Physical space and its role in the production and reproduction of violence in the “slum wars” in Medellin, Colombia (1970s-2013)

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Samper, E. J. J., & Massachusetts Institute of Technology. (2014). Physical space and its role in the production and reproduction of violence in the "slum wars" in Medellin, Colombia (1970s-2013).


Rhetorically, people often make a tacit linkage between the spaces of urban informality ("slums"), crime and violence. This occurs in academic circles-as exemplified by the common occurrence that when researchers seek to understand urban crime and violence, they tend to study urban informal spaces (slums, favelas, barriadas, tugurios). However, it is clear that a direct correlation between conflict and informality does not automatically exist. What does exist is evidence that spaces of informality present challenges for formal (state) security actors to assert and maintain their Westphalian monopoly of violence. Conversely, informal settlements present advantages for non-state armed actors to deploy and exhort power and coercive force. This research here argues that, at the core of this contradiction between state disadvantage and non-state armed actor advantage over the control of security and governance, (physical) space clearly emerges as an important variable to study. This study then asks: What roles does physical space play in the conflict-that is, in the production and reproduction of violence-in informal settlements in Medellin? Understanding this would shed light on important phenomena about state and non-state control of informal settlements all over the world. This research looks for ways in which space has played a role in the ongoing urban conflict in the City of Medellin over the last forty years. I look for intersections between two parallel longitudinal studies I have conducted. (1) One study analyzes the physical evolution of Medellfn's informal settlements to map critical inflexion points in the production of urban forms. I also map how these urban forms evolved over time. (2) The second study is an ethnographic study of people's perspectives on their experiences with the evolution of such spaces. I then map their stories of building, rebuilding and urban conflict and merge this with the map of urban forms in the first dimension of my study. The research reveals that time and space in informal settlements do indeed change in prescriptive ways (stages). These stages of development are each marked by singular forms of conflict and violence. Here I argue that physical space plays a fundamental role in the way armed conflict happens in informal settlements. Physical space, which involves all actors in the conflict, impacts armed conflict in two distinct ways. Physical space (1) becomes a form of spatial conditioning that tailors actors and conflict and (2) creates and reinforces conditions unique to informal warfare strategies. This research suggests that we need radical changes in the way urban policy and projects are framed in the context of urban informality. It suggests that we need to consider this framing of informality in nations such as Colombia, in which there is a weak state fighting these types of new wars with asymmetrical adversaries on urban terrain and in which informality and criminal armed groups act. Pro-informal settlement policies and procedures could provide more stable and secure environments in informal settlements than the current tactic of massive expenditures on security in an ongoing asymmetrical warfare.

Chronology informal Neighborhoods and Slums in Medellin 1954-2011, Jota Samper


What is the role of physical space in the production and reproduction of violence in poor neighborhoods in Medellin, Colombia? This question is central to current state policies of urban intervention, drug violence and security in Medellín and in cities throughout Latin America now using “the Medellín case” as a model. Specifically, I focus on three categories of actors who influence and are influenced by the relationship between physical space and narcotraffic violence in Medellín, which in the 1990s was deemed the world’s most violent city. These categories are (1) non-state actors (narcotraffic, guerrilla, paramilitary and gang members), (2) state actors (city government officials and urban planners) and (3) community members. I will study three particular districts in Medellín because they have a long history of poverty and have the city’s most extreme narcotraffic-related violence. These districts also have the highest levels of recent state-sponsored urban interventions involving physical space that are intended to alleviate poverty and violence. I will study the way non-state, state, and community member actors intersect in these neighborhoods during eruptions of violence (gang fights, police raids, drug turf wars) and during state urban interventions intended to alleviate poverty and violence.

A staple theme in the literature about drug violence focuses on ways that non-state armed actors use territorial control as a way to exert power (Sánchez, Díaz, and Formisano 2003; Enrique Desmond. Arias 2006; Koonings and Kruijt 2009) and to develop their drug markets (Reuter 2009; E. D. Arias 2010; Civico 2012). Scholars also focus on how gangs or guerrilla groups (or other non-state armed groups NSAG) fight each other to protect their turf and how this fighting increases levels of violence in these territories (Benson, Rasmussen, and Sollars 1995; Rozema 2008; PENGLASE 2005; Roldan 1999). It is clear in these studies that physical space is an important variable, but scholars tend to limit their analytical perspective on “space” to define the geographical area of study. This is because these scholars’ main focus is their analysis on space as a social construct, such as gender, race, and poverty issues that take place in a particular space. I argue that the physical space is not a static variable, nor is it only the result of these issues. Instead, I argue that physical space is also an active core influence on how these issues play out and intersect. My work argues that in the context of drug violence, physical space is not just a location, rather it is a key actor. By actor I mean that physical space acts to influence human behavior (how people move, interact and control social, economic, and political issues)

My research question them asks: What roles does physical space play in the conflict in informal areas in Medellin? It also tries to bring light to two important phenomena about the state and non-state control of informal settlements all over the world that are: why the state has been unable to wrestle control of these spaces from narcotraffic and other non-state actors? And why have non-state actors have been able to negotiate physical space to maintain control of Medellin neighborhoods? These two inquiries open space for the following minor research questions
A.      Are different spatial forms related to different types of conflicts?  In other words do some urban forms facilitated conditions that favor control by NSAG while others make such contestation more difficult by adding advantages to state control?
B.      How community developed urban environments (informal settlements) creates unique responses to control over the territory of armed actors?
C.      If the urban space is in constant formal flux in informal settlements does conflict presents itself differently at each one of those stages of development? If so in the history (evolution of an informal settlement) what forms of conflict are more prone than others?
D.      Is there a correlation between physical patterns of development of informal settlements and levels of “distance from the state”?


