• Carlos Munoz Burgos

Reflection: Realist Views on Crime and Violence

Recently, someone asked me what I do after he saw me writing one of my articles for this blog. After chatting about what I do, this person told me, “You know, it all comes down to power and money.” I paused for a second to reflect on what he said. Although this is a very common deduction as to why there are problems in the word, I wanted to know how this understanding applied to the fields of countering violent extremism and crime and violence prevention (CVP).

Some thoughts came to my mind: Youth join violent extremist groups and violent gangs because they lack an identity, their self-esteem is low, and they feel powerless and excluded in their communities. They think that by joining these groups they will be respected by their peers, and will feel like they have power. I also thought how once I heard that relative depravation explains what drives youth radicalization in the MENA region. It is not that youth do not have enough to survive. The problem is that youth compare themselves to others who have what they think they ought to have. Appearances are very important in this context, and youth will do anything to pretend they have money to gain respect from their peers.

Then, when thinking about power, realism came to my mind. The easy explanation here is that people, like states, are power hungry, and will do anything to maintain or gain hegemony over others. This view, I thought, was too simplistic and flawed because it left the whole human aspect and individual experiences out of the equation. As a result, I decided to do some research on realism and crime. This led me to an “aha moment.”

In my last post, I describe how former Bogota Mayor Antanas Mockus talks about two determinisms to explain crime. The first, associated with the Right, says that crime and violence must be reduced through coercion. The second, associated with the Left, says that crime and violence are a result of poverty and inequality.

So, how does this relate to my “aha moment”? My research led me to find Left Realist and Right Realist theories of crime. These two theories are what Mockus describes as determinisms of the Left and Right. Right realists call for more police presence and deterrents to combat crime and violence. It recommends providing people with information on what they need to do to prevent being victims of crime and violence. This view also focuses on situational prevention and how spaces should be improved to deter criminals from committing a violent act. Their assumptions are fully based on rational choice theory, claiming that if the costs of committing a crime outweigh the benefits, people will not commit a crime.

Alternatively, Left Realists acknowledge the importance of a police force to address crime and violence. However, they say that police officers should develop positive relationships with communities so the latter can trust in them and are able to work collaboratively to reduce crime. This group also believes in the importance of community engagement to prevent violence and crime. In other words, bottom up approaches are better to prevent crime than top-down approaches. Finally, Left Realists think that, in addition to inequality and poverty, relative deprivation is what makes people engage in violent behaviors.

In politics and economics, I share Joseph Stiglitz view that it’s not about how big or small a government is, but on how effective it is. Regarding Left or Right Realists views on crime and violence, I think a similar approach is valid, keeping in mind that prevention is more effective than repression.

I do not think everything comes down to power and money. There is much more behind group and individual motivations to joining violent gangs, drug cartels, or violent extremist organizations, as has been explained in previous posts. Money and power are certainly two relevant points in crime and violence, but they are also not the main reasons driving this phenomenon around the world.