Inter-American Development Bank
Banco Interamericano de Desarrollo (BID)
Departamento de Investigación
Working Paper #613
Social Exclusion and Violence Social Exclusion and Violence
in Latin America and the Caribbean in Latin America and the Caribbean
Inter-American Development BankInter-American Development Bank
Cataloging-in-Publication data provided by the
Inter-American Development Bank
Felipe Herrera Library
Social exclusion and violence in Latin America and the Caribbean / by Heather Berkman.
p. cm. (Research Department Working paper series ; 613)
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Marginality, Social—Latin America. 2. Violence—Latin America. 3. Youth and violence—
Latin America. I. Inter-American Development Bank. Research Dept. II. Title. III. Series.
HN110.5.Z9 B54 2007
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The views and interpretations in this document are those of the authors and should not be
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This paper may be freely reproduced provided credit is given to the Research Department, Inter-
American Development Bank.
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This paper examines how social exclusion contributes to violence in communities
throughout Latin America and the Caribbean. Residents in socially excluded
communities cannot depend on those institutions designed to protect them, and
violence becomes an instrument to achieve certain outcomes, such as justice,
security, and economic gain. When conventional methods of obtaining and
working for increased social status, higher income, and wider influence are
limited, as they often are in marginalized areas, some feel compelled to resort to
violent acts. This paper discusses how social exclusion and violence interact in a
vicious circle that leaves the socially excluded in a very hostile social
environment where the borders between legal and illegal, legitimate and
illegitimate are often fuzzy and uncertain. In this environment violence is used by
a minority to acquire justice, security, authority and economic gain. The use of
violence by this minority, however, affect the lives of the majority of excluded
people that do not resort to violence. As youths are particularly vulnerable to this
issue, this paper also examines the relationship between violence and the plight of
Latin American youth gangs and street children.
1 This paper reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily those of the Inter-American Development Bank.
The author expresses gratitude to Gustavo Márquez Mosconi, Gustavo Beliz and Andrew Morrison for extremely
helpful guidance throughout the development of this paper, and to Sebastián Calónico for help with translations.
“This [violence and robbery] cannot be, we do not respect each other anymore.” 2
“There used to be clear rules: no one would steal in the shantytown. If and when they stole, they
would do it outside the shantytown. Now, they rob you in the shantytown and everywhere.”3
The past few decades in Latin America and the Caribbean have witnessed a series of economic,
social and political transitions that have changed the patterns of inclusion and exclusion.
Movements within the region, including migration from rural areas, related rapid urbanization,
institutional change, and the characteristics of modern sector growth reinforce the historical
reliance of many on informal mechanisms and transactions for survival. The judicial and law
enforcement systems have weakly adapted to new challenges and continue to leave large
segments of society without adequate access to justice and economic and physical security.
As Figure 1 shows, regional rates of homicide in some Latin American and Caribbean
countries reach levels typically only seen in areas ravaged by war. Yet such battles are taking
place within socially excluded communities in Latin America, fought not by soldiers and
guerillas, but by a minority that uses violence to fulfill their needs. Within such communities,
residents cannot depend on those institutions designed to protect them, and violence becomes an
instrument to achieve certain outcomes, such as justice, security, and economic gain through
means that disrupt the life of the community. Where justice is acquired through revenge, security
through violent assertion of authority, and economic gain through robbing, mugging, and
intimidation, the vast majority of law-abiding residents are left without options. In such
communities, people have come to recognize the person next door not as a neighbor, the
policeman not as a protector, the community leader not as a consensus-builder, but as a potential
threat. Many studies ranging from anthropological field work in the marginalized areas of
shantytowns, favelas, barrios and villas (Caldeira, 2000; Márquez, 1999; Goldstein 2003), to
advanced geo-spatial studies that record incidences of violence (Beato, 2002; Consejo de
Seguridad, 2006), report that homicide rates are much higher in these neighborhoods than in
middle- and upper-class neighborhoods. Violence is common not only on neighborhood streets,
but also in other areas where the working classes spend their everyday lives, including the
workplace or on public transportation (Caldeira, 2000).
2 Auyero (2000).
Social exclusion is a contributing factor to violent outcomes, regardless of whether
violence takes place in a developed Western European country or in a burgeoning Central
American state. Those who resort to violent acts most often lack access to legitimate economic
opportunities and the personal or social contacts required to obtain many of the services and
resources available to mainstream society. When conventional methods of obtaining and
working for increased social status, higher income, and wider influence are limited, as they often
are in marginalized areas, some feel compelled to resort to what the mainstream considers
illegitimate means, including violent acts (Reiss and Roth, 1993). Furthermore, the weaknesses
and failures on the part of judicial systems and security forces in much of Latin America has left
many in socially excluded communities in a complex situation. Either residents accept the lack
of justice and security and suffer at the mercy of those who step forward, or they take matters
into their own hands. Residents of socially excluded communities are well aware of the lack of
options available to them and the consequences of lacking the money to pay off corrupt police
and judges, the influence to avoid extortion, or the confidence to decline the invitation to join a
gang. For those with few or no prospects for economic advancement, profitable opportunities to
be gained through illicit and violent means serve as a deadly magnet. As state institutions fail to
provide security and justice, others—such as violent community leaders, gangs, or corrupt
police—may step in to mete out alternative forms of justice and revenge.
The issues of security, authority, justice, identity, and economics are tangible in the
violent acts used to secure them in socially excluded areas, beyond the influence of state
institutions and mainstream paradigms of conflict resolution. The consequences of such violence
are severe and further sap scarce resources from Latin American and Caribbean countries that
already face serious challenges in economic development and modernization of democratic
institutions. Violence eats away at the delicate social fabric that holds communities together
through difficult economic, social and political periods and shatters the trust, security, and
solidarity that take years to build. This paper aims to discuss how social exclusion and violence
interact in a vicious circle that leaves the socially excluded in a very hostile social environment
where the borders between legal and illegal, legitimate and illegitimate are often fuzzy and
uncertain. In this environment violence is used by a minority to acquire justice, security,
authority and economic gain. The use of violence by this minority, however, affects the lives of
3 Auyero (2000).