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Chronic violence: the new normal in Latin America


Chronic vioence: the new scourge of Latin America** 

by Tani Adams*, 11th October 2011

Across Latin America, violence is becoming a perverse ‘normality’, undermining social relations and endangering the prospects for democracy. Reproduced by a complex web of influences, violence is reshaping everyday life, religion, politics and architecture, and has thoroughly outstripped the responses of vulnerable governments and the international community. A fundamental shift is required in the way we understand this phenomenon.

Of all the anxieties that beset countries afflicted by crime, high murder rates and other manifestations of public insecurity in the twenty-first century, one stands out. In Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East as well as in pockets of many wealthier countries, violence has become a ‘new normality’. A 2011 World Bank report calculates that over 1.5 billion people worldwide live with long-term violence and conflict that are transmitted from one generation to the next.

There is general agreement about the most important causes accounting for the rise of violent behaviour. These include globalization, the rise of illicit trafficking networks, the deep scars left by inequality and relative deprivation, and finally, democratization processes that have prioritized elections and institution-building over the social foundations for democracy.

Underming the social support of democracy

However, much less is known about how violence becomes naturalized in everyday life and reproduces itself. My review of the impact of violence on social relations in Latin America confirms that it consistently provokes perverse behavior among vulnerable groups, undermines how people treat each other, and destroys the social support for democracy.

In Medellín, Colombia, one recent survey found that over 70 percent of citizens approved the use of violence on behalf of their family, or for political and economic gain. Similar figures are sure to be found in parts of Central America, Caracas and Cape Town, and most probably in Detroit and Athens as well. An extract from Fernando Vallejo’s highly popular Colombian novel La Virgen de los Sicarios [(translated as Our Lady of the Assassins) illustrates how chronic violence transforms people in perverse ways that remain beyond the ken of most western analysts:

“How can anyone murder for a pair of trainers? You, a foreigner, will ask. ‘Mon cher ami’, it’s not because of the shoes. It’s about the principles of justice we all believe in. The person who is going to get mugged thinks it’s unfair that they robbed him because he paid for them; the one who robs him thinks it’s unfair that he doesn’t have a pair himself.”

Reconstructing the process leading to this implacable end-point requires exploring the complex interface between individual psychology, social adaptation, and the nation-states and global processes in which these evolve.

The term ‘chronic violence’ – originally coined by British political scientist  Jenny Pearce  – helps us reframe how we think about twenty-first century violence. Chronic violence has become a ‘new normality’ because it is embedded and reproduced in multiple spaces that range from mother-child relations to the ways that people practice religion and think about their governments. As a result, policies that continue to focus on a narrow range of causes or effects – for example, drug trafficking, impunity, or youth gangs – are likely to fail.

At the heart of chronic violence is the ‘grey zone]’ coined by Auschwitz survivor Primo Levi. When people experience chronic fear or repression, and the state cannot or does not impose the rule of law, the differences between right and wrong, innocent and criminal, moral and immoral, tend to blur. In these circumstances, social silence and other avoidance mechanisms kick in and grossly distort people’s capacity to perceive and act upon reality.

The imperative to survive can make almost anyone resort to violence and illegality. This further fuels guilt and silence, social forgetting and amnesia, isolation and aggression. In Latin America, the result is an even greater distortion of reality fed by increasing reliance on fundamentalist religions, the breakdown of public spaces and growing support for authoritarian crackdowns.

Short of the ideal

For me, the question of how violence affects daily life and the practice of citizenship was provoked by living in Guatemala in the decade following the euphoria of the 1996 Peace Accords, as a new kind of violence slowly but progressively overran daily life. Most analysts blamed drug traffickers, the clandestine powers linked to the war-time military, and the corruption and impunity that prevailed because of the Guatemalan state’s failure to establish the rule of law. In the US, Mexico, Colombia and elsewhere, similar ideas have prevailed. The assumption has been: stop drug trafficking, and the violence will stop.

I thought the story might be more complex. All around me, it was evident that violence was causing changes in ‘victims’ as well. Among neighbours, colleagues, people in the community, my own family and friends, and across the political spectrum, one could see contradictory impulses: adaptation and combat, fear, denial and indignation, heightened aggression and avoidance.

In 2007 and 2008, I led research in five communities in Central Guatemala to learn how people were putting their lives back together after the war. Many of the survival strategies that people had learned during the conflict were gaining new life as ways to cope with peacetime violence. Even in places with very low homicide rates, people were obsessed with violence – constructing barriers to restrict entry into the community, or organizing night watch patrols to monitor suspicious people (mainly youth and outsiders). Frustration with police inaction led people in two communities to threaten and carry out lynching against supposed criminals.

My hunch was confirmed when I had the opportunity to review a cross-section of the rich but disquieting writing produced in recent decades about the social effects of violence in Latin America. Region-wide, and particularly where violence is heavily concentrated – Mexico, Northern Central America, Colombia and the Caribbean, pockets of most major cities in the region, and the hinterlands and frontier areas where national governments are often absent – a number of causes of this rising insecurity are immediately evident.