Significance of the Problem and Policy Implications

Our lack of understanding of spatial conditions in urban environments with high levels of poverty, drug trafficking and non-state armed actors, in turn creates a vacuum in our understanding of the role of space in the production of violence in these places. My research intends to contribute to our understanding by building on my last 15 years of professional practice as an architect in socially engaged projects in conflict and poverty zones and most recently my master’s thesis at MIT in urban planning: “The politics of peace process in cities in conflict: the Medellin case as a best practice”.  The thesis examines whether urban upgrading practices of the last three mayoral regimes in Medellín (2004-2011) actually reduced levels of violence, as city government officials claim. This project also builds on my first year paper “Urban Regeneration in Slums: The case of the Favela-Bairro (FB) in Rio de Janeiro and its implications for planning in a context of urban violence,” that explores how state modification to the urban form of informal settlements changed community perceptions of security. 

Tony Roshan Samara concludes in his article “Policing Development: Urban Renewal as Neo-liberal Security Strategy” in Cape Town that “current approaches to urban renewal risk exacerbating social instability by reproducing aggressive forms of policing associated with the apartheid era” (Samara T.R. 2010) Here Urban upgrading in informal areas maintain control and segregation structures.  Likewise, my article “Urban Upgrading in Latin America as a Warfare Tool Against the ‘Slum Wars” (Samper 2012). warns about the danger inherent in the similitude between rhetoric of urban upgrading practices and that of contra-insurgence urban warfare. I conclude that policies and practices are needed to protect fragile communities from urban upgrading being used as a tool of social control rather than its intended goal of social justice.

My past research on this topic focused on the last two Medellín mayorships’ (2004-2011) application of massive urban upgrading projects in this city. The city built more than 300 points of state-of-the-art infrastructure in the city’s neighborhoods with the most extreme poverty and drug violence, including hospitals, libraries, schools, gardens, plazas, streets and affordable public transportation to open access to these neighborhoods and move people between all areas of the city. My new doctoral research explores a perspective beyond these urban upgrading practices to include analysis of physical space. My research also intends to give equal emphasis to how community members and non-state actors and state actors strategically employ physical space to engage in or resist drug related violence in their neighborhoods. My doctoral research could support community members’ legal claims to their land or “rights to space” policies. This includes state and community organizations working together on mutual security by resolving conflicts over land occupation, democratic arrangements and production of urban space. My study could also help inform the next City Plan for Medellín, which will determine how the state allocates resources throughout the city to engage with drug violence, poverty and security over the next 20 years. Finally, my study could inform policies of city governments of Rio de Janeiro, Tijuana and Juarez, cities which are currently implementing the Medellín model to their issues of drug violence and security.

What Do I Mean By Physical Space?

 In his 1993 book The Construction of Places Through Spatial Practices, David Harvey argues that the material practices and experiences entailed in the construction and experiential qualities of place must be dialectically interrelated with the ways they are both represented and imagined. Harvey responds to three questions he forwards from Henri Lefebvre’s 1974 La Production de l’espace (The Production of Space):

1.                  How are places constructed and experienced as material artefacts?
2.                  How are they represented in discourse?
3.                  How are they used as representations, as symbolic places, in contemporary culture?

Lefebvre and Harvey explored these questions in theoretical discussions applied to a broad swath of urban spaces. These scholars emphasized places and spaces as social constructs and discursive representations. My research explores these same questions, with a twist. First I explore these theoretical questions in a specific time and place (three districts in Medellín, 1970s-2013).  Second, I define physical space in urban planning terms to denote two concepts. (1) I distinguish between (a) space as a mental construct or experience and (b) physical space as a tangible object, such as a house, street, plaza, garden or mountain. (2) My research involves intentionally disaggregating specific dimensions of physical space so I can study the way actors strategically negotiate a discrete object (a house, a road) and how this object impacts security in the region. I study how a discrete object interacts in relationship with other objects in the same physical space.  In other words I explore the tensions between the space as a mental and experienced and the tangible object. To do this, I study a neighborhood in terms of what I call its spatial environment (topography, weather, and built objects such as houses and bridges and open areas such as plazas, gardens and streets).  Thinking about space in this way, I argue, is fundamental to understanding relationships between physical space and drug violence in Medellín. For example, when I study the physical space of a plaza, I mean the bricks, trees, water fountain, benches and the voids in between. When I study space in this same plaza, I mean what happens in the plaza, the interactions between people and how they negotiate culturally and other socially constructed codes.

