Violence in Central American Urban Communities: Challenging Common Perceptions

By Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz*

Urban storefront within a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

Urban storefront in a community of Sonsonate, El Salvador / Photo credit: Lon&Queta / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-SA

A recent survey on urban violence revealed that several kinds of violence are more serious in Costa Rica than in El Salvador.  Common wisdom, buttressed by homicide rates and other traditional “hard” indicators, is that El Salvador suffers from violence similar to Guatemala and Honduras, while Costa Rica does not. Historical factors stand out as possible explanations. Conflict among Salvadoran elites in the 1930s left the country deeply polarized and politically closed, laying the groundwork for war in the latter half of the century – with violence continuing, albeit in new forms, after the war ended. Costa Rica, on the other hand, emerged democratic, and the Second Republic created a welfare state committed to development. The structural economic adjustments of the 1980s challenged that order, and the growing inequality resulting from “neo-liberalism” has been accompanied by a rise in violence, but violence in Costa Rica did not reach the levels of its Central American neighbors.

A survey conducted by FLACSO specialists in El Salvador and Costa Rica challenges those theses. Polls of families in nine urban communities cast new light on the problem of violence, revealing important differences in the occurrence of three main categories of violence.

  • Members of 15.1 and 18.4 percent of the families in two Costa Rican communities reported suffering from criminal violence against persons, while the highest figure registered in El Salvador – in a community in Sonsonate – was only 11.5 percent.
  • The three Costa Rican communities also reported a higher incidence of violence against personal property (household wealth), with 26 percent of families in Cariari (in Limón Province, on the Caribbean coast) reporting such violations, and only 12.8 percent reporting this kind of violence in El Salvador’s hardest-hit community.
  • Only in the case of domestic violence did Salvadoran respondents report a higher incidence than did their Costa Rican counterparts.

Several hypotheses may explain these findings. Costa Rica’s higher level of socioeconomic development may be a factor in its higher rate of crimes against property even in less-affluent communities. Another possible explanation is that violence is a relatively recent phenomenon there and has not yet induced attitudes of resignation and acceptance of crime as something natural, leading to more accurate reporting.  In the case of Cariari, where the highest levels of violence in Costa Rica are reported, the existence of a local awareness program may be prompting residents to be more forthcoming in expressing concerns about violence. In El Salvador, on the other hand, the existence of youth gangs – maras – and the government’s abandonment of these communities have given rise to an institutionalization of their role in violence. The maras don’t permit the presence of other actors, and some of their actions may be perceived by communities as legitimate (for example, extortion could be interpreted as an act of protection). In addition, it’s noteworthy that the poll was conducted during the truce among the gangs, which at least until recently appears to have reduced violence. FLACSO will explore these explanations more deeply in the next phase of our research, which is being supported by the International Development Research Centre of Canada (IDRC).

*  Juan Pablo Pérez Sáinz is a senior researcher for the Latin American Social Science Faculty in San José (FLACSO-Costa Rica) and lead researcher in this project supported by the IDRC. For a description of the project please click here.

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