San Pedro Sula a Complex Environment

San Pedro Sula, Honduras currently owns the unfortunate title of the most dangerous city in the world.  Narcotraffickers are frequently blamed for causing the violence given the city’s strategic location on Central American drug transit routes.  But a closer look reveals that this situation may not be as it appears.

San Pedro Sula Honduras

San Pedro Sula Honduras

Why is that the case?  San Pedro Sula is a complex environment.  It appears that some analysis of the city’s problems has fallen victim to the Achilles’ heel of good analysis of complex environments – assumptions.  Because complex environments are in flux with hard to distinguish interconnected actors, influences, and trends, it is always challenging to understand exactly what is going on and what to do about it.  Instead, analysis must begin with a blank slate where all assumptions and information is tested.  When testing assumptions in the case of San Pedro Sula, a different picture begins to emerge.

At first glance, San Pedro Sula’s frequently cited statistic of 173.6 homicides per 100,000 people is staggering.  To give perspective, the United Nations identifies any homicide rate higher than 10 per 100,000 as an epidemic.  Although the absolute number of homicides has been verified to its best extent, the ratio may not be as high as one would think.  This ratio is based off of San Pedro Sula’s population, but this rapidly growing city has not had a census in more than a decade.  This results in current population estimates ranging between 650,000 and 1.2 million.  The current homicide ratio uses the population estimate from the last census, which is at the lower end of that spectrum.  This is a statistically valid approach, but does not accommodate the fact that the city has most likely grown to closer to one million inhabitants.  If the homicide ratio were calculated off of the larger population estimates, it would be much lower.  In addition, these homicide statistics include victims who passed away after coming to San Pedro Sula’s large hospitals for treatment.  If this statistic were adjusted for the actual population and the actual amount of homicides occurring physically in the city, the picture would still be one of a serious situation, but it would be more accurate and not a statistic that would make it the most dangerous city in the world.

Other assumptions can also influence analysis of San Pedro Sula.  After hearing that it has been named the most dangerous city in the world, one could easily assume that San Pedro Sula would look and feel like some of Mexico’s border towns, the U.S.’ most dangerous innercity neighborhoods, or a war zone.  But upon arrival, the bustling markets, restaurants, friendly individuals, and open transportation quickly shattered our assumptions.  Do people still have to be careful when walking down the street and contend with dangerous characters and extortion?  Absolutely.  But the actual environment does not match up to the exaggerated assumptions that one could have when imagining “the most dangerous city in the world”.  And understanding the environment is critical for accurate analysis and appropriate interventions.

Additionally, it would be easy to assume that anywhere you go in the most dangerous city in the world would be dangerous.  But San Pedro Sula is more a city that contains some of the most dangerous neighborhoods in the world.  The assumption that the entire city is equally dangerous was quickly shattered by discussions with residents and travels where we saw that the types and level of violence differed throughout the city.

It also illuminated that different types and levels of violence occurred in parts of the city with different characteristics.  For example, the relatively safe areas of the city, which mostly experienced violent crime as linked to armed robberies, did not have gangs and the government was relatively present.  On the other hand, the most dangerous parts of the city have limited to no government presence and are controlled by gangs who are still fighting to define their territorial lines.  Other parts of the city where gangs had already determined their territories were slightly less dangerous.  Not assuming anything about the level, type, and location of crime allowed for the development of initial hypotheses linking violent crime to limited government presence, gangs fighting for territory, and/or intra or inter-gang disputes.

Another assumption about San Pedro Sula that can skew analysis is that its violence is caused by narcotraffickers.  It is easy to make that assumption since their money laundering and drug trafficking activities influence much of the city, but they do not appear to be the immediate cause of the violence.  Instead, members of organized crime and gangs (who also dabble in organized crime) appear to be responsible for the majority of the violence.  Narcotraffickers play a secondary role by influencing the environment that other violent actors can operate within.  They corrupt the government to protect their activities, which weakens the government’s capacity to contain violent and illicit actors.  Narcotraffickers have also influenced the environment by paying gang members in drugs for supporting some of their operations.  The gangs have translated these drug payments into a growing local drug market over which different gangs and organized crime groups fight to control.

Instead, what does appears to be at the center of the violence is the gangs’ rapidly growing sophistication as a result of lessons transferred from gang members deported from the U.S. and the Honduran Government’s “Mano Dura” crackdown campaign in the early 2000s which forced gangs to hide and get smarter and stronger in their activities to avoid arrest.  Gangs learned how to extort the population and businesses for money.  Their extortion enforcement improved thanks to weapons smuggled and purchased with profits from their drug markets and initial smaller extortion activities.  The more income the gangs bring in, the stronger they become at enforcing extortion.  Because controlling territory means markets for drugs and extortion, much of the violence appears to be coming from fights over territory in order to have the markets rather than anything affiliated with the narcotraffickers.  The absence of and/or corrupted government presence in the areas where gangs are allows this to continue with impunity.
Lastly, it is easy to assume that all homicide victims are innocent citizens.  But in talking to individuals throughout the city, the consensus was that the majority of homicide victims were affiliated with organized crime, narcotraffickers, or gangs – not the average citizen.  Although more detailed data needs to be collected and verified, average citizens appear to be victims of violent crime mostly from not handing over their goods during a robbery or extortion attempt.  The likelihood of this increased in the most dangerous parts of the city.  The result?  San Pedro Sula remains one of the most dangerous cities in the world, but the question remains, “For whom?” The violent crime rate as a whole must be compared with the rate of violent crime against individuals not affiliated with organized crime, gangs, or narcotraffickers.  The latter will likely be significantly lower, particularly for areas of the city where there is no gang presence.  The latter statistic will also give a better baseline for the government and donors to see how they are improving average citizen security versus security in general.  Lastly, the resulting lower statistic will also help to better inform residents and investors’ perceptions about and behaviors within the city.

Hence, one can see how assumptions can skew analysis of complex environments such as San Pedro Sula.  Even when you strip away the existing assumptions, there are still many hypotheses that remain to be tested because of the lack of good data.  But good analysis of complex environments begins with testing all of the assumptions followed by the creation of good hypotheses to test the remaining assumptions.  Without mitigating this Achilles’ heel, not only might the analysis be wrong, but also the resulting design of interventions will be incorrect.  In this case, not testing the assumptions could have led to analysis that portrayed a completely broken city, wracked with narcotrafficker-induced violence a la Ciudad Juarez.  Instead it is a city with areas of higher violence struggling with major institutional weaknesses that permit violence to be perpetrated by violent actors.  The resulting design of interventions for each of these cases would be different.  In the first case, much effort would be focused on targeting narcotraffickers themselves.  In the latter case, we can see that bringing down the crime rate will require improving institutions to control gangs and other violent actors, addressing the conditions to help prevent individuals from joining gangs, and finding ways to remove the markets that are fueling and motivating the gangs.   Although analysis of the situation in San Pedro Sula is constantly evolving, this case illustrates how different assumptions can greatly influence the results of your analysis and program design.  In analyzing complex environments, it can be challenging to figure out what the right answer is, and the right answer may not ever be known.  But what is known is that starting by testing the assumptions will get you closer to the truth. By Stacia George

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