Spatial Environments, State Intervention & Violence:

An Urban Electric Escalator and Two Gangs

After the City of Medellín had been bringing infrastructure for the last six years to isolated informal neighborhoods throughout the city, city officials decided to focus on one of the most violent neighborhoods in the city: Comuna 13. This neighborhood had been considered so dangerous to outsiders that bus drivers, taxis, ambulance drivers and even police refused to enter Comuna 13 without explicit permission from the local neighborhood leaders, many of them controlled by narcotraffic groups. As part of the ongoing Integral urban upgrading project City officials, working with urban planners and Comuna 13 community leaders, decided to introduce an electric escalator in the neighborhood. This escalator is a 45-degree incline up the unpaved Andes Mountain that turned to mudslides during frequent tropical rain. It increased access between communities in the upper areas of the hillside to the lower areas with more amenities, including public buildings, public spaces, and public transportation. This project included widened streets and expanded the pedestrian networks within the densely populated, steep hilled neighborhoods of Comuna 13. In addition to crossing physical barriers of height, this project implied crossing several ‘invisible borders’ (fronteras invisibles) of drug gangs. Here topography-caused difficulties of mobility had separated two warring gangs in a space of less than 300 feet (91meters). This electric escalator, however, redefined Comuna 13 residents’ perception of their territory. The elevator increased mobility to tourists, mothers with small children, and elderly as they made their way back and forth to market. This escalator also increased mobility and decreased distance between warring gangs. In the end, the lower hill gang killed off the upper hill gang. Thus, changing the spatial environment through changing one physical object changed the way these drug sponsored gangs interpreted their sovereignty, redefining their socially constructed or imagined space of boundaries and threats.  This killing was not part of the City of Medellín’s intention in building the escalator, but it does provide an example of how space is an actor in drug-related conflict before, during and after urban renewal intended to improve quality of life in the neighborhood. The people who live near this escalator say it has improved their living conditions. This complex and contradictory consequence of interventions in spatial environments is why I am interested in all three categories of actors’ negotiation of such interventions in drug-controlled neighborhoods.

LITERATURE REVIEW, dealing with slums drugs and Violence


“a new spatial context,” “slum wars,” “insurgency synergies,” and “insurgent citizenship”

Literature about violence and drugs in Latin America covers a vast field that classifies violence in four categories: political, institutional, economic and social (Winton 2004) and it engages multiple geographic scales (international, national and local) (E. D. Arias 2010). In the last decade, however, literature about violence and drug violence specifically has been moving from a focus on nations to one on cities, and specifically neighborhoods with the most extreme poverty: slums and favelas. Literature about drug violence has generally moved from a focus on say, Mexico and Colombia to specific cities there such as Tijuana, Juarez, Medellín and Cali. This suggests that in Latin America, violence and specifically drug violence has centralized most intensely at the city level and poverty-ridden neighborhoods in them. The business of narcotraffic is complex and, of course, operates at international, national and citywide levels and in rural areas in terms of production, marketing and consumption. But violence is deploy not homogeneously over the territory of the city. Instead there are areas of the city that present larger and more constant levels of violence and over time these area present also varied levels of violence and conflict.

This leads to a second point for my research project and for drug violence policies. If you do not realize a shift in general intensity of drug violence from national to city/neighborhood dimensions, then you will not include an intense analysis on the spatial environment and the physical space of it in particular neighborhoods and how one neighborhood differs from another in the same city. Yet understanding drug violence in relationship to spatial environments is crucial because as Koonings and Kruijt determine, up to 25 percent of urban territory in Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Bogotá, Medellín, and Guadalajara are what they call "disputed areas" (Koonings and Kruijt 2009, 14). Peter Reuter argues that “[O]ne reason for expecting violence in retail drug markets is that these markets have “geographic specificity” (Reuter 2009, 277). Research that supports Reuter’s argument include two different studies of garrison communities (ghettos) in Kingston, the capital city of Jamaica, that are controlled by gang leaders (‘dons’) (Clarke 2006; Henry-Lee 2005); a study of Rio de Janeiro gang violence and police ‘urban counter-insurgency’ in favelas (Enrique Desmond. Arias 2006); a study of Indio Guayas, a squatter settlement in Ecuador where “law abiding citizens” coexist with “drug lords” (C. Moser 2009); and studies of Medellin’s multiplicity of “non-state armed actors” paramilitaries, guerrilla and gang members taking shelter in city edges up in the hills (Rozema 2008; Gutiérrez Sanín et al. 2006). While these studies expose the importance of territory regarding drug violence, they do not explore the role of the spatial environment and physical space, in specific how spatial forms of urban informality intersect with such conflicts.

