Evidence-based policies, Security policies

Is statistical standardization across countries possible?

Written by: Cecilia Samanes. She is a founding member of RISE. Sociologist, teacher, and programming analyst. She worked at the Ministry of Security of Argentina from 2011 to 2022.

This article explains the process developed within the framework of the Common Market of the South (MERCOSUR[i]) for the harmonization of crime statistics with a vast and in-depth exchange and dialogue between states.

It should be noted that the UNODC[ii]‘s International Classification of Crime for Statistical Purposes (ICCS[iii]) has been used as a reference unit. This classification is organized on the basis of conceptual[iv] categories based on 4 criteria: «normative scope related to the act or event (protection of property rights, protection of health, etc.); target of the act or event (e.g. person, object, natural environment, State, etc.); the seriousness of the act or event (e.g. acts causing death, acts causing harm, etc.); means used in the commission of the act or event (e.g. by violence, threat of violence, etc.)» (ICCS, 2015, 13) (ICCS, 2015, 13).


On the basis of the «Framework Agreement on Regional Security Cooperation between Mercosur and the Associated States»[v], in 2012 the Buenos Aires Declaration was issued, which established the «commitment to create a system of agreed indicators on crime and violence» between Mercosur States Parties and the Associated States «based on the definition of criteria and processes aimed at the quality of the production of information on violence and crime in the Mercosur area». With this objective in mind, they committed to forming a working[vi] group with the mission of consolidating a minimum of standardized indicators on violence and crime for the region, taking into account the systems and methodologies developed in other multilateral bodies in which MERCOSUR states participate; to promote a professional profile as a manager of criminal information and analysis; and to «designate a body with competence in the area of crime management and statistics».


Argentina’s experience in the process of evaluating the statistical quality of the National Criminal Information System (SNIC) [vii]was particularly useful in transferring the skills acquired to the task initiated within MERCOSUR.

And, by virtue of the Buenos Aires Declaration and anchored in the SNIC’s statistical quality management experience, Argentina is promoting the task of harmonizing the criminal records of the MERCOSUR countries. Firstly, some obstacles were identified given the impossibility of making comparisons of crime data, including those reported to the UN and published in the Surveys on Crime Trends (CTS) system, as well as the difference between unitary countries that have single systems of crime records, while in federal countries, such as Brazil or Argentina, the possibility of standardizing records depends on negotiations between their states or provinces, given the autonomy of the federal governments.

These differences between states can be grouped into three dimensions: a) Legal, which includes formal differences in terms of the normative conceptualization of each type of crime and informal differences in terms of application criteria and legal practices; b) Statistical, which includes the rules for counting and sustaining this information over time and also the forms of collection, production and application (public policies) of this information; and c) objective crime events, which implies the structure of opportunities for crime according to territory, probability of detection, propensity to denounce.

Based on these premises, the EWG on Citizen Security presented some objectives to work towards:

Within a State, a uniform classification of offenses based on legal codes facilitates comparative data analysis and the exchange of information between different institutions of the police and criminal justice system. On the other hand, at the regional level, harmonized definitions and classifications are necessary for the comparability of records and for analyzing regional trends.

In this regard, it was recognized as necessary to identify:

  • the forms and practices of data recording and reporting calculations.
  • the diversity of data sources that respond to the specificity of each state, whether federal or unitary.
  • criminal records associated with each State’s own penal codes.

But it was also necessary:

  • To build a tool that would allow for crime matching given the particularities of each state.
  • Promote a willingness to share the information needed to build such a tool.
  • Strengthen a commitment to collaborative work among states.

In the work carried out between June 2018 and May 2021, it was possible to establish the relationship between the normative conceptualizations of criminal offenses and the ways of measuring and calculating some of the offenses used by each MERCOSUR Member and Associated State.

