Skip to main content

New perspectives on crime, violence and insecurity in Latin America


This article introduces a Crime, Law & Social Change special issue on rethinking organised crime, collective violence and insecurity in contemporary Latin America. The five contributions, which among them cover the cases of Argentina, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico, address the puzzle of why and how in the midst of the world’s most serious crime and violence crisis ‘stability’ and ‘political order’ are nonetheless maintained. Taking a critical distance to conventional scholarship on these problems, the present collection of papers shifts the focus from one on how democratic regimes and formal institutions of the state are affected to a broader one that puts the spotlight on the ‘real politics’ and ‘real governance’ of crime and violence in the region. Cultural aspects of the ‘collapse of legality’, the holding power of informal institutions and the workings of ‘crimilegal orders’ and ‘criminalized electoral politics’ are explored through variegated conceptual and methodological approaches drawn from political science, criminology, sociology, social psychology, cultural studies and investigative journalism.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  1. By order of magnitude, Venezuela, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, Jamaica, Colombia, Mexico and Brazil are presently ‘leading’ in this field. But other countries that still a decade ago had significantly lower homicide and violent crime levels, such as Argentina, Bolivia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Panama and Paraguay, are also witnessing rising violence. For overviews, see Imbusch et al. [17] and Institute for Economics and Peace [18].

  2. In illustration, the magnitude of this crisis is reflected in the situation in Brazil, which counted 50,108 and 58,000 homicides in 2012 and 2014, respectively [39, 42], while Mexico has registered 60,000–70,000 crime-related “additional homicides” since 2007 ([37]:1348). In comparison, the Colombian National Centre for Historical Memory (CNMH, in Spanish) estimates that in the period 1 January 1958–31 December 2012, that is, in 54 years some 220,000 people were killed as a result of the country’s armed conflict ([7]:31). This means that the non-armed conflict violence witnessed in Brazil and Mexico is of a far higher absolute intensity than the violence that was associated with the Colombian armed conflict.

  3. Drawing on the World Health Organization’s definition of collective violence, in this special issue we understand it as the intentional and instrumental use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, by people who identify themselves as members of a transitory or permanent group against another group or community in order to achieve political, social and economic objectives that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment or deprivation ([46]:4–5). In practice, collective violence can take a variety of forms, including “armed conflicts within or between states; genocide; repression and other human rights abuses; terrorism; and organized violent crime” (ibid.:5). Varshney [43] adds to this list riots, pogroms, and civil wars as different subtypes of collective violence.

  4. Noteworthy among the latter types of intervention is the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, in Spanish), an UN-sponsored mechanism established in 2007 during the administration of Óscar Berger to rein in rampant organized crime in the Guatemalan state and justice sector. See, for instance, Gutiérrez [14] and Dudley [12].

  5. There is today a vast literature that deals with different aspects of organized crime, violence and insecurity in Latin America and the Caribbean. For recent overviews of the literatures and treatments of the issues see, for instance, Arias [2]; Chinchilla [9]; Beckert and Dewey [5]; Dewey et al. [11]; Hoelscher and Nussio [16]; Imbusch et al. [17]; McDonald [24]; Moriconi [25]; Neumann [31]; Pearce [32]; Schultze-Kraft [35]; Shirk and Wallman [37]; Snyder and Duran-Martinez [38]; Trejo and Ley [40]; UNDP [41]; vom Hau [15].

  6. Among the ‘success stories’ are the dismantling of the so-called Cali and Medellín drug cartels in Colombia in the 1990s and the violence reduction programs in Medellín and Bogotá in the 2000s. Whether the Colombian experiences can be counted as ‘successes’ remains an open question, however [6, 29].

  7. The selected country cases are, of course, not a representative sample. Rather, the selection is based on the editors’ interest in providing fresh perspectives on a number of cases that are among the Latin American countries most affected by the crisis of crime, violence and insecurity (Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala and Mexico) but also include another country (Argentina) that is not usually analysed in this context.