Dennis Rodgers  maps the evolution of Latin American civil wars as “a geographical transition from the ‘peasant wars’ (Wolf 1969) to ’urban wars’ (Beall 2002)” (Rodgers D. 2009).  He maps these wars as a continuation of old conflict in a “new spatial context” and gives these 21st century civil wars a new name: “slum wars.” “Slum wars” is also fundamental because it spatially represents the intersection of violence and urban informality within the “Megacity.” Rodgers argues that the "dynamics of these contemporary ‘slum wars’ suggest that this ongoing conflict is becoming more intense in the 21st century, largely as a result of this new spatial context." (Rodgers D. 2009, 1).  This concept also resonates with other concepts that have emerged as ways to define the new type of urban conflict: “low intensity war.” This is urban warfare (Koonings and Veenstra 2007) that is linked to the phenomena of “megacities” within the forms of “new violence”(Wilding P. 2010; Koonings and Kruijt 2007; Koonings and Kruijt 1999). This concept identifies and spacializes the intersection of national and local conditions of what Koonings and Kruijt call “governance voids.” By this they mean the incapacity of the (local and national) state to guaranty security. This, they explain, is “the case where the monopoly of the state has crumbled that open the space to armed actors” (Koonings and Kruijt 2007).  James Holston argues in his study of São Paulo neighborhoods that communities’ isolation from formal state resources and security generates geographical and ideological spaces for what he calls “insurgent citizenship.” This means that community members realize that under democratic principles and law they are supposed to be equal to everyone else in the same city, but that they are not in fact treated equally. Rather, they are marginalized. This realization then, gives community members ideological justification and inspiration to brave contesting the state’s abandonment of their neighborhoods, including lack of security from drug violence (Holston 2008)There is a well-developed scholarship that focuses on the other dimension of space that my research project employs: space as a cultural construct. Sociologists Caroline Moser and Mcllwaine (C. O. N. Moser and McIlwaine 2004), for example, define the relationship between “perverse organizations” and their use of social capital that has specific meaning in a particular location: the (informal) neighborhoods where they operate. I contend that my research will help us understand why the state has been unable to eliminate drug violence in specific neighborhoods in Medellín. This is because a core power fueling non-state actors’ control of drug trade and thus their control of “their” neighborhoods is how they negotiate spatial environments. It is undeniable that today there is rapid urbanization and informality happening all over the world and urban conflict is being mapped alongside that of urban development. The intersection of “Non-State Armed Actors” (D. Davis 2009) who act in Thomas P.M. Barnett’s “Non–Integrating Gap” (Barnett 2004) in the so called “fourth generation wars” (Lind 2004) provides the global context to understand how Rodgers concept of “slum war” translates to the international sphere. It also provides the international context to see how the city and urban informality can play a fundamental role in providing the space for the intersection of these two concepts at the interior of the “megacities.”

Medellin, was once deemed the most violent city in the world in great part due to narcotraffic. Over the last nine years the Medellín city government has employed massive targeted urban interventions to address poverty, violence and drugs this is a paradigmatic case in Latin America to understand ways that spatial environments, physical space and space as a social construct influences violence.  Furthermore, the City of Medellín over the last few years has been waging a national and international marketing campaign to show the success of their urban interventions in poor and violent neighborhoods. This campaign called “The Transformation of Medellín”., however, there are fluctuation periods in violence in these “transformed” neighborhoods in Medellín. This is partly due, some scholars argue, to multiple motivations of non-state armed actors in Medellin to collaborate with state actors and at other times with non-state actors. (Sanín and Jaramillo 2005; Rozema 2008; Cardona et al. 2005; Angarita 2002). My previous research has revealed that non-state armed actors also sometimes collaborate with other non-state (drug traffickers, gangs, guerrilla and paramilitary groups) and state actors at the same time. It is common for non-state actors to fight for one group and then switch sides multiple times because they do not necessary join to the conflict for ideological reasons, but rather to financially support their family. This I call “a continuum of violence.” The community members are often caught in between. This is because different non-state armed actors (such as guerrilla, gangs, and paramilitary) are often deeply connected with the illegal drug trade in informal neighborhoods in Latin America, a connection that scholars call “the synergy of drugs and insurgency” (Rabasa and Chalk 2001). This synergy of trade and spatial control identifies one reason why the formal state has not been able to maintain control in informal spaces. It raise important questions about how conflict relates to the nature of the informal space.


Research Design and Methodology

A.      Case Selection

This research project selects the city of Medellin as a case because of some of its particular conditions that make it a perfect candidate to explore dimensions of the two main variables of this research. First, Medellin is the city with longer and larger variations of conflict when compared with other cities in Latin America and, second, it is a city with a large concentration of informal settlements, the result of an ongoing process of building since the early 1950s to the present. This is the same period that the country and city have experienced what may be called a “non-declared civil war” (Bushnell 1993). In this way Medellin represents represent an “extreme case or a unique case” (Yin 2009). The goal of this research is to find a deeper understanding of how the modification of urban space plays a role (positive or negative) in the violent conflict in which the use of an extreme case is a good strategy.

