Ongoing crises of urban insecurity in Central America have spurred novel forms of state engagement in high-risk neighbourhoods. In 2012, the Guatemalan government deployed new urban security task forces in some of the capital’s most notorious ‘red zones’, the poor neighbourhoods where gangs, violence, and delinquency are seen to be concentrated. While officials trumpeted their success in pacifying these sectors, their gangs (maras) continued to operate much as they previously had under the new military occupations.
Based on sixteen months of ethnographic fieldwork in one red zone neighbourhood, this paper examines both gang violence and state power from the perspective of residents struggling to secure a measure of order in a dangerous and volatile environment. I argue that situations of chronic urban insecurity can create opportunities for the state to tighten its relationship with marginal communities, but that they do so in a way that may raise further impediments to substantively improving democratic governance.
Katherine Saunders-Hastings is a postdoctoral fellow at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law. She employs ethnographic methods to study the impact of violence and insecurity on the social and political life of vulnerable urban neighbourhoods, focusing particularly on the changing gang cultures and criminal economies of Central America. Katherine earned her DPhil from the University of Oxford in 2015 and also holds degrees from McGill University and the University of Cambridge. Her research has been supported by fellowships from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the Clarendon Fund, and the Harry Frank Guggenheim Foundation. She has worked with the International Centre for the Prevention of Crime (Montreal, Canada) and the Asociación para el Avance de las Ciencias Sociales (Guatemala City, Guatemala).