  1. Albarracín, J. (2017). Criminalized electoral politics in Brazilian urban peripheries. Crime, Law & Social Change.

  2. Arias, D. (2017). Criminal enterprises and governance in Latin America and the Caribbean. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  3. Arias, D. and Goldstein, D. (2010). Violent pluralism. Understanding the new democracies of Latin America. In D. Arias and D. Goldstein (Eds.), Violent Democracies in Latin America. Durham: Duke University Press.

  4. Bagayoko, N., Hutchful, E., & Luckham, R. (2016). Hybrid security governance in Africa: Rethinking the foundations of security, justice and legitimate public authority. Conflict, Security and Development, 16(1), 1–32.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Beckert, J., & Dewey, M. (Eds.). (2017). The architecture of illegal markets: Towards an economic sociology of illegality in the economy. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Brodzinsky, S. (2014). From murder capital to model city: Is Medellín’s miracle show or substance?. The Guardian, 17 April. Available at: Accessed 2 Aug 2016.

  7. Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica. (2013). ¡Basta Ya! Colombia: Memorias de guerra y dignidad. Bogotá: Centro Nacional de Memoria Histórica.

  8. Chinchilla, F. A. (2017). A hard-to-escape situation. Informal pacts, kingpin strategies, and collective violence in Mexico. Crime, Law & Social Change.

  9. Chinchilla, F. A. (2016). Una paz insegura: de la reproducción de la violencia colectiva en América Latina y el Caribe Presentación del dossier. Íconos. Revista de Ciencias Sociales, 55, 11–24.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Davis, D. E. (2006). The age of insecurity. Violence and social disorder in the new Latin America. Latin American Research Review, 41(1), 178–197.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Dewey, M., Míguez, D. P., & Saín, M. F. (2017). The strength of collusion: A conceptual framework for interpreting hybrid social orders. Current Sociology, 65(3), 395–410.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Dudley, S. (2017). Public security in private hands: The case of Guatemala’s Carlos Vielman. Crime, Law & Social Change.

  13. Flores Pérez, C. (2013). El Estado en crisis: crimen organizado y política. Desafíos para la consolidación democrática. México: Centro de Investigaciones y Estudios Superiores en Antropología Social (CIESAS).

  14. Gutiérrez, E. (2016). Guatemala fuera de control. La CICIG y la lucha contra la impunidad. Nueva Sociedad, 263, 81–95.

    Google Scholar 

  15. vom Hau, M. (2014). New perspectives on violence and state power in Latin America. Latin American Politics and Society, 56(4), 159–168.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Hoelscher, K., & Nussio, E. (2015). Understanding unlikely successes in urban violence reduction. Urban Studies, 53(11), 2397–2416.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Imbusch, P., Misse, M., & Carrión, F. (2011). Violence research in Latin America and the Caribbean: A literature review. International Journal of Conflict and Violence, 5(1), 87–154.

    Google Scholar 

  18. Institute for Economics and Peace (2015), Global Peace Index 2015. Measuring Peace, its Causes and its Economic Value. Available at: accessed on 3 August 2016.

  19. Inter-American Development Bank (2010), Crime and Violence Prevention in Latin America and the Caribbean: Evidence from IDB’s Interventions (Washington D.C.: Inter-American Development Bank).

  20. Krause, K. (2009). Beyond definition: Violence in a global perspective. Global Crime, 10(4), 337–355.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. Lind, J., & Luckham, R. (2017). Introduction: Security in the vernacular and peacebuilding at the margins; rethinking violence reduction. Peacebuilding, 5(2), 89–98.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Luckham, R. (2009). Democracy and security: A shotgun marriage?. Working paper no. 8, GCST.

  23. Mac Ginty, R. (2006). No war, no peace: The rejuvenation of stalled peace processes and peace accords. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  24. McDonald, J. H. (2012). The fog of violence in Latin America: Structured disorder in a neoliberal world. Ethnohistory, 59(3), 635–640.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Moriconi, M. (2013). Ser violento. Los orígenes de la inseguridad y la víctima-cómplice. Buenos Aires: Capital Intelectual.