B.      Unit of analysis and level of analysis

The unit of analysis is the informal settlements of Medellin from 1968 to 2012. Specifically this research will concentrate in 3 districts (comunas) of Medellin as embedded units (comunas: 1, 6 and 13). These embedded units are selected following the same criteria of the selection of the city of Medellin. They represent the areas of the city with larger levels of informality and transformation over time and longer and more varied forms of urban conflict.

C.      Analytic Theory

This study is trying to understand the role of space in the production of violence. To do so I aim to find intersections between these two variables of conflict and evolution of space in informal areas by mapping them. It is important here to understand that presently ways we map informal space differ from ways of mapping conflict and violence. The goal then is to find ways methodologically to intersect both mappings to find how a change in one variable determines an effect on the other. Following is a review of how these two fields separately had map the two main variables.

1.      Mapping space of informality

Form James Turner to James Holston a recurrent theme about the urban informality is its ever-changing physical form. At the urban scale, there are profound implications of this incremental process in the constitution of the form of the informal city. In the Architectes des favelas, Didier Drummond studies the urban development of the favelas in Rio de Janeiro and based on his cases, finds that the informal settlements go through a series of phases of evolving consolidation, Phase one “is implantation precarious shelters”; phase two is “transformation of shelters to sheds”, and phase three is “solid construction” (Drummond 1981).
Figure 1 Architectes des favelas Didier Drummond phases of evolving consolidation phase one “implantation precarious shelters” phase two “transformation of shelters to sheds”    phase three “solid construction” source: (Drummond 1981)

In these three phases Drummond reveals the very nonspontaneous mechanisms rather predictable and normative way in which these urban environments evolve what could be called resident planning of what is often understood in urban planning literature as spontaneous growth. Lacking form, these mappings are the minimal but key infrastructure additions accompany and make each one of these phases of the informal environment viable. Kellett and Napier (1995) explore the built form of the Informal dwelling as opposed to a the entire settlement  in its “Squatter Architecture?” they propose to view the self-building production under the glass of “vernacular” to understand both the process of construction as well as  the final product. Kellett, Peter, and Mark Napier find that “there has been a virtual absence of empirical data on "squatter architecture” (Kellett and Napier 1995, 7). 

To fill that void from the "space syntax" school of Bill Hillier (1996) a new group of a studies is emerging that is fascinated with the growth of the urban informal form and that is tackling two problems that researchers find when trying to understand informal settlements. One of these problems is the creation of effective mapping. Large numbers of informal settlements are still unmapped and their continued process of growth makes it a challenge to accurately formulate policy and project prescriptions. The second and maybe even more elusive problem is the creation of predictive models that can forecast growth of informality.  Augustijn-Beckers (et al 2011)  simulates growth in informal settlements using “An Agent-based Housing Model.” He argues that this model “can successfully simulate the housing pattern of informal settlements growth”  Barros and Sobreira (2002) map slum geometry in terms of ways that urban growth changes in shape and size over time. Patel, Crooks and Koizumi (2012), in their efforts to develop a model to simulate the unique conditions of informal settlements, propose a new term for the process of mapping and forecasting as a “Slumulation”. Finally Laura Vaughan (2006; 1997) studies the location patterns of ethnic minorities and challenges the homogenous concept of ‘ghettoisation’ and finds that through “self-help” processes, clustering of endangered groups serve as “ways of self-protection from hostile populations.” This provides important findings for the intersection of mapping security and informality. Specifically here, Vaughan identifies how ways that people strategically create and organize space as self-protection—and all in the context of poverty and informality. Adding to the above findings of the fact that space matters in informality and poverty, the construction of informal spaces is not spontaneous, Vaughan here shows that there exist patterns within informal spaces that are not homogenous. This study, in other words, does in depth to show particularities of this particular space (informality) and how the way people use the creation of their space to protect themselves from others (security). There is a body of literature that engages in how the urban form impacts perceptions and real security in urban settings in the developed formal world (Newman 1972; Newman 1995; Jacobs 1961; Cozens and Hillier 2012). Up to now, however, we are lacking studies that can empirically find correlation of how changes in the urban form of the informal settlements impact the unique conditions of security in these areas.

2.      Mapping conflict

In terms of mapping conflict two different approaches have been developed. One approach merges geographic analysis with crime data collected by reporting agencies, creating a “spatial crime analysis” (Hirschfield and Bowers 2001). Here space, time, crime are the key variables that can be mixed with multiplicity of other information collected in the databases to find levels of correlation between them (level of unemployment and robberies). The main operations where these  variables are mixed are block aggregation, voronoi diagrams, kernel smoothing and animation[1] (Williamson et al. 2001) These mappings help inform security agencies how to deploy their resources. A second approach comes from social sciences (sociology and anthropology). Caroline Moser provides a series of studies of perception of securities by community members that also maps locations of crimes and criminals in her “Participatory urban appraisal” (C. O. N. Moser and McIlwaine 2004; C. Moser 2009, 71; C. Moser 2000). Susan Liebermann and Justine Coulson in “Participatory mapping for crime prevention in South Africa - local solutions to local problems” merge research mapping of security with policy recommendation to integrate community members into community policing their work reveals that “crime does not happen randomly” over the territory but that actually happens in “predictable spaces”(Liebermann and Coulson 2005). This solidifies the ability to understand that insecurity and space are related issues, but missing is an accounting of the qualities that make such spaces identified different from others.  Annette Kim in "The mixed-use sidewalk: Vending and property rights in public space" maps conflict and informality on the sidewalk in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.  In her spatial ethnography the use of “Sidewalk Cartography” provides a multidimensional understanding of the multiplicity uses that the informal occupation of the public space entails (Kim A.M. 2012). I think that these studies have the ability to identify the intersection of insecurity and space in the geography of informality. What they have not done so far is produce an analytical framework in which spatial characteristics are  complicit in the production and reproduction of insecurity. This is important because as Bruce Stanley explains in “City Wars or Cities of Peace: (Re)Integrating the Urban into Conflict Resolution,” there “has been no discussion about the role of cities as sites or actors in conflict termination and conflict resolution”(Stanley 2003).