The UNODC’s International Classification of Crime for Statistical Purposes (ICCS) served as a unit of reference to establish correspondence between countries. The ICCS conceptually defines «categories» of facts with subtypes taking into account the event, the behavior of the persons involved, and other elements such as concomitant offending[viii], and also clearly establishes inclusions and exclusions for each category and subcategory. It could be graphed as follows:

 International Classification of Crime for Statistical Purposes (ICCS)

On this basis, a comparison was made between the definitions in each state’s criminal code and the scope for statistical records was also established.


During the process described above, the impossibility of achieving standardization clearly emerged given the concrete difficulties detected, which are described below among the findings, such as the substantial differences in local regulations and, above all, in the way crimes are reported in statistical systems, beyond the specificities of federal or unitary states.

For this reason, it became essential to focus first on a stage of diagnosis and harmonization of the criminal concepts used in the criminal code of each State in order to be able to collaborate in the future in the elaboration and interpretation of statistics through the use of common concepts, units and terminology that would make decision-making processes more efficient and the results obtained more precise within MERCOSUR.

Understanding harmonization as correspondence, work was done to identify these conceptual particularities in order to find similarities between States, and between States and the International Classification, so that the criteria used in the statistical count would have the same purpose of defining and measuring in the most homogeneous and comparable way possible.

With the survey[ix] carried out in the first stage, the national statistical recording systems and data sources for each state were reviewed:

  • Argentina: the National Criminal Information System (SNIC), police sources in each jurisdiction, the Autonomous City of Buenos Aires and the four Federal Forces and judicial sources in some jurisdictions.
  • Brazil: the police-based Sistema Nacional de Informações de Segurança Pública, Prisional e sobre Drogas – SINESP, although the National System is not implemented in all federal states.
  • Paraguay: Marandu Police Information System, with police source.
  • Uruguay: Public Security Management System that integrates judicial complaints with police sources.
  • The Plurinational State of Bolivia has participated in completing most of the offenses, but did not identify its statistical system.
  • Chile: The Centro de Estudios y Análisis del Delito (Centre for Crime Studies and Analysis), uses a Unique Code of the Administrative Corporation of the Judiciary to identify crimes for administrative and statistical purposes.

The enriching exchanges carried out on the basis of the rigorous and meticulous analysis of crime types in the meetings of the EWG on Citizen Security led to some interesting findings:

  • The complementarity between police and judicial records in some states was identified as an important aspect of accurate data collection.
  • The most complex types of crime to review were violent deaths due to differences in their inclusion in the registers (considering intentional homicides, doubtful deaths, all types of unnatural deaths), disappearances and terrorism, given that none of the states establishes a clear conceptual definition. This difficulty has a direct negative impact on quality registration.
  • There is a lack of identification that establishes the causes of violent death in the events of «doubtful death» in police records (equivalent to «Events of undetermined intention» in deaths from external causes according to the Argentinean[x] Health records based on the international classification ICD-10[xi]), this indeterminacy implies a high under-reporting for criminal statistics.
  • With respect to disappearances, Uruguay is the only country that counts these types of crimes, while Argentina, Brazil and Bolivia do not register them in systems nor are they included in the statistical count as disappearances, but only in the case that the death is determined to have been consummated. Paraguay, for its part, includes it in the ICCS section of «acts that cause harm or are intended to cause harm to persons».
  • With respect to intentional homicide, there is agreement among the countries that these are deaths caused with intent to kill, making it clear that if there is no intent, it is recorded as unintentional deaths, in accordance with the UNODC International Classification. Likewise, all the countries agree that the context and modality of the specific description of intentional homicide is taken into account in the judicial investigation, given that the characteristics and circumstances of the crime imply aggravating or mitigating factors when calculating the penalty to be applied. Differences were identified in terms of counting:
    • Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay include femicides, murder and violent crimes.
    • For Bolivia, violent emotion implies a specific analysis from the punitive aspect and is not included in the count of intentional homicide.
    • Brazil does not include homicides carried out by its police or military forces, even in its penal codes, considering them to be «in the line of duty», which is a central aspect as it does not allow for statistical comparability.
    • Bolivia states that violent emotion implies a specific analysis from the punitive aspect and does not include it in the intentional homicide count. The rest of the countries indicate that if there is no malice, it is recorded in unintentional deaths.
  • It was identified that the statistical information is presented by all States in accordance with the international standards used, sharing the form of measurement based on rates and quantities of criminal acts and/or persons in a period of time and population of that territory under analysis, where:
  • Quantity = total number of events or persons involved in a given period and territory.
  • Rate = (Number of events or persons involved / Population) * 100000 inhabitants.