    Google Scholar 

  26. Moriconi, M. (2017). Reframing illegalities: Crime, cultural values and ideas of success (in Argentina). Crime, Law & Social Change.

  27. Moriconi, M. (2011). Desmitificar la violencia: crítica al discurso (técnico) de la seguridad ciudadana. Revista Mexicana de Sociología, 73(4), 617–644.

    Google Scholar 

  28. Moser, C., & McIlwaine, C. (2005). Latin American urban violence as a development concern: Towards a framework for violence reduction. World Development, 34(1), 89–112.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Muggah, R., & Szabo de Carvalho, I. (2016). To reduce urban violence in LatAm, Learn from success stories. InsightCrime, 20 June. Available at: Accessed on 2 August 2016.

  30. Muggah, R., & Aguirre, K. (2013). Mapping citizen security interventions in Latin America: Reviewing the evidence. Oslo: Norwegian Peacebuilding Resource Centre.

  31. Neumann, P. (2013). (Un)exceptional violence(s) in Latin America. Latin American Politics and Society, 55(1), 168–175.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Pearce, J. (2010). Perverse state formation and securitized democracy in Latin America. Democratization, 17(2), 286–306.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  33. Rosen, J. and Zepeda, R. (2017). Una década de narcoviolencia en México, 2006-2016. In Atlas de la seguridad y la defensa de México 2016, eds. Raúl Benítez Manaut and Sergio Aguayo Quezada. Ciudad de México: Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia (CASEDE), 55–65.

  34. Schultze-Kraft, M. (2017). Making peace in seas of crime: Crimilegal order and armed conflict termination in Colombia. Crime, Law & Social Change.

  35. Schultze-Kraft, M. (2010). Actualización y ampliación de los mapeos sobre el crimen organizado en Colombia y la región andina. In Hans Mathieu and Catalina Niño G., eds., Seguridad Regional en América Latina y el Caribe. Anuario 2010. Bogotá: Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, 436–455.

  36. Schultze-Kraft, M. and Hinkle, S. (2014). Toward effective violence mitigation: transforming political settlements. IDS evidence report no. 101. Brighton: Institute of Development Studies.

  37. Shirk, D., & Wallman, J. (2015). Understanding Mexico’s drug violence. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 59(8), 1348–1376.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  38. Snyder, R., & Duran-Martinez, A. (2009). Does illegality breed violence? Drug trafficking and state-sponsored protection rackets. Crime, Law and Social Change, 52(3), 253–273.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  39. The Guardian (2015). Violent deaths in Brazil surge to peak of 58,000 amid Olympic safety fears. 9 October 2015. Available at: Accessed on 2 August 2016.

  40. Trejo, G., & Ley, S. (2016). Federalismo, drogas y violencia. Por qué el conflicto partidista intergubernamental estimuló la violencia del narcotráfico en México. Política y gobierno, 23(1), 11–56.

    Google Scholar 

  41. UNDP. (2013). Citizen security with a human face: evidence and proposals for Latin America, regional human development report 2013–2014. New York: United Nations Development Programme.

    Google Scholar 

  42. UNODC. (2014). Global study on homicide 2013. Vienna: UNODC.

    Book  Google Scholar 

  43. Varshney, A. (2007). Ethnicity and ethnic conflict. In C. Boix & S. C. Stokes (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of comparative politics (pp. 274–294). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Google Scholar 

  44. Whitehead, L. (2003). The dark side of democratization: ‘Dysfunctional’ democracies in South America?. Colombia Internacional, 58, 8–35.

  45. World Bank. (2011). World development report on conflict, security and development Washington. D.C.: World Bank.

    Google Scholar 

  46. WHO. (2002). World report on violence and health. Geneva: World Health Organization.

    Google Scholar 

Download references

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Markus Schultze-Kraft.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Schultze-Kraft, M., Chinchilla, F.A. & Moriconi, M. New perspectives on crime, violence and insecurity in Latin America. Crime Law Soc Change 69, 465–473 (2018).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI: