Urban Latin America: Space, Security and Struggle

With about three quarters of its population living in dense settlements, Latin America is the planet’s most urbanized region. It is also its most unequal. The well-to-do enclaves of major cities often stand shoulder to shoulder with vast poor areas, variously known as barriadas, barrios marginales, colonias, favelas, inquilinatos, rancherías. Though Latin American urban segregation traces back to the colonial era, most of today’s so-called megaslums and satellite cities have arisen in the last 40 years with rural-to-urban migration, which resulted in an almost 40% growth in the region’s urban population between 1960 and 2000.

Pablo Morales

With about three quarters of its population living in dense settlements, Latin America is the planet’s most urbanized region. It is also its most unequal. The well-to-do enclaves of major cities often stand shoulder to shoulder with vast poor areas, variously known as barriadas, barrios marginales, colonias, favelas, inquilinatos, rancherías. Though Latin American urban segregation traces back to the colonial era, most of today’s so-called megaslums and satellite cities have arisen in the last 40 years with rural-to-urban migration, which resulted in an almost 40% growth in the region’s urban population between 1960 and 2000.

Elites have increasingly holed up in high-rise buildings and gated communities, viewing poor areas exclusively as lawless hotbeds of violence. Yet, ironically, these areas are often highly governed, if informally. In this issue, the NACLA Report focuses on these Latin American urban spaces, paying attention to how local power is wielded and how the question of security is handled. Journalist Luke McLeod-Roberts reports on the rise in recent months of paramilitaries in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas. Waging war on drug gangs, these milícias, thought to be mostly composed of ex- and moonlighting police officers, take over neighborhoods, charging protection fees. Furthermore, the favelas where milícias operate are near the city’s major highways, which are key infrastructure for the Pan American Games being held in Rio during July. With the Brazilian federal government investing $900 million in the games, security at the event is viewed as crucial; many favela residents, however, feel milícias are no better than the gangs or corrupt police they’ve replaced.

Meanwhile in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, empty streets and overcrowded prisons are the only sign of progress in five years of the mano dura, or iron fist, security policy. As its name suggests, mano dura has centered almost exclusively on deploying joint military-police raids against young gang members, who are stigmatized throughout Central America as violent pariahs and the source of most crime. The policy, first adopted in Honduras and reproduced elsewhere, hasn’t even succeeded on its own terms: Violence has only increased since it was adopted, including the wanton killing of street children, for which the Honduran state was condemned last year by the Inter-American Human Rights Court.

Rio and Tegucigalpa present us with rather bleak cases of top-down local-level authoritarianism. But in the Andean zone, bottom-up forms of self-rule stand in sharp contrast to this. By now the most famous example is El Alto, Bolivia, the sprawling satellite city bordering La Paz, which made headlines worldwide in 2003 after its militant neighborhood councils helped eject a sitting president. As Xavier Albó explains, this was made possible by the city’s largely Aymara population having reproduced rural forms of community governance in a new, urban form.

In Lima, Peru, a hardscrabble squatters’ movement, composed mostly of indigenous people, has attained modest success in a society that is “one of the most racist on the continent,” as Silvia Rivera Cusicanqui says in this issue’s Anniversary Interview. While eschewing the use of identity as a tool in protest, the National Front of the Peoples of Peru fights for debt relief for residents of communities that originally begun as illegal land invasions, organizing marches on the Bank of Materials, the Ministry of the Presidency, and other government targets.

We conclude by leaving site-centered analysis behind and entering the peripatetic world of the mara, or Central American gang, through the story of Fredi. Reconstructed by journalist Cristian Alarcón and anthropologist Rossana Reguillo, Fredi’s many travels between Los Angeles and El Salvador, Guatemala, and Mexico violate numerous official borders, tracing a complex topography laden with violence. His multidimensional narrative reconstructs the reterritorialization and resignification implied in the practices of these translocal migrants, as they found a parallel order to that of legality.

In Latin America, diversity is the rule, and this is no less the case in studying its urban milieus. By juxtaposing these various cases, we hope to contribute to the growing literature on the region’s local-level politics and varied urbanisms.


Pablo Morales is editor of the NACLA Report on the Americas.
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