Globalization has spread the aspiration for a different way of life to the remotest communities, while also widening the breach between rich and poor and stimulating the boom in illicit trade and organized crime. Inequality has been a constant in Latin America, but the novelty is in the new ways that people are poor: 79.3 percent of the population now live in cities, double the rate of 1950. While 92 percent are literate, almost half of the workforce will never have a formal job. People with radically different levels of privilege and access cross paths, live close to one another, and yet are increasingly segregated and separated.

In general, the region suffers from the spread of ideal systems of democratic governance that are deeply flawed and distorted in reality – structurally anorexic, as one colleague put it. Reliance on market-driven approaches has shifted risks from governments and corporations to individuals, while the incapacity to provide basic rights, impose the law and control illicit activities has weakened state legitimacy.

Indeed, state and international efforts to battle drug traffickers and quell the security crisis often only makes matters worse. In Mexico between 2007 and 2010, as the government’s anti-drug campaign revved up, the analyst Eduardo Guerrero [19] documented that cartels and local criminal organizations increased ten-fold, while the number of communities with 12 or more executions per year quadrupled.

Pride or death

However, only by identifying the factors that reproduce chronic violence and the complex ways that it transforms vulnerable societies can we begin to have a more realistic notion about the prospects for ‘solving’ this problem.

‘Relative deprivation’, the perception of a large gap between one’s aspirations and limited livelihood options, comes up time and again in studies of modern Latin American society. “Not even God remembers us,” declared one resident of a villa miseria in Buenos Aires, quoted by the social scientist Javier Auyero [20]. These attitudes differ markedly from those prevailing in the 1960s and 1970s, when developmentalist, utopian, progressive and revolutionary ideologies flourished.

This sense of abandonment and relative deprivation today is found in big cities and rural areas alike, and provokes a complex mix of shame, entrapment, impotence and rage. James Gilligan, a psychiatrist and expert on criminal behavior, highlights how acts of violence can be:

“…attempts to ward off or eliminate the feeling of shame or humiliation – a feeling that is painful, and can even be intolerable and overwhelming – and replace it with its opposite, the feeling of pride.”

The humiliation of being a ‘social zero’ is described by observers throughout Latin America, as is the perverse search for respect that tends to accompany it. This is often linked to a militarized sense of machismo among men, demonstrated, for example, in the value that security guards or paramilitary soldiers attach to having a gun; the conspicuous displays of expensive properties, vehicles or control over women; the power to provoke terror by joining a gang or becoming a sicario (hit-man). A similarly aggressive ‘we’ll do it ourselves’ attitude often drives collective decisions to lynch suspected criminals in popular upswells.

Danish anthropologist Henrik Vigh’s concept of “social death” helps deepen our understanding of the situation faced by young people in these circumstances. He coined the term to describe the conditions of young men in Guinea Bissau during a long period of economic decline, for whom a key feature of their lives is “the absence of the possibility of a worthy life.”

Death in these cases, he suggests, is not physical but social. Youth becomes a “social moratorium” where people may remain indefinitely because they are unable to complete the passage to adulthood. Life becomes focused instead on survival tactics. In Guinea Bissau, as in parts of Latin America, prime mechanisms to transcend this condition and to grow into maturity are migration or involvement in illicit activities such as drug trafficking.

Support for violence

The idea that violence undermines public support for democracy has been demonstrated through qualitative and quantitative research across Latin America. Different observers recount the ways that democratic regimes in the region have come to be perceived as the ‘enemy’ – for reasons very different than for their authoritarian predecessors.

Opinion pollster José Miguel Cruz used mass survey data from the Americas Barometer, also known as LAPOP, to demonstrate that increased violence has a direct negative effect on social support for democracy. He argues that this occurs not just because of perceptions of insecurity, but more importantly, because people do not believe democratic governments can protect them from crime. “In no other circumstance or country is there so much support for a break with democracy as in those countries where violence prevails.”

Where the state is weak or absent, citizens ipso facto often operate outside the law. Crucially, high levels of crime and support for hardline security measures go hand-in-hand with the growing legitimacy of violence among all social classes – in fact, younger generations exhibit higher levels of approval for violence than their elders. At the same time, domestic violence, the hidden face of this trend, appears to grow in lockstep with more public forms of violence. In one study from 2007, 35.6 of parents in two marginal communities of El Salvador admitted having hit their children with an object in the previous week. Physical abuse was recorded in 50 percent of households. Similar statistics from Colombia, Mexico and Guatemala confirm these trends.

Coping in silence and isolation

These are the environments in which the key psychological strategies of coping with daily violence emerge. Social silence and amnesia, forgetting and attitudes of indifference or avoidance are all common responses to fear that have been well documented throughout the world, particularly in conflict and post-conflict situations. Today they constitute critical survival strategies in peace time. One woman in San Salvador, quoted by the social scientist Mo Hume [25], put it this way:

“Learning how to live means only talking about good things, nothing dangerous. It is better not to talk about dangerous things because, in the first instance, you don’t know who you are talking to, and another thing is that you can’t do anything. If you speak just for the sake of it, when they look for revenge, how do you defend yourself?”

