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Urban violence, a siege on Latin American countries

There are 7,000km (4,350m) between a favela (Brazilian slum) called Maré, in Rio de Janeiro, and the San Bernardo neighborhood in Bogotá. In both these places, drug trafficking, criminal gangs, and insecurity write fear stories that live in the narrow streets, where violence is like the annoying neighbor that nobody wants, but tolerates.

San Bernardo is located in downtown Bogotá in a depressed area amid deteriorated houses and stores concealing the drug micro-trafficking, muggings, and murders. Maré is a complex of 16 favelas near the Antônio Carlos Jobim International Airport, in the north of Rio and where the drug cartels and law enforcement dispute the control of the territory, stimulating episodes of abuse and violence.

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San Bernardo has 13,000 inhabitants and it’s hard to account for the assassinations or robberies due to the failures in information systems, which only show the data of complete neighborhoods. The fact that 61% of the inhabitants of Bogotá perceive greater insecurity in the city does not indicate much about the daily situation of this neighborhood, where illegal gangs bully people, imposing invisible barriers and intimidate “snitches”.

Maré has around 150,000 inhabitants and the abuse of power is revealed by “out-of-court” executions carried out by law enforcement and the vengeance exerted by drug trafficking gangs. While in 2017, 6,749 people were killed in Rio de Janeiro, a rate of 36.7 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, in Bogotá the rate is 12.7 per 100,000 inhabitants.

After performing a bibliographical review on the urban violence in Latin America and discussing on the matter in the field of public health, wandering the key points of Maré and San Bernardo, and interviewing 46 inhabitants of these areas, Universidad Nacional de Colombia(UNal), Public Health Ph.D., Elis Mina Seraya Borde, showed that the harassment of the inhabitants is a “reflection of the conflicts produced by territorial disarray plans as a function of legal and illegal territorial ventures and by the inaction of the government.” 

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According to Universidad Nacional de Colombia(UNal) Inter-faculties Public Health Ph.D.  Professor Mario Hernández, in the last 15 years urban violence has turned into the main issue of scientific and political research in Latin America. “This is a recognized phenomenon, not only as a social issue but increasingly as a public health issue, if the direct violence rates in large cities, the effects on the mental health of inhabitants and the impact on the health system is taken into account,” he stated.

However, there is not much research on the profound causes of this problem, let alone a compared perspective, therefore the contribution of the doctoral thesis of Elis Borde is powerful.

The fear of “Bronxanation” of San Bernardo

Since the 40s favelas such as Maré started growing as the rural exodus to the cities also increased as an escape measure to the bad conditions of rural life and also due as a consequence of the housing boom. Thousands of farmers turned masons established their homes on slopes and marshes and although there have been different urban legalization projects; the quality of life of people has improved just slightly with the years.

During the 50s and 60s, migration from the rural areas to the cities was essential in the transformation of Bogotá. After the riots and fires induced by the assassination of Jorge Eliécer Gaitán in April of 1948, the wealthy classes moved to the north of the city and many downtown houses were taken by people displaced by violence and people looking for housing opportunities.

In the 80s, neighborhoods such as San Bernardo began to be invaded by “drug pushers”, homeless people, felons, and prostitutes giving rise to highly dangerous areas known as the “Calle del Cartucho” and later the “Bronx”. This is one of the reasons there is a fear of a “Bronxanation” of the sector, meaning a degeneration and deterioration process as a consequence of the actions carried out in the area.

Since the mid-nineties, the security policies carried out urban renovations, such as the building the “Parque Tercer Milenio” (Third Millennium Park), TransMilenio stations (Bogotá transit system) or the Ciudad Salud project to promoting civic culture and Drug Addict Medical Care Centers, which have been insufficient.

The surveyed residents do not reject the “San Bernardo, Tercer Milenio” Partial Urban Renovation Plan but are not clear for whom the area be recovered and what will happen to them: “the project has not been socialized, they have simply told us their desire to buy our properties,” they contest. The Office of the Mayor is projecting building a 3,600 unit housing project in 9.3 hectares of the area.

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Interventions and raids

On the participation of law enforcement on dismantling the micro-trafficking networks slum, the researcher claims that “police interventions were done more from the urban-social perspective and less from a battle logic idea, as occurred in Maré”.

It is important to recall that in 2018, former Brazilian President Michel Temer ordered the Army to take control of the Police force, the firefighters, and intelligence services to militarily intervene Rio de Janeiro, with the purpose of attacking organized crime. The task surpassed the limitations of their responsibility, to the point of intensifying violation of human rights, including illegal executions.

The repressive policy intensified into the administration of the current President Jair Bolsonaro and the Governor of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Wilson Witzel.

According to Borde, the authoritarianism and violence of the Military Police produced an almost generalized fear in the general public; the fright of state law enforcement essentially marked bitter disappointment and a deep distrust for the government, dubbed by some of the surveyed as “terrorist, racist, and homicidal”.

In this sense, it is necessary to highlight the historic-territorial dimension of urban violence in Latin American cities to try to understand the violence production and reproduction processes as a public health issue. Likewise, it should also address not only the issues of essential services to live, but also mental health through psychosocial interventions, and include the inhabitants in the transformation of these areas to create better conditions for a dignified life, without fear and in peace.

For Professor Hernández, when they understand the deep causes of public health issues and the complexity of urban violence, other solutions will emerge, especially those that include people to impact over the ordering forces of the territory and build health, peace in large cities.


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