Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-7635

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City, Nation, Network: Shifting Territorialities of Sovereignty and Urban Violence in Latin America

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Abstract:  Cities across the global south are seeing unprecedented levels of violence that generate intense risks and vulnerability. Such problems are often experienced most viscerally among poorer residents, thus reinforcing longstanding socio-spatial conditions of exclusion, inequality, and reduced quality of life for those most exposed to urban violence. Frequently, these problems are understood through the lens of poverty, informality, and limited employment opportunities. Yet an undertheorized and equally significant factor in the rise of urban violence derives from the shifting territorialities of governance and power, which are both cause and consequence of ongoing struggles within and between citizens and state authorities over the planning and control of urban space. This article suggests that a relatively underexplored but revealing way to understand these dynamics, and how they drive violence, is through the lens of sovereignty. Drawing on examples primarily from Mexico, and other parts of urban Latin America, I suggest that problems of urban violence derive from fragmented sovereignty, a condition built upon the emergence of alternative, competing, and at times overlapping networks of territorial authority at the scale of the city, nation, and globe. In addition to theorizing the shifting spatial correlates of sovereignty among state and non-state armed actors, and showing how these dynamics interact with urbanization patterns to produce violence, I argue that the spatial form of the city both produces and is produced by changing political and economic relations embedded in urban planning principles. That is, urban planning practices must be seen as the cause, and not merely the solution, to problems of urban violence and its deleterious effects. Using these claims to dialogue with urban planners, this essay calls for new efforts to redesign cities and urban spaces with a focus on territorial connectivities and socio-spatial integration, so as to push back against the limits of fragmented sovereignty arrangements, minimize violence, and foster inclusion and justice.

Keywords:  cities; Latin America; Mexico; networks; sovereignty; space; territory; violence



© Diane Davis. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.