After Chicago's violent 2016, and with 2017 trending in the wrong direction, an idea from a former county and federal prosecutor has been making the rounds: "[Robert] Milan proposes flooding neighborhoods like Austin and Englewood with thousands of National Guard troops, barricading about half the entrance and exit points to those areas and posting guards on those that are open."

Sending in the National Guard to Chicago is an idea with a long history that's never resulted in anything, so don't hold your breath.

But putting up barricades and checkpoints is a new twist, and not one that I'm aware has any precedent in the United States—the Guard has been used in the wake of riots, but not (that I know of, at least) for general urban violence. Any precedent would come from overseas. Belfast and the West Bank come to mind, but those target a completely different kind of sectarian violence.

A somewhat better comparison might be Brazil's military occupation of Rio's slums. That led me to an eerie passage from Loic Wacquant, a University of Chicago-educated sociologist—one of his doctoral advisors was William Julius Wilson—who has studied both Brazil and Chicago.

Brazil "may provide the North Americans and Europeans with a glimpse of their future" […] Under this approach, urban law-enforcement agencies operate in the manner of border patrols and forces of occupation in poor areas treated as domestic "war zones" harboring an alien population stripped of the normal protections and privileges of the law.

And that led me down a rabbit hole of how large South American cities have tried to combat homicide rates among the highest in the world.

Bogotá, Colombia, long notorious for its violence, took basically the opposite approach. And its homicide rate declined from 81 per 100,000 in 1993 (about twice as high as Baltimore in 2015) to 17.6 in 2015 (higher than Chicago in 2015, lower than in 2016). It still has a lot of crime problems—lots of muggings, pickpocketing, and assaults, a relatively high homicide rate by American standards—but the city's efforts in lowering its homicide rate over two decades have been impressive, closely watched, and compared favorably to the use of the military in Brazilian cities.

Bogotá's approach was remarkably broad, extending well beyond policing, combining and sticking with a a variety of programs. To add to some of Sam Stecklow's ideas for what to do with federal help in Chicago, here are just a few of them:

Family Police Stations

Recognizing the prevalence of domestic violence, officials set up offices specifically to deal with it:

The first ones were created in Bogotá in 1991 as a contribution to the “National System of Family Welfare” and their mission was to generate spaces to guide families regarding conflict resolution, domestic violence prevention and child abuse issues. In order to address the matter in a comprehensive way, the [family police stations] count on an interdisciplinary team, conformed by a lawyer, a psychologist, a doctor, a social worker; they all use conflict resolution mechanism such as conciliation, protection measures and psychotherapy.

Domestic violence is widespread in Chicago. When I looked at some of the numbers in Chicago a couple years ago, domestic battery was the second-most-common reason for going to jail in the city after drug possession; a study of one Chicago community found that 85 percent of kids had witnessed domestic violence, 72 percent had been abused, and half had witnessed domestic violence leading to injury. WBEZ reported that 11,000 people sought help from state-funded programs in Chicago alone in 2012. And it's well-known that the violence in the home feeds into the violence in the streets. Bogotá built 20 of its "family offices"; by 2002 they were serving over 36,000 people.

Hiring At-Risk People

Over the course of three years, the city hired almost 4,000 people, "among them youngsters, gatherers of recyclable waste, sex workers, homeless people, people displaced by violence and unemployed heads of households." Compare that to the number of people that sociologist Andrew Papachristos identified as the most at-risk of being homicide victims in Chicago, based on their social networks: just over 3,000 people. The Chicago Police Department does identify people that the numbers suggest are at a high risk of being killed, doing interventions and offering social services. Bogotá just went straight to what many people identify as the root problem.

Better Public Transportation

Starting in 2000, Bogotá built what is now considered one of the best bus rapid transit (BRT) networks in the world. Part of the idea was to reduce terrible automobile congestion and the pollution that resulted from it, succeeding on both fronts. But another aspect of BRT was what urban planners call "spatial mismatch"—a lack of public transportation from poor neighborhoods to job centers.

This has been identified as a problem in Chicago; the Chicago Reporter found that public-transit commuters in 14 community areas "spend an hour or more getting to work," and 12 of those are majority black.

Bogotá's TransMilenio was designed in large part to combat this spatial mismatch, and there's evidence that it's done that as well, for example, cutting an 18-mile commute from over two hours to slightly less than an hour. The system carries 2.4 million people a day, though the city is struggling to maintain the quality of the system with such high ridership, and approval of the system has plummeted in recent years.

Better Streets

The TransMilenio wasn't the only way Bogotá changed how people got around the city; they also invested in an extensive network of bike lanes—now over 250 miles—and achieved a respectable commuting share of almost five percent, comparable to the highest percentages among American cities. A recent survey of over 8,000 school-age children found that over twenty percent commuted to school by bike. Every Sunday morning through early afternoon many of the city's streets are completely closed to cars.

Along with its investments in BRT and bike lanes, the city also attacked its high rate of traffic fatalities, cutting those in half over a decade, though neglect of the city's efforts has led to a recent increase.

Police Reform

Bogotá also invested heavily in the police department, including housing for officers, training in legal and social issues, an embrace of an epidemiological approach to violence, and a lengthy list of attempts to strengthen community relationships with the police and decrease citizen apathy towards violence:

A key step in reducing societal indifference to violence and increasing citizens’ incentive and capacity to hold the police accountable was a citywide campaign to raise public awareness about the responsibilities of the state, especially the police, in addressing crime and violence. The Escuelas de Seguridad Ciudadana (Schools for Citizen Security) initiative, begun in 1996, consisted of a series of weekend classes at the city’s public universities where citizens could learn more about services and practices the police were supposed to provide—information most helpful to the police in preventing crime and violence—and steps citizens could take to increase security. By 2004 more than 37,000 citizens from across Bogotá had attended the classes.

By 2001 community organizations working on neighborhood security issues were among the top five civil society organizations to which citizens belonged. A 2003 survey found that more than 60 percent of residents felt that the policies to increase “civic culture” had contributed to improving their quality of life. And by 2006 an academic study on citizens’ perceptions of citizen security found that 80 percent of citizens surveyed felt that maintaining citizen security in their neighborhoods was their responsibility. These broad policies set the stage for dramatic institutional changes in police accountability to the state and society realized through lateral reform.

Trust in the police went up; so did arrests for assaults and homicide.


Perhaps what's most impressive about Bogotá and its reduction in homicide is not any one program, but the exceptional breadth of them and the city's relatively successful commitment to their long-term impact.

The appeal of cordoning off entire neighborhoods with the National Guard is that of a silver bullet, and it's possible that it could work in the short term—but leaves a fearsome question of what would happen after they leave. A long-term approach is, well, longer, but provides a lasting foundation.