps Reduce Murders by Half in Five Years

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