In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Crime and Justice in Latin America

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • History of Crime and Justice in Latin America
  • Crime and Victimization
  • Organized Crime and Drug Trafficking
  • Gangs
  • Challenges and Obstacles to Democratization and Institutional Capacity
  • The Rule of Law and Corruption
  • Police and Prisons
  • Fear of Crime

Criminology Crime and Justice in Latin America
Carlos J. Vilalta
  • LAST REVIEWED: 31 March 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 March 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195396607-0172


When in 1552 Francisco Lopez de Gomara wrote to the King of Spain that one of the best things in the world was the discovery of the Indies, he probably thought that a totally new ideal society would develop here. It is indeed true that the people of this continent have had always been an ambitious, idealistic, optimistic, and sometimes even exultant way of being. But it is also true that this New World is not without its own internal contradictions and social problems, some of these being violence and crime. Along these lines, more is known about crime and justice in the Old World than in Latin America. However, even though criminological scholarly works are not as abundant as they were in the Old World, several excellent accounts of crime and justice can be found, particularly since the 1990s. Nowadays what is typically known about crime and justice in Latin America is that the country has the highest rate of violence on the planet; it has undergone profound economic and political transformations, therefore many Latin American states are weak and lack institutional capacity to control crime, and its crime data systems are in their infancy. This article features a selection of the finest scholarly criminological works on Latin America, published both in English and Spanish, that deal with these matters and many others.

General Overviews

It is true that crime and violence have been increasing throughout the 21st century in Latin America. It is also true that the police, the judiciary, and the prison system rarely perform well enough, at least in the majority of the countries in the region. In fact, their performance is way below what is expected. Yet readers have to be wary of the extreme pessimism of internal and external current accounts of violence and crime in the region. Much of the academic literature fails to objectively capture the actual state of things, as many studies are primarily reliant on anecdotal and detached accounts. This article contains a selection of sensible accounts that properly serve as general overviews of crime and justice for the region as a whole. The following overviews illustrate the fundamental connection between violence, drugs, economic and political development, and culture in the region. The origins and trajectory of crime, violence, and justice in the region cannot be understood without careful focus on the previous aspects. For instance, Chelala and de Roux 1995 explains how since the 1980s and 1990s a culture of violence has developed in connection to the drug trade. Similarly, Carrión and Dammert 2011 explains the political aspects of violence, among them the guerilla movements and civil revolutions, among others. Howard, et al. 2007 traces the origins of the rise of violence and crime in the region to the economic development policies that have more than just economic effects—they have also had negative social and political impacts (e.g., violence). Pion-Berlin and Trinkunas 2011 makes clear the disconnect between democratic reforms and violence, as it was hoped that political reforms would reduce political conflict and associated crime and disorder. Waldmann 2007, on the other hand, reminds us of the cultural aspects of violence, particularly when it becomes ingrained in society as the consequence of many years of high homicide rates associated with terrorism. Other overviews deal with the pressing need for crime data given the magnitude of the problem of crime and violence; the need for a regional agenda on public security, as it is a problem shared by most countries in the region (Trinkunas 2013, cited under Challenges and Obstacles to Democratization and Institutional Capacity); the lessons learned and the dilemmas of judicial reforms in the region (Hammergren 2008); and the last overview is a Spanish-language review of studies of the rising field of criminology in the region (Gabaldón 2010). These aforementioned overviews inform the reader of the most important challenges ahead.

  • Carrión, Fernando, and Manuel Dammert. 2011. Violence research in Latin America and the Caribbean: A literature review. International Journal of Conflict and Violence 5.1: 87–154.

    This is a literature review characterizing Latin America as a region with a long history of violence associated to a variety of political motives such as guerilla movements, revolutions, and dictatorships.

  • Chelala, Cesar, and Gustavo de Roux. 1995. Violence in the Americas: The emergence of a social epidemic. Medicine and War 11.1 (January): 18–27.

    DOI: 10.1080/07488009508409193

    This article explains how violence started to become a serious problem in the Americas. It argues that in some countries a distinctive “culture of violence” was developing, the main causes being the availability of guns and links to the drugs trade.

  • Gabaldón, Luis Gerardo. 2010. La criminología Latinoamericana: Temas, perspectivas y políticas públicas en el tránsito del milenio. Espacio Abierto 19.2 (April–June): 253–272.

    Reviews a good number of Latin American contributions to the field of criminology from the early 1970s up to 2005. It classifies the contributions into three groups: studies that discuss the relevance of criminology as a field of inquiry, studies focusing on the causes of crime, and studies on the formal and informal reactions to crime.

  • Hammergren, Linn. 2008. Perspectivas y dilemas de la reforma judicial en America Latina. Urvio Revista Latinoamericana de Seguridad Ciudadana 3:127–133.

    This is an interview with one of the most respected experts on judicial reform in the region. Hammergren provides an overview of the reforms that started in the 1980s and argues that never before have the judicial powers in Latin American countries had more resources to provide justice. However, the piece also argues that more changes are needed and that reforms must be comprehensive.

  • Howard, David, Mo Hume, and Ulrich Oslender. 2007. Violence, fear, and development in Latin America: A critical overview. Development in Practice 17.6: 713–724.

    DOI: 10.1080/09614520701628071

    Argues there are many ways in which violence and development are intertwined. Development is a concept much broader than just economic development. Its analysis in the region should include social and political aspects, not all of them necessarily positive. It is the case that market economics as major strategy for development has created a new class of economic and political actors and social networks that have perhaps unintentionally provoked violence within their countries in the region.

  • Pion-Berlin, David, and Harold Trinkunas. 2011. Latin America’s growing security gap. Journal of Democracy 22.1 (Spring): 39–53.

    Examines a perceived disconnect between democracy and security in Latin America, namely that crime and disorder have become rampant following a wave of democratization within the region’s countries.

  • Waldmann, Peter. 2007. Is There a Culture of Violence in Colombia? Terrorism and Political Violence 19.4 (October): 593–609.

    DOI: 10.1080/09546550701626836

    Explains that violence in Colombia has cultural causes beyond purely economic issues. Aspects such as the macho culture and the culture of revenge play a fundamental role in Colombian violence.

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