Crime and violence in an urbanizing world.

Author:Brennan-Galvin, Ellen

"[C]ivilian helicopter traffic in Sao Paulo has become the busiest on earth. The city currently boasts some 240 helipads, compared with 10 in New York, allowing the privileged to fly to and from their well-guarded homes to work or shopping or their country houses."

In diagnoses of contemporary threats to state stability, urbanization is inevitably included among the litany of emerging challenges, along with growing cross-border flows of asylum seekers and illegal migrants, continuing high rates of population growth and young age structures in certain poor, unstable countries.

For the foreseeable future, virtually all of the world's population growth will occur in urban areas. Between 2000 and 2030, urban population is expected to increase by 2.1 billion inhabitants, nearly as much as the 2.2 billion that will be added to the entire population of the world. There are significant regional differences. Latin America is the most urbanized region in the developing world, with three-quarters of its inhabitants living in urban areas--roughly the same percentage as in the United States. Africa has the lowest level of urbanization but the fastest urban growth. Asia has a level of urbanization very similar to that of Africa but will have to absorb huge population increments in the next several decades. (See Table 1.) Whereas urban growth rates are not unprecedented, what is unprecedented is the scale of urban growth. As of 1950, there were 86 cities in the world with more than 1 million inhabitants. Today, there are 400 such cities and, by 2015, there will be some 150 more. (1)

Over the past several decades, massive public protests and riots in cities throughout the developing world have resulted in significant loss of life and widespread destruction of property. Indeed, between 1976 and 1992, more than 146 separate incidents of strikes, riots and demonstrations took place in various developing-country cities. (2) Such disturbances were at times triggered by immediate economic circumstances (e.g., rising food prices, food scarcity, currency devaluation, austerity measures) or by political upheavals. In some cases, particularly on the Indian sub-continent, simmering ethnic and communal tensions surfaced during such episodes, resulting in an even higher toll of death and destruction. Such occurrences of citywide violence not only have destroyed physical capital but also discouraged foreign direct investment, thereby threatening already fragile national economies and even potentially destabilizing governments.

In recent years, other less visible changes have occurred in many cities in the developing world, perhaps reflecting the dark side of globalization. Organized crime, drug trafficking and terrorist networks, for example, have become a growing global presence, undermining public security in many cities. Indeed, over the past decade, cities have been the locus of terrorist attacks: More than 150 cities across the globe experienced at least one terrorist act between 1993 and 1997 (3) and many more have since then. Capitalizing on increased cross-border flows of goods, money and people, criminal organizations also have expanded their territorial reach, positioning themselves in new markets and expanding their range of illicit activities to include trafficking in humans and small arms and wide-scale money laundering. In the process, they have increased their wealth and power relative to many national and city governments. In a number of Latin American and Asian cities, for example, powerful narcotics constituencies increasingly threaten the exercise of sovereignty and the rule of law.

Since September 11, 2001, of course, the connection between cities and terrorism has drawn increasing scrutiny. It has become evident that al-Quaeda and other terrorist groups have operated with impunity in a number of cities in Europe, South Asia and the Middle East, utilizing sophisticated communications technology. It is also clear that cities, and particularly large cities, are likely to be the targets of future terrorist attacks. Whether unleashing biological or chemical weapons or bombing embassies or public buildings, terrorists will seek to have the greatest possible impact in terms of destruction of property and loss of life in densely populated areas, while also destroying the symbols of Western capitalism so clearly embodied in the modern city.

To what extent, then, are the manifold threats to state stability related to urbanization and particularly to the demographic parameters of urbanization, such as population size and growth, population density and in-migration? While much lip service has been paid to the topic of urbanization and state stability, it is a complex issue that is difficult to unbundle. It is useful first to define the universe and then to discuss the causes and major impacts of urban crime and violence. Three brief case studies illustrate how transnational criminal networks and home-grown crime and violence are intertwined at the local level: Rio de Janeiro, Karachi and Lagos. A brief discussion of policy interventions concludes.


The topics of crime and violence are very broad and difficult to define. Society often defines crime from a strictly legal point of view as the commission of any act prohibited by criminal law or the omission of any action required by it. Violence is the unlawful exercise of physical force, usually causing or intending to cause injury. Definitions of criminal behavior, the seriousness attributed to it and the punishment considered appropriate differ widely among nations. Such definitions are determined less at times by objective indicators of the degree of injury or damage than by cultural values and power relationships. The same act of violence against a woman, for example, including such crimes as dowry burnings or honor killings, may be viewed very differently by a Western researcher than by some local communities in the developing world. Such differences make comparative generalizations risky.

Violence can generally be divided into three broad categories: political violence (e.g., guerrilla conflict, paramilitary conflict, political assassinations, armed conflict between political parties); economic violence (e.g., street crime, carjacking, robbery/theft, drug trafficking, kidnapping, trafficking in humans); and social violence (e.g., interpersonal violence such as spouse and child abuse, sexual assault of women and children)--each identified in terms of the type of motivation that consciously or unconsciously uses violence to gain or maintain power. Of course, the categories are not mutually exclusive, as the kidnapping of an executive, for example, may be a political statement or a means of raising money. (4)

Data on urban crime and violence are highly problematic, for developed as well as for developing countries. Comprehensive victimization data are available over time for only a handful of countries, including Canada, the United States, the Netherlands, Finland and the United Kingdom. (5) Moreover, unlike other international social statistics with accepted definitions, crime statistics lack standardization and are notoriously unreliable, particularly for developing countries.

Despite differences in how countries define crime, the preferred basis for national crime-rate surveys is, by far, "crimes known or reported to the police." However, the willingness of the public to report crimes (and particularly certain types of crimes) and to become involved in the justice system varies widely among countries. The International Crime Victim Survey, conducted by the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI), found, for example, that sexual incidents occurring during the preceding five years had been reported 46 percent of the time in Buenos Aires and 27 percent in Johannesburg, but only 5 percent of the time in Bombay and less than 3 percent in Jakarta. (6)

From the patchy data available, it appears that urban crime is dominated worldwide by crimes against property (e.g., car theft, burglary, robbery), which account for at least half of all offenses in the world's cities. In the early 1990s, at world level more than 60 percent of the population in urban areas of over 100,000 inhabitants had been victims of crime during the preceding five-year period; in developing regions, 44 percent of the urban population in Asia, 68 percent in Latin America and 76 percent in Africa had been crime victims. (7) African cities currently tend to have more crime and to be more violent than cities in other regions of the world, although the situation varies by category of offense. Of the 13 developing country cities surveyed in the International Crime Victim Survey, car theft was found to be highest in Johannesburg and Dar Es Salaam; burglary in Dar Es Salaam and Kampala; robbery in Rio de Janeiro and Dar Es Salaam; and sexual incidents in Dar Es Salaam and Cairo. (8)

Violent crime, including murder, assault, rape and sexual abuse, now accounts for 25 percent to 30 percent of offenses in cities in developing countries. One notable aspect of violent crime is the increase in murders. In several of the world's largest cities, including Rio de Janeiro, Bogota, and Sao Paulo, more than 2,000 people are murdered each year. In Rio de Janeiro, more than 6,000 people were murdered in 1990 alone, resulting in a murder rate of 60 per 100,000 inhabitants. Other cities have even higher rates, including Call (91 per 100,000) and Johannesburg (115 per 100,000). (9)


In recent years, the end of the cold war and the globalization of business and travel have given international criminals unprecedented freedom of movement, making it easier for them to cross borders and to expand the range and scope of their operations. As a result, virtually every major city in the developing world has seen an increase in international...

To continue reading