Professors discuss violence in Latin America in Q&A

In anticipation of its upcoming conference titled "Republics of Fear: Understanding Endemic Violence in Latin America Today," the Teresa Lozano Long Institute of Latin American Studies (LLILAS) asked faculty members to share their thoughts on the threat of violence in Latin America. The conference takes place March 4-5 in the Santa Rita Room of the Texas Union.

Gabriela Polit
Assistant Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese

What gave you the idea of organizing a conference on violence in Latin America, a region that has always been under the threat of violence?
Violence has been, and still is, the main problem in Latin America, but it is a political, social and cultural phenomenon that changes historically. Thus, analysts and researchers look at its transformations and contemplate the emergence of new actors, as well as the appearance of new uses of violence. In this conference we have invited scholars from different disciplines who study violence in specific contexts, but we have also included people whose work deals with the representation of violence.

What is new about the violence experienced in Latin America today?
Polit: The forms of violence have changed dramatically over the past decades. Long-standing inequalities have been exacerbated by political and economic changes. Governmental budget cuts in the early 1990s widened the massive economic gap between rich and poor sectors and heightened local social tensions. Migration and punitive immigration laws are among the many forms of violence that are products of dramatic economic changes, and that affect the less privileged. The war on drugs, implemented since the '80s, never had a clear strategy. The war has generated more violence, and its rhetoric has been one of the more effective ways to criminalize the poor. The networks of organized crime operate in more sophisticated and effective ways, while wielding brutal forms of violence. As we said, violence needs to be understood within specific contexts.

Héctor Domínguez-Ruvalcaba
Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese

One issue the conference covers is the current situation of violence related to drug trafficking in Mexico. How have the academic and intellectual works evaluated this problem?
Domínguez-Ruvalcaba: This issue has been widely discussed in academic forums and the media to the point that we can say it is the main concern for intellectuals, artists and specialists in Mexico. While officials address drug trafficking as a health issue and combat it with the military, public intellectuals, academics, writers, filmmakers and activists underline corruption, human rights violations and lack of results in such strategy. There is clearly a lack of attention from the governments of the U.S. and Mexico toward the public debate on organized crime. Violence among cartels is linked to the way Mexican officials are involved in crime activities by corruption. Civil society is afraid of professional killers serving the cartels as well as of the military and the police. We are witnessing how the constitutional guaranties that protect the population are disappearing.

Over the past few years, has there been any change in gender violence in Mexico?
Domínguez-Ruvalcaba: Despite the intense international activism, we can see very few results in the investigations of the crimes against women in Ciudad Juárez. Femicides are still a threat for women, not only in the border, but also in Central America and some other areas in Mexico. What has changed is the attention by the media, which now emphasize drug trafficking-related murders. Sexual and gender violence is rather diversified at present. Sexual slavery, pedophilia, child pornography and incest are among the topics that the specialists on gender violence have included in their research agendas, which will be reflected in this conference.

Sonia Roncador
Associate Professor in the Department of Spanish and Portuguese

What does it mean to speak of Latin American countries as "republics of fear"?
Roncador: It is true that violence has served as an identifying factor to the region within both the national and international media. It is always necessary to mention that one of the region's most relevant "foundational themes" is an attempt to revise such a notion of a barbaric zone and reconcile different races and classes via utopian metaphors of cross-racial and social union. On the other hand, the "rise of violence" in the 1980s onward is an uncontestable factor in those cities whose economies are implicated in the international drug traffic. Since the economy of drug trafficking is nowadays more complex, involving a network of members of different classes, including statesmen, as well as a more complicated "route," it should be part of the media role to clarify these issues. It should also be important to clarify the intricacies between drug and weapon traffickers. In Brazil, this has been the role of cinema, much more than the role of television.

Paloma Diaz
Senior Program Coordinator, LLILAS

What disciplines are represented at the conference?
Given the complexity of the violence problem in the region we need broad lenses to understand its deep roots and its broad impact on society. Among our speakers we have artists, scholars from anthropology, sociology, political sciences, psychology, economics, social work and Latin American literature, as well as representatives from government agencies.

How does LLILAS select the topics of the annual Lozano Long conference?
Diaz: Once a year we invite our almost 140 faculty affiliates to submit multidisciplinary proposals that speak to the three topical priorities of the institute: social inequalities, cultural agency and sustainable democracies.