Analytical framework of mapping space and conflict

This research project intends to map with two longitudinal studies both the evolution of urbanization and conflict in informal settlements. In this way we could see how changes of social, economic conditions in informal settlements have impacts in the way the urban form evolves and reciprocally how changes to the urban form in return impact the way communities, non-state armed actors and the state engage and its repercussions on the ever evolving conditions of security in informal settlements.  Of  the large numbers of longitudinal studies in informal settlements that we have access to, Janice Perlman’s “Favela: four decades of living on the edge in Rio de Janeiro” (Perlman 2010) represents one of the most significant ones. But given that it does not clearly map the urban form and that it spans three decades between two data collection points, this study fails to map what specific urban changes have happened over the span of 40 years in favelas in Rio de Janeiro and how these changes of security have impacted uses and perception and the construction of urban space. It is clear from the Perlman case that to be able to generate a coherent mapping of changing conditions of security and of urban form, we need to more closely and consistently collect data points. Also that community member’s participation would be needed in the process of historical mapping both the evolution of conflict and urban form over large timespans.

D.     Design

To find ways in which space has play a role in the ongoing urban conflict in the City of Medellin over the last 4 decades, I intend to find intersections between two parallel longitudinal studies: (1) One study that concentrates on the physical evolution of the urban form of the informal settlements of Medellin, which maps important inflexion points in the production of urban form, such as foundational moments, evictions, community and state projects, and the progressive evolution of such spaces. (2) A second, ethnographic study of the stories of evolution of such spaces that maps stories of building, rebuilding and urban conflict. For both of these time lines this research project will use of archival material (such as photos, maps, aerial photographs, census, crime reports, newspapers) as well as  stories by community members, state officials and armed actors using semi-structured interviews. This methodology is used, first, because semi- structured interviews is an efficient method that “provides detail, depth and an insider’s perspective” (Leech 2002). Also because other methodologies, such as surveys or other quantitative gathering methods, will be unfeasible and inadequate to implement in the context of the informal settlements in a way that reach a significant portion of the population. Results of this kind of quantitative research will not likely provide reliable results, since security, and accessibility to all or a statistically significant and randomized portion of the population of interest, (via face to face or by any others means as email of phone) is impossible at this stage. Therefore, conducting this kind of quantitative research in this context will exclude important segments of the population, bringing a serious risk of bias of selection. The use of archival material will help to triangulate and test the time frame of stories collected during the semi-structured interviews.

E.      Selection of Participants

§  Most of the data about community stories about building the city of Medellin will come from   800 interviews (600 as 2012 and 200 more in 2013) conducted as part of Medellin my Home, my historical memory project involving marginal communities of Medellin (2009-2013). The interviews include both stories from the 3 areas of study as well as from other areas of the city with conflict and informality. This group was randomly selected from a 45.000 pool of families considered by the city of Medellin in the lower bracket of poverty. Interviews have been performed by Duke University students trained by me and were video recorded. We have more than 6000 hours of video up to date. To compensate for the probably bias of this population other random community interviews would be perform by me in the three areas of studies with community members not belonging to this database. These groups of individuals are going to be selected through snowballing (Bertaux and Bertaux-Wiame 1981) , starting with access to three comunas (districts) at two points. The first one is recommended individuals by the social workers team of the EDU and Planning Department. And the other one is within community groups or NGO’s in the selected embedded units of analysis (comunas). By having these two entry points, this study seeks to cancel some of the bias that selecting each one will introduce. I will not do focus groups with residents because in previous research experiences, given some of the private nature of the questions (perception of security), the type of dynamics of focus groups in informal settlements, produced standardized (safe) responses.
§  In terms of state officials, interviews from this group will include professional experts who have participated in the planning, execution or evaluation of project on informal settlements it will also include the works and interviews of academics that bridge between working with state in these areas and analyzing the urban informality phenomena. Up to date I have interviewed 40 individuals that fit with in this category, including mayors planning directors, and planners whose work and opinions has direct influence in the three selected embedded units (Comunas).
§  The last category of armed actors include current and formally illegal armed actors. This group is smaller than the others and access to the members represents the largest challenge in this project. One entry point is the large portion of re-integrated illegal armed actors who are part of community organizations (protecting them) and also of state projects that support reintegration process. The second entry point is to use a network of community members, state officials and project managers that deal in the day to day activities with active member of illegal armed groups. Up to date I have conducted 10 interviews with members of this category. For this research the intention is expand this number to 40 to have a representative sample using the explained entry points and snowballing method.

