2016-17 Central American Visiting Scholar of the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American Studies

  • Córdova, Abby (PI)

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The rise of electoral democracy during the third wave of democratization did not prevent the continuation and increase of social violence in many developing countries around the world. In the Latin American region, crime and violence have reached unprecedented levels, positioning the region as the most violent one in the world (UNODC 2013). The incidence of crime is particularly high in the Northern Triangle countries of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras), where gangs (maras) largely drive homicide rates and many other criminal activities. In 2015, after a sharp spike in homicides, El Salvador became the most violent country in the Western Hemisphere (InSight Crime 2016). Beyond the tragedy of the loss of human life and the high economic costs associated with crime and violence (The World Bank 2011), extant research demonstrates that increased citizen insecurity in Central America has resulted in a myriad of negative consequences for democracy, including an eroding effect on political trust (Córdova and Layton 2016), rising citizen support for extralegal means to fight crime (Malone 2014), and lower satisfaction with the way democracy works (Ceobanu et al. 2011). Despite these negative political effects, previous research has documented a positive rather than negative impact of crime victimization on political participation (Bateson 2012). One of the arguments Bateson (2012) proposed to explain this positive effect is that personal experience with crime mobilizes victims to press political elites to improve safety conditions, thereby encouraging victims to participate in local and national politics. In this study, I examine the generalizability of this evidence and argument. I theorize that, in neighborhoods in Northern Triangle countries with high gang membership and activity, crime victims are not more likely than non-victim residents to participate in politics. Rather, both crime victims and non-victims in these neighborhoods are more likely to disengage from politics than their counterparts living in low gang incidence neighborhoods. More specifically, in this study I examine two research questions: 1) Does the extent of gang incidence at the neighborhood level condition the effect of crime victimization on political participation, and 2) What are the mechanisms that explain likely differential effects of crime victimization on political participation across neighborhoods with varying levels of gang incidence? I theorize that the extent and nature of crime in one’s neighborhood is critical for understanding the impact of personal experiences with crime on political participation. As previous literature has mainly relied on individual-level data, the possibility that neighborhood context constrains opportunities for political action among crime victims remains underexplored. Based on my fieldwork observations in El Salvador and Guatemala, I argue that, independent of personal experiences with crime, high incidence of gang activity in neighborhoods makes their residents particularly fearful of crime and violence. In turn, heightened fear of crime in this neighborhood context has a negative impact on two elements of social capital theorized to foster political participation: social cohesion and civic participation (Putnam 1993). In short, the prevalence of gang activity lowers political participation among crime victims and non-victims by eroding neighborhoods’ social capital.
Effective start/end date9/1/1612/31/16


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