2011. Vol.1, No.4, 177-182
Copyright © 2011 SciRes. DOI:10.4236/sm.2011.14023
Urban Violence in Northern Border of Mexico:
A Study from Nuevo León State*
Arun Kumar Acharya
Instituto de Investigaciones Sociales, Universidad Autónoma de Nuevo León, Monterrey, Mexico.
Received July 29th, 2011; revised September 2nd, 2011; accepted October 3rd, 2011.
Urban violence has reached record level in many nations, and having devastating impact on people’s health and
livelihood as well as economic prospects. Today, for millions of people around the world, violence, or the fear
of violence, is a daily reality. In Mexico since the year 2006 the northern border states are become more violent
due to fight against the drug trafficking. In this study, we have taken Nuevo León state as area of study, and we
have seen from the result; that urban violence in Nuevo León has increased in an unprecedented manner during
last few years. Much of this urban violence is a consequence of rural-to-urban migration and exponential ur-
banization. We have also seen in the study that urban violence is a multi-factorial phenomena and main reason
behind this is inequality among city dwellers. This is a potential source of frustration which increasing risk of
urban violence, especially if ce rtain groups are underprivileged and suffers from s oc ia l exc lusion.
Keywords: Urban Violence, Drug trafficking, Nuevo Leon, Mexico
Over the last 50 years, the world has witnessed a dramatic
growth of its urban population. The speed and the scale of this
growth, especially concentrated in the less developed regions,
continue to pose formidable challenges to individual countries
as well as to the world community. According to United Na-
tions in the year 2009, the number of people living in urban
areas 3.42 billion had surpassed the number living in rural areas
3.41 billion, and after that world has become more urban than
rural (United Nations, 2009).
In 1900 only 15 percent of the world’s population lived in
cities. The 20th century transformed this picture, as the pace of
urban population growth accelerated very rapidly in about 1950.
Sixty years later, it is estimated that more than half of the
world’s people lives in cities. The world is undergoing the
largest wave of urban growth in history. For the first time in
history in 2009, more than half of the world’s population will
be living in towns and cities. By 2030 this number will swell to
almost 5 billion, with urban growth concentrated in Africa and
Asia. While mega-cities have captured much public attention,
most of the new growth will occur in smaller towns and cities,
which have fewer resources to respond to the magnitude of the
change. In principle, cities offer a more favorable setting for the
resolution of social and environmental problems than rural
areas. Cities generate jobs and income. With g ood go verna nce,
they can deliver education, health care and other services
more efficiently than less densely settled areas simply because
of their advantages of scale and proximity (United Nations,
However, the fact that such large percentage of people in
many developing countries are young means that urban popula-
tion growth will continue rapidly for years to come. Moreover,
impoverished urban women are significantly less likely than
their more affluent counterparts to have access to reproductive
health or contraception. Not surprisingly, they have higher fer-
tility rates. Migration is a significant contributor to urbanization,
as people move in search of social and economic opportunity.
Environmental degradation and conflict may drive people off
the land. Often people who leave the countryside to find better
lives in the city have no choice but to settle in shantytowns and
slums, where they lack access to decent housing and sanitation,
health care and education in effect, trading in rural for urban
poverty. On the other hand, this rapid urbanization has also
brought with it immense social and economic disruption, and
with it, increased crime and violence in many cities. For mil-
lions of people around the world violence, or the fear of vio-
lence, is a constant reality. Urban violence is a serious impede-
ment to development and to poverty reduction (United Nations,
In Latin America, for example, recent work at the World
Bank has suggested that rapid rates of urbanization are associ-
ated with higher levels of homicide (Fajnzylber, et al., 1998,
cited by Rodgers, 2010), while Inter-American Development
Bank researchers Alejandro Gaviria and Carmen Pagés (2002,
cited by Rodgers, 2010) find that a household in a city of more
than one million inhabitants was 71 per cent more likely to be
vic- timized than a household in a city of between 50,000 and
100,000 inhabitants (Rodgers, 2010). The classic article of
Louis Wirth entitled ‘Urbanism as a Way of Life’ Chicago
School of Sociology, argues that cities are large, dense settle-
ments of socially heterogeneous individuals and that, as a result,
they promote high levels of violence, insecurity, and disorder,
insofar as large numbers lead to impersonal social contact, high
density produces increased competition, and heterogeneity
induces differentiation and stratification. Wirth’s theoretical
statement has come “to occupy by itself most of the central
ground in its sort of thinking about urban life” (Hannerz, 1980,
cited by Rodgers, 2010); yet, the fact that not all cities are af-
fected by high levels of violence and disorder—even when
equivalent in size, density, and heterogeneity—raises questions
concerning its universal applicability.