In spaces controlled by gangs, drug traffickers or renegade police, silence is often imposed from above, ensuring a certain tacit complicity between the silencers and the silenced. The effect of this relationship is heightened passivity and a diminished capacity to understand, analyze or act strategically. More broadly, Brazilian anthropologist Teresa Caldeira [26] coined the term ‘crime talk’ to refer to everyday gossip, news and jokes about violence, supported and stimulated by the sensationalist mass media. ‘Crime talk’ reaffirms stereotypes, reinforces scapegoating of marginal groups, spurs ever deeper segregation and fuels the reliance on tactics over strategy, presumption over observation.

Meanwhile, brutality grows as violence increases, from the dismemberment and public display or parts of bodies, the spate of decapitations in Mexico, messages written on walls with victims’ blood, to the burning of a busload of innocent intercity passengers. The most publicized cases are often committed by drug traffickers and paramilitary groups, evidently driven by the increasingly high stakes and militarized struggles over markets and territories. However, the increase in femicides in Mexico and Guatemala cannot be so easily explained, nor can the lynching of petty thieves who are hacked, burned or kicked to death by local groups frustrated with state ineffectiveness throughout the region.

Such atrocities, previously associated with the most extreme wartime atrocities in places like Cambodia, Rwanda or Bosnia, now constitute everyday forms of violence and social communication in countries that are not at war, but are also not at peace. The intensification of brutality may also be a manifestation of the perverse search for respect, the experience of “social death” and the inverted morality and rage described in the Virgen de los Sicarios.

New social protection strategies

Long term exposure to violence produces fundamental changes in the ways that people understand their lives and govern themselves. Pentecostal beliefs, for example, increasingly prevail in both Catholic and Protestant churches, where dramatic personal conversion, biblical literalism and the experiences of speaking in tongues and divine healing provide answers and solutions not available elsewhere. In Honduras and elsewhere in Central America, such churches are a recognized safe haven for gang members seeking to leave their organizations. However, while the stiff rules of evangelical churches provide a kind of social containment otherwise unavailable, they can also provoke more conflict with those ‘outside’ the flock. On the other hand, the heavy Catholic spiritualism of gangs and drug traffickers, focusing often on cults to the all forgiving Virgin Mary, are well documented among the armed factions of Mexico and Colombia. In the communities we studied in Guatemala, many people expressed a clear sense of divine justice, but virtually no one mentioned justice in the same breath as the state.

In places taken over by drug traffickers or other armed groups, para-state entities have emerged that ensure protection for their own activities by offering goods, services, and structures of social control for the communities where they operate. Those established by drug trafficking organizations such as La Familia in Michoacán, or previously by Pablo Escobar in Colombia, are the most formal and extensive examples of this phenomenon.

To a lesser extent, gangs offer ‘protection’, rules, and a sense of belonging for youth inadequately protected by families, other social networks and the state itself.

Meanwhile, upper and middle classes have retreated into gated communities protected by private security guards that outnumber police in virtually every country. “Closed condominiums, the new type of fortified elite housing, are not places people walk or even simply pass by,” writes Caldeira. “They are meant to be distant, to be approached only by car and then only by their residents….They are turned inwards, away from the streets, whose public life they explicitly reject.”

Throughout the region, new aesthetics have emerged in the last decade – from the securitized homes of upper classes in closed condominiums, to the dark glasses, short haircuts and designer sneakers sported by security guards working in Central American capitals, to the extravagant consumption of drug lords and their minions. Adriana Cobo, a Colombian architect, notes that:

“The aesthetic code of the drug trafficker in Colombia is part of its national identity… ostentatious, exaggerated, disproportionate and laden with symbols which seek to confer status and legitimize violence… [however] the first thing it is important to note is that the narco aesthetic in Colombia does not any longer belong only to the drug trafficker, but forms part of popular taste, which sees it through positive eyes and copies it, ensuring its continuity through time and across cities.”

Clearly, the deep rooted factors that drive chronic violence and the multiple ways that it reproduces itself outstrip the strategies used by states and the international community to tackle crime and insecurity. Since it is unlikely that any individual state can ‘solve’ this problem, it is urgent that national governments and the international community take steps to recognize and confront a powerful but scarcely acknowledged challenge. The search must intensify for conditions that might enable vulnerable group to protect themselves from the psychological lures of chronic violence in ways that strengthen social relations, social responsibility and the fundamental principles of democratic citizenship.

* Tani Adams is a US-Guatemalan anthropologist who has led a variety of social change organizations in the US, Latin America, and most recently in Guatemala. She is currently associated with the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington, DC and the International Institute of Learning for Social Reconciliation in Guatemala. Tani Adams’ full report, Chronic Violence and its Reproduction, will be published on the Woodrow Wilson International Center’s website this month (see )

** This article was first published in Open Democracy.

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