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Urbicide, Violence, and Destruction Against Cities by Criminal Organizations

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The article proposes a critical examination of the concept of Urbicide and its applications to the phenomena of urban violence produced or associated with the actions of criminal organizations, which include drug trafficking organizations and other criminal enterprises engaged in many illicit activities, such as smuggling, piracy, money laundering; human, arms, corruption, extortion, homicide, traffic of goods and properties in cities, among other transgressions. In all these activities, they capture and destroy cities or parts of them to obtain illicit profits because most of their activities take place within them, and on several occasions, the object of their control is the city itself. The concept of urbicide has been widely used and modified in such a way that many attributes have been added to it and are applied to numerous examples where its meaning has become unprecise, ambiguous. The author revises the literature on the topic and makes an effort to specify, classify, and measure what its call urban violence. It is a conceptual exercise of clarification, delimitation, and measurement that shows its usefulness in the analysis of the multiple different and sometimes fragmented expressions of urban violence, as well as its limits. His proposal refers to activities they capture and destroy cities or parts of them to obtain illicit profits because most of their activities take place within them, and on several occasions, the object of their control is the city itself. In particular, the way in which criminal organizations affect urban life in general; they occupy, control, destroy, and reconfigure certain urban spaces in order to exploit their inhabitants, its resources and take advantage of the urban environment for their illicit businesses.

I appreciate the assistance of Alejandro Ugarte, Oscar Ávila, Candy Hurtado & Karen Franco in the partial compilation of the references and data. I also thank the anonymous reviewers

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  1. 1.

    Examples of this can be seen in the different attacks committed by members of criminal organizations on public and private offices, such as small businesses (OXXO convenience stores in Mexico, banks, gas stations, stores, as well as police offices or posts and blockades on streets, highways, and urban circuits. These are sometimes committed as a reaction to police and military operations to arrest criminals, sometimes to block their access, others to prevent them from carrying out an operation and arresting a gang leader. A case that was widely publicized was the attempted apprehension of Ovidio Guzmán López, son of Chapo and head of the Sinaloa criminal organization, on October 17, 2019. The military attempt triggered a reaction that showed how the city of Culiacán was controlled by the Sinaloa organization, with blockades, attacks against police and military posts, which forced the authorities to withdraw (see among other references, newscast Televisa: They are also planned to instill fear in the population, provoke chaos and reactions against the government. Some include destruction of public infrastructure. Among the examples that illustrate these phenomena are the attacks organized by the PCC against the authorities and with the purpose of controlling important portions of the city, in the years 2006 and 2012. Other examples can be found in Rio de Janeiro, as well as in Guatemala, El Salvador, in Central America. Sometimes an authority is the target of an attack, to disarticulate the urban security policy, as represented by the attack against Omar Garcia Harfuch, Secretary of Public Security of Mexico City on Friday, June 25, 2020 (Diego Caso, El Financiero, June 26, 2020). Some acts are planned to defend or capture territories, others to attack authorities, and some others are counterattacks to public operations.

  2. 2.

    Despite the fact that Jacobs' idea in The Dead of the American City (1961) is linked to the impacts generated by the refunctionalization of cities (As Carrión mentioned later in 2014:43), that is, public policies and the decline of American neighborhoods and cities, we cannot conclude that all the new urban renewal trends and public policies oriented by what several authors label as neoliberalism, are part of his idea.

  3. 3.

    There are other records of urban homicidal violence, such as those of the Citizen Council for Security, Justice and Peace, as well as InSigth Crime and the studies of the United Nations organization against Drugs and Organized Crime (UNODC). We use some of them because not all of their records are consistent or complete, and in some cases, they equate violence in the cities to national figures.

  4. 4.

    The presence and extension of the activities of criminal organizations generates subcultures around drug trafficking, the figure of the drug trafficker (hypermasculine mortal power), the smuggler; and urban and social aesthetics that have very violent contents and subordinated feminine roles (with exceptions).

  5. 5.

    The so-called "Estrategia Todos Somos Juarez" … was a federal program in partnership with the municipal government of Ciudad Juarez, as well as with members of civil organizations in 2010. They installed a consultative table with all these actors to implement federal and local programs of public security, urban renewal, health, and education. Was an ambitious renovation plan, which aimed to respond to the intense violence generated by the fierce competition of this border territory between transnational criminal organizations. It has precedents in other programs in Colombia, and its results have only been partially evaluated, but it is precisely a program that pretends to solve the destruction of the city by the Narco-guerrillas. For a better understanding see: Meyer, 2010. Castillo and Ochoa, 2012. Arratia, 2017. There are other experiments in conflict resolution and violence reduction programs implemented by the governments of Medellin, Colombia (see Alvarado, 2014, as well as in Ecuador (Brotherton and Gude, 2021).

  6. 6.

    The deep and systemic violence against women in public spaces has been noted by UNWOMEN studies (see: And the dominance of Muslim-Islamic male power coalitions in several countries of the world has been the object of violence against women and social responses against them, as has happened with the protests in Iran since September 13, 2022, as a result of the death of Mahsa Amini, a young woman who was arrested and was in custody of the Iranian Islamic religious police (guidance patrols) was detained and beaten for breaking the law that requires women to cover their hair and virtually the entire body in public spaces. It is a manifestation of a violent urban order by a political coalition with coercive police power being exercised against women. See:

  7. 7.

    For the case of Guayaquil, the government reported 279 homicides in 10 months of 2020 and 613 so far in 2022. Data from El Universo, news, 2022. Also, Ministry of Government, DINASED and Ecuador Police; Insight Crime, 2020; INEC Integral.


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Correspondence to Arturo Alvarado .

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Alvarado, A. (2023). Urbicide, Violence, and Destruction Against Cities by Criminal Organizations . In: Carrión Mena, F., Cepeda Pico, P. (eds) Urbicide. The Urban Book Series. Springer, Cham.

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