Forgotten lives, vicious streets

Fractured Cities
February 2, 2007

In January, a joint federal police and army team swooped into Mexico's northern border town of Tijuana, a city of 1.5 million people, to disarm and imprison the local police force in an operation designed to stamp out kidnapping, organised crime and drug trafficking. Dramatic as this is, the Tijuana example is not unique to Latin America, where urban poverty and marginalisation have gone hand in hand with the emergence of diverse criminal actors and the creation of "no-go" urban neighbourhoods.

With a majority urban population, Latin America is accustomed to urban poverty, yet the recent rise in violence and the growing power and reach of "perverse institutions" is a new phenomenon, one with which citizens and governments at municipal and national levels are struggling to come to terms.

The statistics are stark: Latin America has firearms-related homicide rates three times the world average (30 per 100,000); crime costs the region about £15 billion a year (equivalent to the gross domestic product of a small Latin American country); and two thirds of citizens distrust the police.

Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt's collection takes us behind the statistics to analyse the scale of the problem, the reasons behind variability - why is Lima so much safer and its police trusted compared with Rio de Janeiro or Lago Agrio? - and to describe the experience of growing up in poor neighbourhoods run by criminal "parallel powers". Their contributors include geographers, sociologists and anthropologists from Latin America and Europe, each expert in themes of urban violence and insecurity. Whether in specific neighbourhoods or in fractured cities such as Medell!n, a varying combination of problems characterises Latin American cities.

Fractured Cities focuses on seven large cities (Managua, Nicaragua, is the smallest with a population of 1.4 million; Mexico City the largest with 18 million), most of them metropolitan centres, to illustrate how social and spatial fragmentation has given rise to violence and governance gaps. On the one hand are the wealthy elites with their gated communities and private security arrangements, socially and spatially removed from the other side of urbanism - state abandonment, falling personal and municipal incomes and gangsterism in areas where social identities are shaped by the conspicuous consumption of drug dealers and "security" is provided by criminal hierarchies.

One core theme throughout the book is the process of informalisation, not only of employment and the economy (a process that began more than three decades ago) but also the informalisation of the social order, social organisation and sociocultural identities. Spatial and social exclusion of "informals" has deepened in the past 20 years, increasing the share of urban populations living with declining incomes and fewer welfare safety nets in what Mike Davis in Planet of Slums terms "urban involution".

The extent of the damage that "development" can cause for large groups is illustrated by Rio's 15 per cent fall in industrial jobs, Lima with two thirds of its workforce in informal employment and Medell!n with half its children malnourished. Into this vacuum emerge forms of social organisation based on cocaine, extortion and intimidation. In Caracas, two thirds of residents fear being a victim of violence. The poor fear the most - and for good reason. On a daily basis, residents live with levels of fear and insecurity unimaginable to post 9/11 or post 7/7 Western urbanites.

But why should this governance gap emerge? The first factor is the widespread social exclusion of poor populations, whose employment prospects are limited by national economies unable to absorb their labour, the stigma attached to job applications from no-go neighbourhoods and police aggression towards young urban males. In this context, ordinary people develop a number of strategies - international migration (remittances augment meagre local incomes), restriction of social ties and geographical mobility, acceptance of illegal jobs (in Rio's poor districts, rates of youth unemployment reach 50 per cent, twice the national average - boys drop out of school to deal small packets of crack), tentative acceptance of the quasi-order offered by paramilitaries or drug lords, and profound disillusionment with the state's "law and order" and politicians.

Second, although there is a connection between economic downturn and the rise of crime and insecurity, the book's chapters also highlight the political dimension. Successive governments have failed to offer political involvement and full citizenship to people in poor barrios; and when they finally do try to tackle insecurity, their measures are too often heavy handed. States are consistently unwilling to take responsibility for learning "best practice" from cities such as Lima and (not discussed here) Bogotá.

Third, policing has been consistently inadequate, often indeed perpetuating governance voids by taking bribes, acting violently and unaccountably and failing to uphold order. In this context, official security rapidly loses its legitimacy, thereby boosting insecure residents' willingness to accept the relative stability of other violence brokers.

Fractured Cities offers an accessible, albeit rather depressing, account of the face of current trends and issues in Latin American urbanism, suitable for upper-level undergraduates as well as interested general readers. With its careful city-by-city discussion, the collection highlights the variation in patterns of citizenship (in)security across the region, drawing on close knowledge of specific cities and their particular sociospatial dynamics and histories.

As in other edited collections, synthesis and forecasts are dealt with only briefly, leaving the reader with little sense of how Latin America differs from other parts of the world or what the prospects are under the current swathe of Centre-Left and Leftist governments. In the editors' brief epilogue, the volatility of "democracy of the street" is raised as a consequence of urban governance voids. The lesson from Fractured Cities is that governments of any ideological stripe and their citizens face an uphill struggle in regaining secure public space as huge transformations are required across social, economic and political spheres.

Sarah A. Radcliffe, department of geography, and fellow, New Hall, Cambridge.

Fractured Cities: Social Exclusion, Urban Violence and Contested Spaces in Latin America

Editor - Kees Koonings and Dirk Kruijt
Publisher - Zed Books
Pages - 165
Price - £50.00 and £17.99
ISBN - 1 847 730 0 and 731 9

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