doi 10.4067/S0718-83582012000100001




For more than a decade scholars in North American and Western Europe have produced detailed investigations of the role of neighborhoods and their internal social characteristics in promoting or preventing crime. Thus neighborhoods with high levels of social disorganization as measured by poverty, ethnic heterogeneity, active residential mobility, and broken families tend to suffer greater rates of crime than localities with the opposite characteristics.1 These negative factors, however, may be mitigated by the existence of systems of informal and formal social control. In particular neighborhoods with high levels of concentrated disadvantage can overcome some of the challenges they face with crime when local systems of informal social control, often referred to as collective efficacy, emerge to help constraining delinquency in the area.2 Collaboration among residents or between residents and state officials, are approaches that, may play an important role in helping to reduce overall crime rates.

With its focus on social conditions, community relationships and organizations, and engagement between neighborhood residents and the state this approach offers a conceptually different approach to crime and crime control to those offered in "broken windows" theory and its attendant zero tolerance approach to policing. Where "broken windows" suggests that outward displays of disorder and minor criminal activity such as graffiti or fare jumping on public transport set the conditions to encourage criminal activity, the social disorganization approach argues that collective social stresses such as broken families, deep poverty, and racial discriminations as they become patent in particular communities are stronger predictors of crime. Where the zero tolerance approaches to law enforcement imply that state officials should rigorously and unilaterally enforce laws against even minor crimes, neighborhood focused approaches stress the importance of collective efficacy and the engagement between community organizations and state officials in controlling delinquency. Inevitably there are some overlaps in practice between these two criminological paradigms, but conceptually they provide very different ways of looking at the challenge of crime in contemporary urban settings.

Over the last decades many countries in Latin America have experienced rapid rising levels of urban violence. Across the region governments have, at times, turned to zero tolerance approaches to crime control. These efforts have met with mixed success leading occasionally to short term decreases in violence but, in the process, filling jails, reinforcing criminal gangs, and offering little in the way of long-term solutions.3 Neighborhood focused strategies that build on social disorganization theory and concepts of collective efficacy offer an alternative framework for government officials charged with building long-term crime control policies. Scholars and policy makers seeking to apply these criminological approaches to Latin America, however, face important challenges. Neighborhoods in Latin American cities differ from each other along many of the same variables as those observed in the North American literature, but they also differ along other important variables. On one level, some neighborhoods in Latin America have emerged out of a very different historical context and settlement patterns as compared to those in the United States and Canada. For example, many neighborhoods in an array of urban centers throughout the region were settled irregularly. Since residents of these areas often have very low incomes and no legal title to the land they live on they usually do not have access to the court system of their respective countries to adjudicate their grievances. On another level, Latin American neighborhoods also vary institutionally. The posture of the police and of other state institutions may change dramatically from one neighborhood to another. In much of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, for example, police have left shantytowns under the control of drug gangs, entering these communities only in efforts to arrest gang members or otherwise disrupt their activities. Residents of these communities are often subject to high levels of police abuse and suffer the predations of criminal groups that dominate the areas they live in.4 Conversely in nearby neighborhoods police regularly patrol the streets, gang activity is minimal, and levels of abuse are much lower. While large urban centers such as Chicago also experience some differences in institutional presence across neighborhoods, these differences are typically much narrower than those found in Brazil or in other parts of Latin America. In Chicago, New York, or London, for example, police do not turn over control of large swaths of urban space to the control of criminal gangs in the way that occurs in places such as Rio de Janeiro, Medellin, and Kingston, Jamaica.

The literature that has evolved on neighborhood level social disorganization and control in the North American and European context provides a number of important insights to understanding the challenges facing Latin America today. These approaches, however, need to be adapted to regionally specific experiences accounting for variables that have greater influence in Latin America and for how variables that have significant neighborhood level impact in North America and Western Europe, play out differently in developing democracies. Understanding this variation will not only provide insights into the micro-level factors that influence crime in Latin America but will also provide insights into issues that scholars have overlooked in their analyses of neighborhoods in advanced industrial countries.

The articles in this issue of the Revista INVI help to move these scholarly debates forward. Focusing on the neighborhood level determinants of crime and of the efficacy of responses to crime in Chile, Colombia, Argentina, and Mexico, this issue contains nine articles that provide important perspectives on collective efficacy and social disorganization in the Latin American context. These articles show the importance of the neighborhood-level approach to understanding crime and violence in the Americas, provide insights into the diversity of policing and criminal activity across different cities in the region, and offer new ways to think about the factors that promote or control violence in different Latin American contexts.

This issue begins with Gipsy Escobar's "Using Social Disorganization Theory to Understand the Spatial Distribution of Homicides in Bogota, Colombia." This article uses detailed homicide data from Bogota, Colombia, to test social disorganization theory in the context of a Latin American capital city. Consistent with results from North America, high levels of concentrated disadvantage and social disorder predict higher homicide rates, while wider availability of basic public services predicts lower homicide rates. That said, the data also confounds some North American results showing that high levels of police presence tend to increase neighborhood level violence in Bogota while a high concentration of young males or a high population density in a particular area tend to be associated with lower homicide rates.

