Colombia: ICRC develops model to reduce urban violence in Medellín

04-01-2013 Interview

In eight neighbourhoods in the city of Medellín the ICRC has launched the More Humanitarian Spaces, More Alternatives project, designed to reduce the effects of armed violence in communities. The initiative, which will run for four years, has been under way since 2011 in association with the Antioquia branch of the Colombian Red Cross (CRCSA) and in conjunction with other public and private bodies. Here Stéphane Jacquier, the project leader, whose work in Colombia is coming to an end, takes stock of the humanitarian situation and the ICRC’s activities in the city.

How would you describe the humanitarian situation that led the ICRC to come up with this project in Medellín?

The consequences of armed violence are sometimes more acute in a city than in the rural areas where the ICRC usually works. In cities, there is a greater density of population than in the countryside, and weapon bearers are right in the middle of the communities. There are invisible barriers there, hampering not just mobility but also access to education and health care. Furthermore, the humanitarian consequences are like those of an armed conflict, with people being murdered or wounded, forced disappearances, threats, intra-urban displacement, recruitment, sexual violence, attacks on the medical team, plundering of property and extortion.

What added value can the ICRC contribute in such cases?

We realized we could play an important role in helping to reduce these humanitarian consequences, thanks to how well we have been accepted in Colombia. Our added value, as compared with other organizations, includes our contacts and our confidential dialogue with the opposing sides, the possibility that we can propose an overall response to the communities and offer solutions to the suffering that the armed violence is causing among the local people.

What has been done so far?

We’re developing a comprehensive intervention model with three strands: preventing violence in the school environment, protecting the local people, and assisting communities. The first strand involves intervention with children from the sixth to ninth grades, their parents and their teachers. In partnership with the CRCSA we talk to them about rules for living together, creative conflict resolution, the dangers of weapons, self-protection measures, first aid, and sexual and reproductive health. The second strand focuses on protecting people: we disseminate rules on the use of force, arrest and detention to members of the security forces; we disseminate humanitarian principles, and we visit prisons and rehabilitation centres for minors. We’re not just interested in checking the treatment of detainees and their detention conditions – we also want to see whether these young people have access to education and work opportunities, to reduce recidivism.

Are you carrying out programmes that help people directly?

That’s exactly what the last strand consists of: assisting communities. We try to improve access to health care, and we provide training on sexual and reproductive health, and first aid for community leaders, so that they in turn can be multipliers in their own communities. Other elements of the programme are management in the delivery of services to groups affected by violence, which are provided under existing social programmes, and the development of factors enabling the generation of income. For example, in this first year we have helped around a hundred families to manage microcredits, and we also support them throughout the process with a psychologist and a social worker.

In an urban setting, what is the main role of an organization like the ICRC?

Although the ICRC has been in Colombia for over 40 years, the nature of armed violence in urban settings, and in some rural areas too, means that we have to think carefully about how to fulfil our mandate for humanitarian work in a legal action framework that is not international humanitarian law (IHL). In Medellín we had to start from scratch: helping the communities get to know us and explaining what our principles of neutrality, impartiality and independence consist of, so that everyone understands how we can support the victims of armed violence.

What does the ICRC hope to achieve in the four years of the project?

We believe that the project’s three kinds of activities – prevention, protection and assistance – are inextricably linked. Our ultimate aim is for this model of all-round intervention in areas affected by armed violence to tie in with what is already being done by the state and private bodies, and to be reproduced, so that it will not just reduce violence but will even prevent it in the future.


Bogotá. Stephane Jacquier, outgoing leader of the  

Bogotá. Stephane Jacquier, outgoing leader of the "More Humanitarian Spaces", "More Alternatives" project which is under way in Medellín.
© ICRC / Jequier, Pascal

People in parts of Medellín are suffering the effects of armed violence. And then there are the invisible frontiers between rival gangs 

Antioquia, Medellín.
People in parts of Medellín are suffering the effects of armed violence. And then there are the invisible frontiers between rival gangs.