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Local communities know best how to cope with gang violence. Aid sector should take note.

‘The first step is acknowledging residents’ agency.’

A member of the new self-defense group known as 'El Machete' walks by a graffiti reading 'Sicario out' as he looks for members of drug gangs and municipal authorities during a protest against the growing violence in the area, in Pantelho, in Chiapas state, Mexico. He wears a face covering, jeans, a dark jumper and a back pack. The photo was taken on July 27, 2021. Jacob Garcia/Reuters
A member of El Machete self-defence group walks past graffiti that reads "Sicario (hired gunman) out" during a July 2021 protest against growing violence by drug cartels and paramilitaries in the Pantelhó area of Mexico's Chiapas state.

From Haiti to Central America to the US-Mexico border, migrants fleeing violence at home are again making headlines. Many are escaping surging gang violence, particularly in cities. But the reality is more people stay than flee.


Disabled and older people often remain because they cannot travel. Many families lack the financial resources or social connections to leave. Some families split up, with a son leaving and a daughter remaining. But many endure organised crime violence because they want to live in their homes and communities. 


A 31-year-old woman in Medellín, Colombia, explained she remained through periods of high violence: “Because I loved the neighbourhood, despite us having a place to go to.”


Residents of marginalised neighbourhoods in Latin American cities deploy strategies to cope with violence. Our research shows that residents learn to avoid, withstand, and confront violence, depending on the type they face. If guns are aimed at them, individuals and families deploy different survival strategies than when they are caught up in a shootout. Violence aimed at a person is referred to as targeted, while random violence with bystanders is called indiscriminate.


In the face of targeted violence, we documented residents hiding money, keeping quiet if they witnessed a crime, and going into hiding. One resident of Monterrey, México, said that during violent periods, “It wasn’t safe to report crime because you put yourself at risk of a reprisal from the criminals.” 


“My dad told us to not go out at night,” he added, “and that if we ever saw anything going on to just keep going and to never tell anyone about it.” 


When indiscriminate violence broke out, residents modified their daily schedules, hit the floors of shops or schools, and reinforced their homes to protect against stray bullets during clashes between criminal groups or the police. A 52-year-old woman in Medellín said that to keep bullets out “we had to fill in the windows with bricks”. In rare cases, in Monterrey and Medellín, community leaders confronted criminal groups to protect threatened residents and negotiated with criminal groups to avoid shootouts in the neighbourhood.


The UN recently announced an Action Agenda “to better resolve, prevent and address internal displacement crises”, in the face of violence and disasters. The UN is one organisation among many working to reduce violence and other displacement risks so that people who want to stay are able to.


But how can we build up community resilience in violence-prone neighbourhoods of Latin American cities? The first step is acknowledging residents’ agency.


Humanitarian organisation staff working in marginalised neighbourhoods beset by criminal violence should be aware that residents use an array of strategies to stay safe, and should do what they can to reinforce these strategies. All too often, international organisations advocate protection and community resilience programmes that impose measures from the outside


For instance, some outsiders recommend handing cellphones out to residents so they can call mediators to intervene before violence erupts, but fail to provide credits to buy minutes or battery packs to recharge the phones even though some cannot afford electricity (or live where there are no hookups). Why? Because much of the humanitarian sector values the knowledge of “expats” over the people living in the community, refuses to make time to assess community members’ expertise or realities, or sees people living amid violence as passive rather than as partners in problem-solving. In a recent analysis, one aid recipient in Haiti called humanitarians “tourists” that do not engage communities over time, while another said youth have no say over how aid is delivered.


There are exceptions. An intergovernmental organisation consulted with locals to develop art and women’s support programmes and built community centres in San Pedro Sula and other cities in Honduras to strengthen community support networks and offer safe spaces to women and others at risk of displacement because of gang violence. In Medellín, a humanitarian organisation worked with teachers and children to develop programmes that promote dialogue instead of violence and teach students how to keep safe if a shootout occurs near their school. 


However, there is still much work to do.


Before designing or rolling out a programme, the UN, humanitarian agencies, and local government staff need to learn from residents about their safety protocols. These conversations should include not only community leaders, but disabled and older persons, all ages and genders, LGBTQI+ persons, and community members that belong to various ethnic or minority groups, since these groups face different types of violence and devise different survival strategies. 


Older people often rely on neighbours to warn them to stay inside at the first sign of a shootout, while some women leverage their identities as mothers to “scold” gang members for committing violence in the neighbourhood (a strategy far too dangerous for men). In these conversations, residents should identify the strategies they think external partners should reinforce since they are the local experts and, crucially, will live with the consequences of any intervention.


Programmes that reinforce self-protection strategies include accompaniment, meaning escorting at-risk leaders while they work in the community to deter targeted attacks, as well as fortifying buildings where individuals frequently take refuge, like homes and schools. Others include early-warning systems, through word-of-mouth or messaging apps, conflict resolution and first-aid classes, and leadership trainings. In Medellín and Monterrey, we saw leaders organise marches against violence, the painting of peace murals, and youth activities to promote dialogue in neighbourhoods where contact had been broken by “invisible borders” between gang territories. Local leaders negotiated with gangs to make sure children had safe passage to school. 


The UN, humanitarian agencies, and local government staff should also work with communities to determine whether residents face targeted or indiscriminate violence, or both, and plan interventions accordingly. Accompaniment may be more effective in the first case, while reinforcing the walls and windows of community centres may be better in the second.


Certain self-protection strategies can be dangerous, such as negotiating with or confronting criminal gangs. Although we documented several negotiation successes, we also spoke with community leaders in Medellín who were forced out of their homes and communities by gangs flashing knives or shooting at their meeting places before threatening, “Get out, or else.” 


Humanitarian agencies reinforcing survival strategies can also give people a false sense of security that leads them to take risks they otherwise would not. For instance, a humanitarian organisation in Sudan provided whistles to displaced women to blow on if they encountered danger while gathering firewood, but some women travelled out of range and their alerts could not be heard when they were attacked. Academics and aid workers must document and share survival strategies with extreme care.


All people have the right to live free from violence and to seek asylum in a safer country. But for those people who remain, helping them stay safe is the primary objective. Working with communities not only respects the agency and dignity of the locals, but also increases the chances that safety and violence-reduction goals can be met.


The views expressed are those of the authors and do not reflect the official position of USMEX nor el Tecnológico de Monterrey.

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