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How the mayor of Cali, Colombia, used science to fight gun violence

The physician-epidemiologist Rodrigo Guerrero, as mayor of Cali, Colombia, has used public health science to greatly reduce gun deaths in his city. Guerrero is the first winner of the Roux Prize.

For this week’s podcast, we’re talking with Dr. Rodrigo Guerrero, a physician and Harvard-trained epidemiologist who is also the mayor of Cali, Colombia, a city that likely will prompt many Americans to think of the Cali Cartel – a global drug syndicate that U.S. officials once considered the most powerful criminal organization in the world. Guerrero, a soft-spoken man who prefers academics to politics, first decided to take on the drug gangs in 1992.

“Politics is just practicing medicine at a larger scale,” Guerrero explained. In the early 1990s, he said, gun homicides were the leading cause of death in Cali. The death rate from gun violence in Cali was 126 for every 100,000 deaths (a standard public health metric), he noted, while it was often in the single digits per 100K for other comparable cities in Latin America.

“It was the most important public health problem in our community,” Guerrero said. He knew he was making himself a potential target of the drug gangs – which he initially assumed were behind most of the gun homicides – but said he felt obligated to do something. And that something was to apply the scientific method and tools of epidemiology to figure out how to end this epidemic of violence.

In the podcast, Guerrero describes how he and his colleagues first set about to identify the main causes of this epidemic and were surprised to discover it was not primarily fueled by the drug gangs – at least not directly.

“We saw most of the violence happened on weekends … We thought that was weird, that the drug traffickers would wait until the weekend to settle their quarrels,” he said. Further analysis revealed that most of the victims were very drunk when they died. “That also seemed weird to us, that the drug traffickers would wait to get their victims drunk before killing them, and only on weekends.”

To make a long analysis short, Guerrero and his team discovered that the gun deaths in Cali were mostly due to ‘social disorder’ and easy access to guns. The Colombian military does a good business, he noted, selling guns to private citizens.

Guerrero couldn’t get the military to curb its arms dealing business, but he did succeed at imposing weekend curfews and restrictions on alcohol sales. Gun deaths dropped rapidly and dramatically, by 35 percent in just a few months. It was a stunning success and the reason why Guerrero was recently given the first Roux Prize, a $100,000 award named for Barbara and David Roux, the latter a founding board member at the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation.

But Guerrero is not done. He ran for mayor again and was recently elected to a second term. His goal is to continue to bring down gun violence in Cali, where it still remains too high for him to sit back on his laurels. His target this time is the military’s arms sales. No shrinking violet, this Guerrero (his name does mean ‘warrior,’ after all).

So listen in to Tom Paulson’s chat with Guerrero to find out more about this physician-epidemiologist-politician and how he pulled off this amazing achievement. One interesting side note is Guerrero learned a lot of the tricks of his trade from some folks at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control – folks like smallpox warrior Bill Foege and Mark Rosenberg, who were themselves prohibited from doing gun research (thanks to the gun lobby), a ban only recently relaxed by the Obama Administration.

“It is a pity that this has happened in the most scientifically advanced nation in the world,” said Guerrero.

Before we talk with Guerrero, Tom and I go over some of the news highlights (if that’s the right word) for the week, beginning with Ebola, of course. Humanosphere has been reporting on some of the lesser appreciated features of Ebola – that it’s reputed high fatality rate is due mostly to the poor health care in many African nations, and that it will almost certainly never spread much in the U.S. We explain why.

I also note my report of a new study, which includes work from a Seattle scientist, that indicates the human HIV pandemic began in 1920s Kinshasa, DR Congo. And we note more bad news on the once much-vaunted One Laptop Per Child scheme to help educate poor kids and bridge the so-called ‘digital divide.’ A study in Uruguay said the kids didn’t make much use of the computers and that the best indicator of educational progress was quality teachers, good parents and a supportive environment.

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About Author

Gabe Spitzer

Gabriel Spitzer covers health and science at KPLU, after a year covering youth and education. He joined KPLU after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago.