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Policing and Violence in Latin America: Historical Origins and Contemporary Challenges

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This course explores the origins of policing in Latin America and the contemporary challenges in the relationship between the State, organized crime, violence and police forces. By taking a long-term perspective we seek to understand why highly unequal countries in Latin America (and the US) have faced such difficulties in creating professionalized police forces that can effectively provide citizen security while ensuring the respect of fundamental human rights. The provision of security in Latin America has often been plagued by torture, excessive use of force, military deployments and police brutality. Police forces are often corrupt and unable to contain crime, while poor citizens in urban favelas and remote villages often resort to solutions that bypass or even challenge the State in its monopoly of the legitimate use of violence.

History. In Spanish America colonial authorities sought to create forms of indirect governance, where indigenous communities would live “en policía”, which meant both a particular form of political engagement, as well as compliance with the legal forms of the colonial order. In Brazil and the Caribbean, as well as places characterized by colonial plantation economies, colonial policing often meant the enforcement of human bondage against runaway enslaved peoples. After independence police and military force was used in the newly independent countries by powerful caciques, caudillos and elites concentrating economic and political power as forms of popular repression and subjection.

Contemporary challenges. The course will deal with contemporary issues too, addressing the challenges of police professionalization and reform in Latin America, exploring issues ranging from violence escalation in ungoverned spaces, the use of body worn cameras, proximity policing, the prevalence of torture, and the reform of judicial proceedings. The course will hence combine perspectives drawn from history, with contemporary debates on policing. We will be focusing more closely on the experiences of Mexico, Brazil, and Central America.

Movie club and salon. Class sessions will be enriched with cinema screenings in the evenings of movies and documentaries that will bring to life some of the issues discussed in class. Those screenings will include a zoom segment to allow for a follow up discussion with directors, producers or a relevant expert.

Field trips. Potential field trips may include:

  • police headquarters in Stockton, Oakland or Richmond, to learn about contemporary efforts at police reform in the US
  • Salinas Valley, to learn about the challenges faced by undocumented indigenous migrants in agricultural areas of California
  • nearby California mission, such as San Carlos Borromeo de Carmelo or San Juan Bautista
  • archives at the Sutro and Bancroft Libraries to have an opportunity for a hands on examination of Spanish colonial documents

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Meet the Instructors

Beatriz Magaloni

Graham H. Stuart Professor of International Relations; Professor of Political Science; Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

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Beatriz Magaloni is the founding director of the Poverty, Violence and Governance Lab (POVGOV) within FSI's Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Most of her current work focuses on state repression, police, human rights, and violence.


Alberto Diaz-Cayeros

Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

headshot of faculty member

Alberto Diaz-Cayeros joined the FSI faculty in 2013 after serving for five years as the director of the Center for US-Mexico studies at the University of California, San Diego. His work has focused on federalism, poverty and violence in Latin America, and Mexico in particular, with more recent work addressing crime and violence, youth-at-risk, and police professionalization.