Finally, it is noteworthy that in those years Paraguay and Uruguay began the process of statistical quality assessment with UNODC and INEGI based on the Argentinean experience.

Conclusions and challenges

In order to achieve those objectives signed in 2012, at the end of the diagnostic and harmonization work, it was proposed to continue with some lines of work:

  • In principle, publish and disseminate the synthesis reached on the official websites of the States Parties and Associated States, as well as on the UNODC and MERCOSUR websites.
  • Promote the systematisation of the systematisation produced as a reference tool in relation to crime statistics, allowing for reflection on crime prevention policies and regional violence that take into account the differences and similarities mentioned above.
  • Finally, in 2022, the 30th anniversary of the creation of MERCOSUR, the political authorities of security and interior ratified the need to deepen this task with the goal of achieving statistical standardisation between States, not only of criminal acts but also of the different administrative records.

Even if there are political declarations in MERCOSUR, the answer to the question in the title remains inconclusive for the time being because statistical standardisation between countries is complex, given that it depends on several factors that go beyond the technical. The main factor is the political decision of the governments in power to implement the signed agreements, to understand the need to seek points of contact in the registers and concepts in order to generate global plans to prevent crimes and their causes by shifting the focus on the people who commit crimes. We can say that the diagnosis and statistical harmonisation in MERCOSUR opens up a condition of possibility.

[i] MERCOSUR is made up of member states: the Republic of Argentina, the Federative Republic of Brazil, the Republic of Paraguay and the Oriental Republic of Uruguay; and the associated states: the Plurinational State of Bolivia, the Republic of Ecuador.

[ii] The ICCS consists of 11 conceptual categories that define criminal actions in much broader aspects than just the legal good harmed and the offender.

[iii] https://www.unodc.org/documents/data-and-analysis/statistics/crime/ICCS/ICCS_SPANISH_2016_web.pdf

[iv] Acts causing death or intended to cause death; 2. Acts causing harm or intended to cause harm to persons; 3. Injurious acts of a sexual nature; 4. Acts against property involving violence or threat of violence against persons; 5. Acts involving the use of psychoactive substances or other drugs; 7. Acts involving fraud, deception or corruption; 8. Acts against public order, authority and the provisions of the State; 9. Acts against public safety and security of the State; 10. Acts against the natural environment; and 11.

[v] http://www.sice.oas.org/trade/mrcsrs/decisions/dec1606s.pdf

[vi] It was proposed to create an Ad Hoc working group within the Specialised Working Group on Citizen Security to exchange experiences on community safety policies.

[vii] In 2018, the official statistics of Argentina -SNIC- obtained the highest rating for statistical quality. This evaluation was carried out by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) and the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) of Mexico, both of which are international experts in statistical management and are highly respected for their work.

[viii] As described in the ICCS manual under the heading «II. Principles used in the International Classification».

[ix] A report has been published in MERCOPOL Magazine available at https://www.gov.br/mj/pt-br/acesso-a-informacao/atuacao-internacional/foros-e-redes/revista-mercopol-ndeg12-edicion-especial-argentina-1.pdf.

[x] http://www.deis.msal.gov.ar

[xi] From 1997 onwards, causes of death are coded according to the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems – Tenth Revision (ICD-10). https://iris.paho.org/bitstream/handle/10665.2/6282/Volume1.pdf

Foto de Fondo creado por jcomp – www.freepik.es

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