When Latin Americans are surveyed about their primary concerns, crime and violence often top the list. This is not surprising, as Latin America is recognized as the world’s most violent region. English-language media coverage and popular perception of the region, in turn, tends to fixate on this phenomenon in flashy and shallow ways, defining the region by its violence while failing to recognize the complexity behind it.
How can research on crime and violence contribute to better understanding—and ultimately solutions—in the region? What are the challenges and opportunities for such research? In today’s “Knowledge Transfers,” we’ll sort through these questions and more. Let’s get to it.
Case in point: How to translate violence?
There are three main goals that drive Gema Kloppe-Santamaría’s work: First, “to communicate that violence in Latin America is not some fixed, ahistorical characteristic of the region,” but rather a “historically contingent” phenomenon that is shaped by “institutional, social and political factors.” Second, to make clear that “the history of the United States is intimately connected to the history of Latin America, and in particular to the history of violence and crime in the region.” And third, to acknowledge that while there is an asymmetrical power dynamic between the U.S. and Latin America, the relationship is “not entirely top-down,” and Latin American countries—particularly the political elites in those countries—have agency and responsibility for their responses to crime and violence, she said.
Kloppe-Santamaría is a historian and sociologist whose expertise spans violence, crime, religion, and gender in 20th and 21st century Latin America, particularly Mexico and Central America. Currently in Germany as a fellow at the University of Freiburg and working on a book on the intersections between violence and religion in Mexico, Kloppe-Santamaría is also an assistant professor of Latin American history at Loyola University Chicago and a former professor of international relations at the Instituto Tecnológico Autónomo de México.
Kloppe-Santamaría often explains (or translates) crime and violence in Latin America to audiences outside of Latin America. She said that in her experience in the U.S. and elsewhere, there is a lot of interest in these topics, but also many misconceptions. “I think the challenge and the opportunity is to tap into that interest, but then also to offer a more historically grounded and nuanced understanding of what is driving security and violence in these countries,” she said.
Among those misconceptions is the idea that violence, corruption and other problems wrapped up in the drug trade are Latin American problems—and that there are no such issues north of the Rio Bravo, Kloppe-Santamaría said.
“There is a question in terms of what have we done as scholars to either reproduce or challenge this notion,” she said. “I do feel that there is a great richness of stories from social scientists, and increasingly so from historians, looking at the drug trade and all the nuances in Latin America, but we know very little about what happens in the United States, and again, that contributes to a representation of these problems as if they were part of Latin America only.”
Another challenge in the field of Latin American studies and studies on violence and crime, said Kloppe-Santamaría, is promoting the two-way, collaborative exchange of knowledge. It’s still common, she said, to see edited volumes on violence and crime in Latin America that feature mostly academics in the U.S.
Meanwhile, though academics who are native Spanish speakers are pushed to publish and present their work in English, it is rarer for native English speakers to do so in Spanish. It’s also common to see U.S. academics who don’t read or quote Latin American colleagues who publish their research in Spanish, Kloppe-Santamaría said.
For Kloppe-Santamaría, sharing her research in both languages and across borders is fundamental to the purpose that drives her work. She is currently working on a Spanish translation of her book In the Vortex of Violence: Lynching, Extralegal Justice, and the State in Post-Revolutionary Mexico, which charts the history of lynching in Mexico from 1930-1960. This is a time-consuming process, because she is translating not just textually, but also contextually—in the English version of the book, she covers the history of lynching in the U.S., approaching the phenomenon with a comparative lens. For an audience in Mexico, she’s interested in including a discussion of how the history of lynching may “help us better understand the spectacular and communicative forms of violence that we see in Mexico today,” she said.
Expanding collaborative projects is key to promoting mutual learning and dialogue among scholars across the Americas, Kloppe-Santamaría said. In the field of crime and violence, a few promising topics for collaborative research include how to move from the War on Drugs to a more preventative and peacebuilding approach, how political and criminal violence intersect and lead into each other, and how to approach violence and crime through a gender lens, she suggested.
Kloppe-Santamaría also sees great opportunity in the shift from an “extractive and non-participatory model of knowledge creation to one in which you co-create with communities.” For example, Kloppe-Santamaría and a group of other researchers recently worked with four Mexican cities impacted by high levels of violence and insecurity: Acapulco, Apatzingán, Guadalupe and Tijuana. The researchers collaborated directly with community members on a needs assessment—what did insecurity look like to them? What were their most urgent problems?—and on proposals to address those needs. The result was the 2019 edited volume Human Security and Chronic Violence in Mexico: New Perspectives and Proposals from Below, and also a series of policy recommendations.
“When you listen to the needs of people, the knowledge that you produce looks very different,” she said.
Numbers to know:
- 74 percent: The percentage of scholarly periodicals that were published in English, according to an index of 40,770 journals by Ulrich’s Periodical Directory in 2003.
- More than 13,000: The number of members of the Latin American Studies Association (LASA), the largest professional organization in its field. Over 60 percent of members reside outside the U.S., according to the association.
- 42 percent: The percentage of Mexicans who feel safe walking alone at night, compared to an average of 68 percent among other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries. For this indicator, Mexico found itself at the bottom of the OECD Better Life Index.
- Seven of 10: The number of Mexican cities among the top ten most violent cities in the world, as ranked by Mexico’s Consejo Ciudadano para la Seguridad Pública y la Justicia Penal in 2021. Importantly, violence varies widely by region in the country.
Be sure to follow…
Romain Le Cour: Romain is the coordinator of the public security and violence reduction program at México Evalúa and the cofounder of Noria Research. An expert on organized crime and violence in Mexico and Latin America, he tweets frequently about new research and events on these topics, in English and Spanish.
* Spotlight by Mia Armstrong, senior coordinator of Convergence Lab at Arizona State University. Arizona State University, named the most innovative university in the U.S. by U.S. News and World Report, is committed to collaborating with Mexico to address shared challenges and opportunities and to innovate toward a better future in our region. Twitter: @ASU_MX