F.       Validity and Reliability

Internal validity: 
To guarantee face validity for each group, there are different selection methods for each category of interviewees. These three different pools will inform the creation of the two time lines (urban development and conflict) each time line would be triangulated by hard data (newspaper articles, aerial photographs, police reports, homicide rates and official historical documents). The conclusion will be drawn by the intersections of such timelines (moments in which clearly changes on the urban form represent changes on perception of security)

To guarantee content validity interviewees will be asked similar a set of questions adapted for the kind of knowledge of each group.  (Experts, community, armed actors).  Also geo-reference of crime data and time are common practice as analytical tools to understand the relationship of security and space (Hirschfield and Bowers 2001). In terms of urban form evolution on informal settlements community members provide the narrative and some of the evidence by the use of photo albums. Histories that become key in understanding intersection of space and security in informal settlements could be also corroborated by newspaper articles that would corroborate time and space veracity of such events. While community narratives should help to produce the “thick description” (Geertz 1973) necessary to contextualize the intersection of events and space. In this way I use triangulation is a “method of cross-checking data from multiple sources to search for regularities in the research data” (O’donoghue 2003, 78).

Threats to internal validity:

This study has selected subjects (cases) on the basis of extreme characteristics as an example of areas where urban informality and conflict coexist.  This approach of selecting an outstanding case could be a threat to “internal validity,” in this case “regression to the mean” (Campbell and Stanley 1963; Cook and Campbell 1979; and Shadish, Cook and Campbell 2002).  The objective of choosing outstanding cases is that this research project is not interested in finding correlations between urban informality and conflict but instead on finding ways in which the space of modification plays a role in urban conflict.  In any case, this research should limit its conclusions to contexts in which the inferences are drawn.
Reactivity:  Individuals, who participate in this research, just because they agreed to participate in the research, might be more willing to show favorable outcomes or corroborate intended outcomes similar to the Hawthorne effect (Heppner el al. 1992), given that the questions will easily inform the interviewee of the research interest and could imply expected outcomes. Answers that positively confirm outcomes need to be examined in more detail and it will require asking interviewees to provide a larger factual explanation during the interview.
Single group threat: Given that is not possible to have a control group in this design, (an area with no conflict in Medellin or with urban informality but no conflict) it is the expectation that having three opposing groups with similar set of questions will reduce this threat.
External Validity-Transferability: This research design, as a single-case study methodology, hinders the possibilities of generalization. Thus, it is important to account for this at the concluding stage. But it is also important to account for the fact that the conclusions drawn from this analysis can, to an important extent, be applied to the all other areas in the city of Medellin that have urban informality and conflict. The conclusions of this research can be applied specifically to new policies implemented in high urban conflict areas in Medellin in the future. Beyond Medellin, conclusions could be transferable to other cities in the country that have the same socio political context of conflict and similar patterns of urban development cities like Cali and Bogota. At the Latin America scale the city of Medellin serves as a referent of issues of urban conflict were drug related groups general large levels of conflict some of the conclusion of this research can be helpful to understand such contexts like Rio de Janeiro, Sao Paulo in Brazil, San Pedro Sula in Honduras, Mexico city, Juarez and Tijuana in Mexico. Beyond the Latin American context conclusions have to be more careful but two areas become possible venues for generalization on is that of informing CPTED (Newman 1972; Cozens and Hillier 2012; Jeffery 1971; Schneider 2006) theory and policies about how to secure urban space and second on understanding the evolution of the urban form of informal settlements at the global scale.


Case study protocol: Consistency and stability in the responses of the interviewees will be addressed by conducting semi-structured interviews using the same interview guide for each group of interviewees, and making sure that each individual feel safe and comfortable in the environment of the interview. Language of the questions will be crafted to each group and tested on-site days before the start of interviews to be able to correct for cultural and technical misinterpretations.

Threats to reliability:  This research is asking individuals to connect actions that happened in the past (up to 40 years ago) with effects on the present. The context of the present (level of violence in the neighborhood, deterioration of physical projects because of passing of time or other factors, or the interruption of policies that were implemented in those neighborhood, current and past conditions of conflict and political affiliations) can affect and vary the results. This reduces the probability of replication of the research. I could use the Split-Halves Method[2] to test for consistency of response, but the number of interviews is really small to be divided in a random and consistent way and this will only prove reliability of the data collected and not of this sample to others taken before or after the study. The goals is that using archival material alongside data collected during the interviews would provide space to understand such process and reduce such risk.