Examining debates about social disorganization and more specifically collective efficacy, Javier Núñez, Ximena Tocornal, and Pablo Henríquez, in their article "Determinantes individuales y del entorno residencial en la percepción de seguridad en barrios del Gran Santiago, Chile," show the relevance of these approaches to understanding crime and feelings of security in Santiago, Chile. Building on data from a survey of 5860 individual living in 242 residential in Santiago this article provides evidence showing that greater levels of community involvement and the presence of targeted state public safety programs yield higher levels of security while indications of physical disorder such as graffiti appear to have no effect on feelings of safety. These results closely mirror work on collective efficacy and pose a challenge to those seeking to apply the "broken widows" approach in the Latin American context.

The issue's third article, "El Plan Unidad Cinturón Sur. Impactos de una nueva política de seguridad en un gran conjunto urbano de la ciudad de Buenos Aires," was written by Tomás Rapsal. Building primarily on qualitative interview data this article focuses on the successes of and challenges facing a public safety policy implemented in one region of Buenos Aires. This close analysis suggests that while changes in public safety policy have improved public safety, underlying problems within the police force continue to generate distrust between police and residents. Rapsal, moreover, argues that ongoing police repression of minor infractions generates tensions in the area and raises questions about the utility of the "broken windows" approach to public safety.

In the fourth article, "Programas de seguridad dirigidos a barrios en la experiencia chilena reciente," Hugo Frühling and Roberto Andrés Gallardo Terán analyze the impact of several neighborhood focused public security programs implemented over the last decade in Santiago, Chile. This examination of multiple security programs through the lens of social disorganization suggests to the authors the importance of civil authorities developing effective measures of neighborhood level security outcomes in the Latin American context.

In his article, "La eficacia colectiva como estrategia de control social del espacio barrial: evidencias desde Cuernavaca, México," Alfonso Valenzuela Aguilera focuses directly on the question of collective efficacy in crime control in Mexico, a country that has attracted large amounts of criminological attention in recent years. Building on a survey on 520 residents of Cuernavaca, the capital of the State of Morelos located 85 kilometers south of Mexico City, the author demonstrates the importance of localized collective efficacy in promoting feelings of safety even in areas that suffer high levels of crime.

In the sixth article in this issue, "La reconstrucción de movimiento social en barrios críticos: El caso de la "Coordinadora de Pobladores José María Caro" de Santiago de Chile," Leslie Parraguez Sánchez offers a historical and discursive analysis of one neighborhood in Santiago, Chile that was the sight of a government public safety intervention. The article examines what the author refers to as the paradox of how one neighborhood facing high levels of criminal violence mobilizes to secure itself against outside state interventions and to resist violence.

In the article entitled "Violencias en la periferia de Santiago. La población José Maria Caro," Juan Carlos Ruiz Flores also investigates the Santiago neighborhood of José Maria Caro. His analysis, based on a historical and ethnographic study of the area, suggests that far from a collapse of state power, this high crime area experiences the presence of state power organized along neo-liberal lines that tend to promote criminal activity and that result in general levels of local insecurity.

The eight article in this issue continues to direct our focus on a particular neighborhood in Chile. Here Graciela Alejandra Lunecke Reyes, in an article entitled "Violencia urbana, exclusión social y procesos de guetización: La trayectoria de la población Santa Adriana," argues that the deterioration of social organizations and, as a result, collective efficacy, has contributed to rising levels of gang activity and crime.

The final article in this issue draws the attention back to Buenos Aires. In "La prevención del delito en una villa de emergencia en Buenos Aires (Argentina). Inserción y participación, análisis de los supuestos de comunidad en las políticas de prevención," Inés María Mancini examines crime prevention programs in a poor neighborhood in that city. Building on a detailed analysis of the implementation of crime prevention programs in this neighborhood, Mancini details the material challenges facing these programs as they seek to control criminal activities among deeply impoverished populations living in neighborhoods that historically had very difficult relations with the wider political system.


Desmond Arias5
Guest Editor



1 Sampson, R y Groves, B. 1988.
2 Sampson, R.; Raudenbusch, S y Earls, F. 1997.
3 Cruz, J.M., 2010
4 Arias, E., 2006.
5 B.A. in Political Science, The University of Michigan-Ann Arbor; M.A., Ph.D. in Political Science The City University of New York. Associate Professor. John Jay College of Criminal Justice – CUNY.



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Cruz, José Miguel. Central American Maras: From Youth Street Gangs to Transnational Protection Rackets. Global Crime. 11(4): 379-398, 2010.

Sampson, Robert J. y Groves, W. Byron. Community Structure and Crime: Testing Social Disorganization Theory. American Journal of Sociology. 94(4): 774-802, 1989,

Sampson, Robert J.; Raudenbusch, Stephen W. y Earls, Felton. Neighborhoods and Violent Crime: A Multi-Level Study of Collective Efficacy. Science (277): 918-924, 1997.