Urban Violence and Insecurity: An Introductory Roadmap

Caroline Moser
Caroline Moser Former Brookings Expert

October 1, 2004


In 1992, while I was living once again in the suburbios (low-income settlements) in Guayaquil, Ecuador, local community members explained to me how serious a problem local violence had become in their daily lives. Violent robbery on buses was so ubiquitous that, over a six-month period, one in five women had been attacked by young men armed with knives, machetes or hand guns. The streets were no longer safe after dark, so girls and young women were dropping out of night school, exacerbating their social isolation. The cost of upgrading housing had expanded to include security grilles on windows, and doors designed to deter burglars.
Certainly, there had always been known ladrones (robbers). These had been pointed out to me when I first lived there in 1978 — mainly young men, often also marijaneros (marijuana smokers). But in those days, they never burgled in their own neighbourhood. Although houses with their split cane walls were vulnerable to break-ins, local community social capital was strong enough to hound out wellknown criminals if they got too close for comfort. Of course, there was always violence inside the household, particularly men beating up their wives and partners, especially when they were drunk. But this was accompanied by silent fear that prevented women from addressing the problem either individually or collectively.

Over the 15-year period, however, the nature of the violence had changed considerably. So 1992 was my real introduction to urban violence as a development constraint that eroded the assets of the poor and affected their livelihoods and well-being. Like many others writing in this volume, my background is not in criminology, social work or psychology — three of the disciplines traditionally most associated with violence as an issue of individual criminal pathology. Rather, I am an urban anthropologist. In the past decade, as lethal violence and its associated fear and insecurity have been recognized increasingly as a critical problem in urban areas, so the range of researchers, policy makers and practitioners focusing on this issue has expanded. Today, economists, political scientists, transport planners, architects and NGO community workers, among others, all grapple with the ubiquitous presence of urban violence in their work in cities.

Despite the growing attention to urban violence, we are faced with an important contradiction. On the one hand, we are still on a slow learning curve. This is reflected in the fact that this is the first volume of Environment and Urbanization devoted solely to this issue — although there have been notable self-standing articles in earlier issues.(2) On the other hand, as we seek to comprehend the complex, multi-layered nature of violence, the phenomenon itself is not static. Along with newer preoccupations, such as globalization, post 9/11 fears and insecurities, international migration and “failing” states, not to mention long-term difficulties of exclusion, poverty and inequality, the face of urban violence itself is also rapidly, dramatically changing.

This issue of Environment and Urbanization seeks to understand better the phenomenon of urban violence and insecurity, to document the causes, costs and consequences, and to highlight community- based innovative solutions to the problem. This introduction, therefore, has the challenge of simultaneously reconciling these two aspects — it needs to provide a basic roadmap of urban violence as a background to the papers in this volume — while also highlighting some of the concerns raised in the articles themselves. These include new insights into long-known violence-related problems, as well as newer “cutting-edge” issues.