The Urban Displaced: Fleeing Criminal Violence in Latin American Cities

Jerome Marston

Background paper for the Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019


This paper examines forced displacement triggered by organized crime in Latin American cities, and seeks to answer the questions: Who flees? What triggers their flight? Where do displaced persons go and what are their experiences? The author describes broad trends in Latin America and highlights specific insights from Medellín, Colombia based on a survey of three peripheral neighborhoods in mid-2017. Key points:

  • Criminal violence-induced urban displacement occurs when individuals are provoked, directly or indirectly, to leave their homes in a city for another location by organized crime or other armed groups with criminal elements and/or exchanges between organized crime and state forces.
  • Those displaced by criminal violence are disproportionately poor, have completed relatively few years of schooling, and may also belong to sexual or ethnic minorities. Compared to those left behind, displaced people in Medellín are generally: younger, have more children, have more savings (even if very little), lived in homes made of lower quality materials with fewer utility connections, are less likely to have possessed tenure documentation, and more likely to have been active in their communities. 51 percent had lived in their house more than ten years before fleeing, and 5 percent for thirty or more, i.e. they flee despite deep roots in the community.
  • Displacement often occurs within the same city, from one marginal, under-served neighborhood to another. Nearly all of Medellín’s violence-induced displacement occurs in the city’s peripheral neighborhoods. All are underserved and marginal (compared to other parts of the city), but some are more developed than others. A third of respondents fled from the least developed neighborhoods, while two thirds fled slightly more developed, though still marginal, neighborhoods.
  • Street-level gangs are most often responsible for displacement in Latin American cities. People may flee due to targeted threats against specific residents, or generalized, indiscriminate violence caused by organized crime (and state security forces). In Medellin, the most common reasons for flight are: generalized violence/fear of being caught in shootouts; attempted recruitment of a child or family member into the gang; a threat for (suspected) collaboration with a rival gang; extortion; and murder of a family member, either by the gang or an unknown attacker. One-fifth of survey respondents fled within Medellín (or another city) more than once. In Medellín, street-level neighbourhood gangs are most commonly reported as having provoked respondents’ flight (73 percent).
  • Displaced persons typically resettle in a location comparable to their neighborhood of origin, or one that is worse-off, due to financial losses from fleeing. In Medellín, a significant percentage of people who fled urban violence suffer food insecurity. They live in homes made of comparable materials and with utility connections as people who had not fled violence. They tend to be less active in their communities than their peers who live in the same neighborhoods but have not fled violence.

The author concludes with several policy recommendations to strengthen civil society (by training community mediators, develop youth-engagement programming, and establishing a crime hotline), strengthen the rule of law and state capacity (by increasing police presence and improving response times, and strengthening well-performing government offices and develop relevant new ones), and reduce gang violence (by providing employment opportunities for gang members). Additional recommendations include: reduce gangs’ extortion of residents; design interventions to be long-term and carried out in-neighborhood; deploy interventions to peripheral neighborhoods, in their entirety; and monitor the telltale signs of displacement and prepare aid accordingly.