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  • Writer's pictureCarlos Munoz Burgos

Frameworks: Civic Culture and Violence Prevention in Latin America

A few years ago, a former Guatemala City deputy mayor recommended that I read a book called Antípodas de la Violencia. Translated into English, this title means something like “The Opposite of Violence.” He recommended this book to me because he was very interested in people’s co-responsibility with their city to attain positive changes. The former deputy mayor told me that Guatemalans complain about everything, from why streets are covered in trash to why people cut the line. One of the issues with this, he claimed, was that people do not assume their roles as citizens and do something to change collective negative behaviors. People are often passive and wait for someone else to fix their problems.

Antipodas de la Violencia is an effort led by Antanas Mockus, Bogota’s mayor from 1995-1997 and 2001-2003. The book recommends using Mockus’ cultura ciudadana (civic culture) approach to reduce violence. Cultura Ciudadana are the set of shared habits, actions and rules that generate a sense of belonging, facilitate urban coexistence, and are conducive to respecting the common patrimony and recognizing citizen rights and duties. This approach seeks to change the cultural context to allow people to adopt the rule of law as a way of self-governing; provide citizen with the ability to make others comply with the law peacefully; and improve the ability to reach agreements and resolve conflicts among citizens. In other words, this approach seeks to give agency and empower people to regulate their behaviors in a way that benefits everyone.

There are two deterministic approaches to violence prevention in Latin America according to the book. One is a coercive approach often associated with right-wing politics that calls for increased police presence and punitive actions to reduce violence. The other is based on poverty and inequality, and focuses on increasing people’s wellbeing so the incentives to commit crimes decrease. Both approaches are wrong. First mano dura (hard fist) approaches have increased violence in Central America. Also, Caracas has twice as many police officers than Bogota, but its homicide rate is seven times higher. Regarding the poverty and inequality approach, the poorest communities in countries should be the most violent, but that is not always the case. As I discuss in a previous post, economic growth can actually bring more violence to a city, as was the case in Juarez at the beginning of this decade.

Since neither of the approaches above work, Mockus proposes a civic culture approach to reduce violence. As mentioned above, the approach is based on regulating behaviors, and there are three mechanisms to do this: 1) through legal norms, 2) through moral norms, and 3) through social norms. The positive motivation to respect the law is admiration for it and acknowledgement that it must be respected. The negative motivation is fear of the sanctions for breaking the law. People’s positive motivation to adhere to moral norms is self-fulfillment and gratification. The negative motivation is fear of guilt. Finally, for social norms the positive motivation is social recognition and approval, and the negative motivation is shame or social rejection.

In an ideal world, the legal, moral, and social realms would be in harmony. However, in Latin America this is not the case and that is why laws are not always respected. For instance, in some marginalized areas, it may be morally correct to steal from rich people, and society will not condemn this action because it is seen as justified. The civic culture approach aims to change these views that are conducive to negative behaviors as they do not regulate them.

To show the effectiveness of the approach, the book presents a project that utilized mimes in Bogota to change people’s behaviors. Twenty mimes were placed in intersections were both pedestrians and drivers did not obey the law. Mimes ridiculed those who did not follow the law and highlighted positive behaviors, such as people helping the elderly cross the street. The story says that people felt shame because their negative behaviors were pointed out, so they stopped practicing them. Given the success of the mimes, Mockus placed a total of 400 mimes in Bogota to stop negative behaviors and reward positive ones.


Although the idea to regulate behaviors through the harmonization of the legal, moral, and social realms is valid, it does not provide a concrete framework to reduce violence. Also, in one of the chapters, Mockus claims that civic culture is neither a soft (preventive) nor a coercive approach. It is a crosscutting theme that must be part of a comprehensive violence prevention strategy. If it is only a theme, then it should be presented as such, and not as a strategy to reduce crime and violence.

The interventions proposed by this approach are very courageous and perhaps irresponsible in some cases. For example, as I read about the mimes in Bogota, I wondered how many of these mimes were attacked or assaulted for making people feel shame. Another intervention involved using cards that had a thumbs up image on one side and a thumbs down image on the other. People could use their cards to show the thumbs-up side to people who were doing something positive, or the thumbs-down side to condemn an action. This also made me wonder how many people were victims of violence for expressing their opinions with the cards. In the introductory chapter, the book presents the concept of familismo, which means how far a person will go to defend their family or honor. Surveys show that people will go very far in Latin America to defend themselves and their families, which makes me wonder how exposed to violence the mimes or “cardholders” were.

Also, in reviewing the indicators presented for civic culture in the book, I noticed that there is great overlap with concepts also used in the literature for resilience and individual-level risk factors associated with violence. These concepts include neutralization of guilt, trust, tolerance, communication, and critical thinking among others.

Civic culture is an interesting way of analyzing human behavior, including those related to violence. However, the model is not fit as a complete approach for reducing violence. This approach could be used as a guiding principle for some interventions, particularly at the societal level. However, when using this approach we also need to be careful because it parts from the idea that humans will make choices – sometimes “rational” – based on incentives. This is not always the case, as humans not always make rational choices. Also, how can this approach change behaviors of individuals who do not care about legal consequences, do not fear social rejection, or do not fear shame? The civic culture approach has much to offer as a framework of analysis, yet not as a strategy to reduce crime and violence.

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