The Business of Violence in Latin America

violencia urbana

Ask people in Latin American cities today what most worries them and it is likely that among their top answers will be insecurity. Latin America is experiencing levels of lethal violence that, in countries such as El Salvador, exceed those registered during the civil wars of the late 20th century. But today’s violence unfolds on the streets of the region’s major cities. From Ciudad Juarez to San Salvador to Caracas to Rio de Janeiro, insecurity amid both crime and violence is a growing concern for policymakers and citizens. The region’s business communities are increasingly vocal about the threats to investment and productivity. But it is not only business that worries about insecurity scaring off foreign investors, depressing domestic entrepreneurship, and reducing profits. As I discovered while conducting research in some of Latin America’s most violent cities, powerful criminal actors also worry a great deal about local economic development and the image their cities hold among foreign investors.

Consider the following excerpt from an interview I conducted in 2009 in Medellin, Colombia, with Fabio Orlando Acevedo (aka, “Don Efe”). Don Efe had been a former leader of one of the city’s most powerful paramilitary units, the Bloque Cacique Nutibara, but at the time of the interview he was six years into a demobilization process coordinated by local and national authorities. During the 1990s, Medellin was considered among the most violent cities in the world, but by the time of our interview ―January 9, 2009―, it was heralded as a model city for tackling urban violence through a focus on strengthening the rule of law, reducing socioeconomic inequality, and enhancing citizen participation in local governance. As Don Efe noted:

Medellin is a new city… new businesses have emerged and the city is a magnet for international business, four and five star hotels are under construction, foreign capital is back, and the homicide rate has dropped significantly, which is how safety is measured abroad.

But why would the former leader of a violent armed group echo the interests of business? And more broadly, what roles do business and criminals play in shaping the ways in which cities respond to violence?

I tackle these questions in my new book, Cities, Business, and the Politics of Urban Violence in Latin America. In the book I compare the nature and trajectory of the sharply different ways that Colombia’s three principal cities ―Bogota, Cali, and Medellin― responded to local violence over the course of nearly three decades. My analysis draws on interviews with past and present criminals, business leaders, civil society representatives, politicians, and everyday citizens. So what did I find?

One overarching finding is that responses to violence are deeply shaped by politics. This may sound like commonsense, but it is worth unpacking given that one of the recurrent themes among development agencies is that the key to effectively reducing violence is to de-politicize the issue. But as public concern with criminality grows, so too does its political salience. Local and national elections in Latin America increasingly turn on the degree to which candidates’ plans to deal with insecurity resonate with voters. Yet responses to urban violence are also inherently political because they can either preserve or reshape the distribution of resources and power in a region historically characterized by socioeconomic inequality and exclusionary politics. Some cities launch responses to violence that favor hardline or “mano dura” tactics that do little to tackle the socioeconomic and political drivers of urban violence. While other cities opt for more participatory projects that position strengthening law and order within broader political plans to reduce longstanding inequities and increase the political voice of marginalized populations in violent neighborhoods. The sooner we acknowledge the political nature of policy responses to violence, the quicker we can work on crafting conditions to make those responses more effective and sustainable.

But what explains why cities pursue such different responses to violence in the first place? There are two factors that can help us answer this question. The first is the nature of relations between city governments and dominant local business interests. Strong linkages between local public and private sectors facilitate the sharing of resources and information, build trust, and help resolve conflict. In my book I show that strong public-private linkages facilitated advancing participatory responses to urban violence in Medellin and Bogota. In both cities local government and business interests collaborated extensively to develop and sustain innovative responses to urban violence. Domestic and international attention to the policy responses, in turn, generated political capital and foreign investment while tackling inequality and deepening political participation. But where strong linkages are absent it is much harder to sustain similar responses to violence. This is the case in Cali, whose early efforts at a participatory response to violence in the 1990s failed partly because weak public-private linkages collapsed into outright political conflict that eroded support and capacity to redistribute resources and power as a way to confront violence. But while unpacking public-private sector relations is critical for understanding how cities respond to urban violence, it is not enough.

Different types of territorial control among armed groups within cities generate distinct political challenges and opportunities for tackling violence. Participatory responses to violence face the greatest threat in cities where there are many armed actors with a high capacity for lethal violence and that actively compete with each other to control territory and illicit market shares. This dynamic was present in Cali, where the resulting high levels of violence eroded political support and capacity for the participatory response. In contrast, settings with many armed actors but who have low capacity to engage in sustained violence produce relatively less violence and fewer challenges to local state authority. This was the case in Bogota.

But what dynamics of territorial control in Medellin helped the city become a global model of urban governance? Here we can return to Don Efe’s curious enthusiasm for investment and tourism –sentiments that would seem misplaced coming from an actor responsible for much disorder and violence. Yet, in my book I trace how Don Efe and his close criminal allies used violence to forge a territorial monopoly. The resulting decline in lethal violence enabled local government and business to sustain political support for the participatory project, while it enabled criminal hegemons to continue operating a range of illicit economies, from drug trafficking to extortion to land grabs. Thus the Medellin “miracle” is partly due to a complex co-existence between political leaders, business interests, and powerful criminal actors.

What do these findings tell us about the challenges and opportunities that developing world cities face in confronting violence? First, that politics provides a powerful starting point for both scholars and policymakers to better understand the factors that shape responses to urban violence. Second, that collaboration between the public and private sectors can go a long toward advancing and sustaining projects that tackle the root drivers of violence. And third, that addressing urban violence may require difficult and controversial interactions between formal and informal actors –interactions whose long-term implications for democracy and development merit further research.

Eduardo Moncada

Eduardo Moncada is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University in New York City. He is the author of Cities, Business, and the Politics of Urban Violence in Latin America (Stanford University Press, 2016) and several articles on crime, violence, democracy, and development.