A culture of insecurity

Endangered City: The Politics of Security and Risk in Bogotá
Austin Zeiderman
2016, Duke University Press
290 pages, plates, paperback

WE ALL DO IT, even if we do not know we are doing so: we map the dangerous neighbourhoods of our cities in our minds and train ourselves to avoid them in order to live free from fear in our daily travels. Austin Zeiderman has taken this quotidian habit and very brilliantly identified in it a phenomenon that has great importance in the study of security. Security studies is a growing discipline and in Latin America considerable attention has been turned by researchers, and multilateral organisations, to the issues of public or citizen security – the threats posed by criminality and violence, particularly in urban areas. It is a highly important theme in politics, not least because data suggests that citizen safety is very high among issues of concern to ordinary Latin American people and that public trust in the ability or willingness of the responsible institutions – especially police forces – to improve security is extremely low. Countries like Mexico, for example, are grappling with huge problems in finding the right balance between law enforcement and guaranteeing human rights. Endangered City explores what Zeiderman distinguishes as “endangerment” – the general and lasting condition of insecurity that urban dwellers may experience that goes significantly beyond the waxing and waning of immediate threats in this or that barrio at any given time in its evolution. What better place to explore this concept than Bogotá, a very dangerous city in a very dangerous country in the 1980s and 90s, although thankfully one that has greatly improved. Zeiderman’s aim is to explore the politics of security and risk in contemporary urban settings, and he very sensibly begins by considering the preoccupation with risk that has become a feature of liberal modernity and city governance. He argues that, in this regard, Latin America is particularly instructive, because preoccupations with risk and security in this region run deep. He writes: “The entanglement of extraordinarily high levels of crime and violence with extreme poverty and inequality has contributed to the production of widespread feelings of fear and insecurity. These sentiments reverberate through everyday experiences of the city, but they also saturate public space and the built environment, politics and government, aesthetics and popular culture, religion and ethics, and law and justice. The centrality of security across each of these domains enables scholars of contemporary Latin America to provide insight into a predicament of global importance.” [p6] Endangered City is an original and valuable contribution to scholarship and should be consulted by all students of politics and security in Latin America. Last but not least, any writer who quotes Italo Calvino in his work immediately scores highly as well. – EC