An informal violence

In Harm’s Way: The Dynamics of Urban Violence
Javier Auyero and María Fernanda Berti
2015, Princeton University Press
241 pages, plates, hardback

A VALUABLE insight from In Harm’s Way, which presents lengthy ethnographic research from the streets of the impoverished Arquitecto Tucci district of Buenos Aires, is to link violence with economic informality. According to the authors – sociologist Javier Auyero and María Fernanda Berti, a schoolteacher in Buenos Aires familiar with the area under study – robberies and homicides in this troubled barrio have increased as a result of the informalization of the local economy, as well as the growth of drug trafficking and the intermittent, arbitrary and often corrupt presence of the state, in the form of the police. What they call the “depacification” of daily life – a process not confined to Argentina that reflects a broader increase in interpersonal violence in most countries of Latin America, which takes many forms – is the result of both economic and political processes. Arquitecto Tucci was once a working-class neighbourhood in the southern suburbs of metropolitan Buenos Aires whose population swelled as migrants flocked to the city from the countryside during the 1940s for the growing number of industrial jobs. Standard housing was scarce and, inevitably, migrants began to squat on deserted lands on the floodplains of the river basin. A settlement emerged and consolidated, albeit one that lacked much of the infrastructure enjoyed by residents of the city proper, but as industrial jobs disappeared after the 1970s when neoliberal reforms began to end state-led industrialisation throughout Latin America, the barrio went into remorseless decline. Today home to about 170,000 people, the area is mired in deprivation and high levels of violence. The authors note, however, that a striking feature of Arquitecto Tucci’s transformation has been the disappearance of formal work and the informalization of the local economy, exacerbated by the neoliberal reforms of the 1990s which further circumscribed what little state protection residents had access to. By 1999, unemployment in the city was rampant and 38% of all employment in greater Buenos Aires was informal. While focusing their efforts on understanding the diverse forms of violence that abound in this area of the city, how these interact, and their broader, undeniable causes such as gross inequality, Auyero and Berti investigate the relationship locally between that violence and informalization. They write: “… factors more specific to Buenos Aires, and to Arquitecto Tucci, also help us to understand and explain the depacification of relegated territories in urban Argentina and the specific forms and meanings violence takes there. Prominent among them are the expansion of the illicit drug trade, particularly its location in poor urban zones, and the informalization of the economy. As illicit drug trade increased, so did the systemic violence that is inherent in this type of illegal market. As the economy progressively informalized, violence also became a major regulatory mechanism of social relations.” [p 169] One locus for that violence was the area’s La Salada market, but the authors also discuss a much wider social climate of aggression within which the residents of this area are forced to live, perpetrated, not least, by state actors such as the police who either disregard the conditions of local people or actively conspire to make them worse. Auyero and Berti trace how the different types of violence that result – criminal, sexual or domestic – overlap, and the strategies employed by residents in order to survive under what amounts to a state of siege. This was clearly a difficult book to both research and write, and the authors provide a much-needed window upon a messy and brutal urban front line for those of us who would rather stay at home. – GO’T