G.     Data Analysis

A first stage will require become familiar with the data collected. It then will require dividing all the data collected through the field research: transcripts of the interviews, notes on the interviews and field visits and text or graphical material collected on the field (provided by the interviewees as part of their interviews), into the three categories of state officials, communities and non-state armed actors. This process of analyzing coded pieces of text would be assisted by text process software such as Nvivo. Second, all data collected will be coded based on analytical patterns and/or themes that emerge from within the text in what is call “open coding” (Warren and Kramer 2010). Third, all data collected will coded in the general categories of the constructs identified in the literature of conflict and informality and specifically  coded as influence of space on conditions of violence and on violence in the production of space. This process is what Donald Campbell calls “pattern matching” this process would happen both as abstract (narrative) and as visual (physical mapping) exercise. Finally, results from the patterns emerging from the open coding and pattern matching process should generate, “explanations” of the “how” or “why” changes in perceptions happen. This final stage is known as “explanation building” (Yin 2009).

H.     Ability to Complete the Research

I am a well-positioned to complete this research and produce findings that will contribute to academic literature and to policy dialogue. As an architect, I have been working on socially engaged design projects in conflict cities for the last 15 years in five countries: the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Colombia and India. Two projects I designed in the Tijuana/San Diego region with a socially engaged architectural firm I co-founded (Estudio Teddy Cruz), won the annual Progressive Architecture Award, citing the most outstanding projects in the United States, and the national Young Architects Forum award. Ten years later, this work appeared in New York City’s MoMA (Modern Museum of Art) Exhibition “Small Scale, Big Change: New Architectures of Social Engagement.” The empirical and qualitative research I undertook and published on spatial policies implemented toward reducing violence in Medellín’s drug controlled neighborhoods include the same districts I will study for this project. I am an active member of the Urban Resilience in Situations of Chronic Violence, a research and action project from the MIT Center for International Studies directed by Dr. Jhon Tirman and Dr. Diane E. Davis, for which they invited me to develop the Medellin Case.
                I also have specific and unusual access to state, non-state and community member sources, actors’ and spaces. This access begins with the fact that I am a native of Medellín, who as a teenager lived in a context of narcotraffic and guerrilla war. This is important not just because I lived through violence in Medellín but because I also understand everyday “normality” in the midst of violence (going to school, holidays, hanging out with friends). With more than three decades (six decades counting family) of roots within academic, political and social communities, I also have privileged access to research sources. I earned my undergraduate degree in architecture at the Universidad Nacional de Medellín in Colombia and worked on architectural projects there. Often, before people agree to speak with me, they ask me about my personal background with Medellín. At some level, inspiration to push on with my research when it becomes most difficult is that this project is, in some sense, a way of paying my dues for not having died.
Some of my research questions, contacts, and sources come from a six-year historical memory project in Medellin, which I co-founded with Dr. Tamera Marko, an historian at Duke University. Specifically, we document stories about how people displaced from their rural communities in Colombia due to poverty, war and narcotraffic violence built their own homes and neighborhoods in Medellín. We work with displaced families’ photo albums, which in most cases are the only existing record of how community members built their neighborhoods over the last sixty years. We also work closely with the last three regimes of Medellín Mayors and Secretaries of Social Welfare (second-in-command to the mayor and in charge of informal areas of the city.) I organized bringing Sergio Fajardo to a 2012 conference at MIT. He is the former Medellín Mayor, a former Colombian Presidential candidate and the current Governor of Antioquia, the state in which Medellín is the capital.
 The idea for this project was born when a community elder in one of Medellín’s most violent and drug-controlled neighborhoods invited me to see her family albums in her home in 2008. Since then, we have interviewed more than 600 consistency with earlier figures?] families in their homes and have 3,000 hours of interviews and 50 of them edited into documentary stories that circulate online and in film festivals and K-16 curriculum. ("Ladera, vida y dignidad")These families, especially the women, tell stories about surviving violence by negotiating what I call their spatial environments and physical spaces. Women have collaborated in stories for our archive about building drainage canals, cement stairs, playgrounds, and roof gardens and how they negotiated with non-state, state and fellow community member actors to do so and always in the context of drug-related violence. Without my ongoing relationships with these community members and the trust we have built with each other, this doctoral project’s current scope would be impossible. Because of my special access, however, this doctoral project feels to me like more than just an academic hoop to receive my Ph.D.: this project is a privilege.

[1] Block aggregation, voronoi diagrams, kernel smoothing and animation are different analytical tools used spatial analysis. Block aggregation refers to the use of information of spatial data by sectors such as (census track, blocks or territorial divisions. Voronnoi diagrams uses as inputs points (called seeds, sites, or generators) that divide the space into regions of influence. A kernel smoother is a statistical technique for estimating a real valued function in GIS The goal of kernel smoothing is to estimate how the density of events varies across a study area based on a point pattern. "Kernel estimation was originally developed to obtain a smooth estimate of a univariate or multivariate probability density from an observed sample of observations..." (Bailey and Gatrell 1995). Finally Animation in crime mapping is a way to introduce time as a variable to understand how data changes with time and space.
[2] In the split-halves method, the total number of items is divided into halves, and a correlation taken between the two halves.


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