Global Development Institute Blog

By Natalia Garcia-Cervantes

Rising levels of violence and crime can erase the benefits of economic growth and dramatically decrease well-being. But if we see high levels of violence as a specifically urban problem, with therefore specifically urban solutions, new ways of approaching the problem can be established. Natalia Garcia explains how her research in Mexico is developing this idea.

Violence issues have been analysed and written about incessantly. Let’s start by saying that almost any person living in a city of the Global South has had one form of victimization experience or the other – whether directly or indirectly. It may have even been in a ‘simple’ or everyday manifestation of violence: robberies, muggings or property damage. Violent crime, and the fear of it, has indeed become the reality for millions living in developing countries, thus constraining their personal and family development. Violence is virtually everywhere and has arguably become one of the most pressing issues affecting development. Violence and crime represent incalculable costs, both in economic and social terms. Specifically, violence discourages investment, diverts resources toward law enforcement, health and social services. It also affects social cohesion and social capital, limits social mobility, and erodes good governance by wearing down citizens’ trust in the ability of the state to deal with its causes and consequences.  What is more, since the majority of the world’s population is now living in a highly urbanized world, violence has become more noticeable in urban areas. Urban violence is increasingly recognized not simply as a security issue but also as one that has deep social and economic roots.

Latin America has witnessed a persistence rise in violence since the 1980s. This has had devastating consequences for both the citizens and governments alike. It has been suggested by some analysts, that the challenges that the growth and urbanization of Latin America has posed over democratic governance have some relationship to violence; yet, this relationship is certainly neither direct nor automatic. It has been acknowledged that, many cities – ones that grow at a rapid pace – experience the convergence of risk factors – namely poverty, unequal distribution of resources, social exclusion, social and political conflict – that increase the probabilities of violence and crime to appear. There is a pressing need to further understand the factors that shape urban violence and its repercussions for cities and overall development.

But how about coming up with an urban solution to an urban issue? There are a number of compelling reasons to focus on the ways in which the processes and relations of development planning underpin urban violence. For example, urban policies often follow an inertia that maintains and strengthens social exclusion and inequality. These policies, then, reinforce – rather than reverse – existing conditions of inequalities, poverty and social exclusion, which consequently may contribute to increasing levels of urban violence. Hence, it can be ventured that some urban development planning processes enable violence to persist given the politics and social implications they represent.

Generally, policy responses to urban violence aim at addressing the so-called “multi-causality” that drives violence and crime. In doing so, going beyond repression and punishment measures becomes vital. Since urban violence has social, economic, spatial and institutional roots, a successful approach to reduce urban violence should include those four dimensions.  In a spatial approach to violence, the role of urban planning at local and community levels can become crucial in diminishing opportunities for crime and violence, given that, depending on the typology of violence, most crimes have environmental design and management components. The approach known as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) emphasises the spatial setting of crime and links crime prevention and reduction to municipal level interventions to improve community’s physical infrastructure. It focuses on a number of issues such as street layouts, building and site design, zoning and land-use, transportation system planning and infrastructure improvements, as well as lightning of streets and public spaces. Of course, this is aimed at reducing the opportunity of crime, and, hopefully, to improve cities’ built environment.

This may seem to be a well-intended, yet awfully innocent and small-scale initiative, given the situations of extreme violence some countries experience (read Mexico), but what else can be done when everything that has been tried before seems to be failing? Now, we analyse the context of Mexico.

Why Mexico and why now?

Mexico is a good example of what an extreme case of urban violence implies. Violence has been a central trait of the social and political consolidation of the country. Yet, the levels of violence experienced from 2006 until today have posed new overwhelming challenges to both governments and citizens. The appearance of increasing levels of violence in the country corresponds to a conjunction of historical and current events. Historically, violence is a consequence of deeply rooted social, economic and political problems that have been present in the country for decades. Based on current events, violence is also a cause of new social, economic and political strategies. Apart from drug and organized crime-related violence, several forms and sources of violence have been present in Mexico.

Violence has come to largely redefine Mexico, including its government, society and institutions. The situation appeared to have reached a peak in 2006, and a frontal fight against drug trafficking and organized crime was subsequently launched by the Mexican government. Yet, despite this effort, the government’s strategy did little to decrease the marketing of illegal drugs (Guerrero-Gutierrez, 2012). Violence has caused leakage of investment, loss of jobs, and the gestation of a phenomenon that poses a growing threat to national security.

Violence has also redefined the Mexican economy in many ways. It has been estimated, for instance, that about 37.4 per cent of the companies in the country were victims of crime and violence in 2012. The rise of violence has been accompanied by the closure of many small businesses and increased unemployment. Violence has redefined how citizens relate to each other as they change their activities and limit their interaction with the rest of society. Violence has also transformed the relation between citizens and institutions of the state; it has eroded citizens’ trust toward the government and its institutions. Violence has also increased corruption and institutional weakness and has hampered the rule of law

Mexico is approaching a turning point. The mounting significance of violence and insecurity has provoked the surge of a pressing need to scrutinize the causes, consequences, costs and overall, new strategies to reverse this situation. The traditional approach to urban violence has proven to be insufficient.  The frontal war against organised crime has only provoked violence to spread. Criminal justice and law enforcement have only worsened the problem and triggered a blood-spattered reaction from drug organisations. There has to be an incentive to stop joining drug traffickers, a feasible alternative for citizens to achieve decent living standards: something to look up to instead of violent ways. What if instead of continuing fighting violence with violence, we try to focus on developing better cities and eventually, better citizens?


Guerrero-Gutierrez, E., 2012. Políticas de seguridad en México: analisis de cuatro sexenios, in: Atlas de La Seguridad Y Defensa de Mexico. Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia A.C. (CASEDE), Mexico.