Considering the above discussion, in this paper I have tried
to explore how the urban violence has increased in the last few
years, also in this paper I have explained the possible factors for
this growing phenomena.
*This study was supported by the National Council on Science and
Technology (CONACYT), Mé xico CB-2007/83716.
A. K. AC HARYA
Growth and Forms of Urban Violence
Insecurity has become a fact of life across cities in Africa,
Asia, and Latin America. As a result of urban in-migration,
urban areas can be socially, culturally, ethnically, and relig-
iously diverse and some see this as an important contributory
factor in making them at risk of conflict and violence (Beall,
Gua-Khasnobis, and Kanbur, 2010). The broad literature on
social movements and collective action offers a number of in-
sights into how increasing urban population pressure might
transform into political violence. Possible theoretical ap-
proaches range from almost deterministic assumptions about
ethnic hatreds and associated security dilemmas (Horowitz,
1985; Kaufmann, 1996; Posen, 1993, cited by Østby, 2010) via
modernization-based arguments of radicalization of aggrieved,
unemployed youths (Huntington, 1996, cited by Østby, 2010)
to classic theories of structural inequalities and relative depri-
vation (Gurr, 1970, cited by Østby, 2010). Common to all of
these contributions is their attention to the distribution of op-
portunities and privileges among the urban population. Simi-
larly, the mixing of ethnicities and shifting demographic com-
position of urban centers is often cited as a major destabilizing
On the other hand, the link between urbanization and socio-
economic development is rarely disputed. However, in many
developing countries around the world, economic growth has
not resulted in prosperity for all. Poverty has long been recog-
nized as an important risk factor associated with crime and
violence in urban areas (UN Habitat, 2008).
In the coming decades, increasing numbers of cities in de-
veloping countries will have a high proportion of their popula-
tion living in poverty, and will also suffer from severe envi-
ronmental degradation. Poor environmental conditions are most
likely to affect the poor residents in megacities. Although city-
wide violence will have worldwide consequences, raising con-
cerns for regional stability and financial markets, it will more
frequently consist of “the poor preying upon the poor” (Bren-
nan, 1999, cited by Østby, 2010). Assuming that urban socio-
economic deprivation will lead to both grievances and less
opportunity costs for the poor associated with engaging in vio-
While urban violence may be associated with poverty and
other forms of absolute deprivation, it is important to note that
there are many poor communities in cities around the world
where crime levels are low. A more important factor than pov-
erty in affecting urban violence may be inequality. Intra-city
inequalities have risen as the gap between rich and poor has
widened, e.g. as a result of key exclusionary factors relating to
unequal access to employment, education, health and basic
infrastructure. In many developing countries, particularly in
Africa and Asia, the formal employment sector has been unable
to provide adequate jobs for rapidly growing urban populations
(Thomas, 2008, cited by Østby, 2010). Perceptions of declining
living conditions in big cities have been buttressed by literature
that documents substantial and growing inequality within cities
(Brockerhoff & Brennan, 1998, cited by Østby, 2010). The
problem, hence, does not seem to be urbanization per se, but
rather the fact that it has not resulted in more equal resource
Such patterns of urban inequality have provoked ominous vi-
sions of future cities. For example, Massey (1996) argues that
urban inequality entails escalating crime and violence punctu-
ated by sporadic riots and increased terrorism as class tensions
rise. This perspective derives from a rich body of social conflict
theory (often associated with Marx), and from a common idea
that the disadvantaged of large cities will challenge the estab-
lished urban social order violently. It is in relation to basic ur-
ban services that urban inequalities are often most evident, with
poor slum-dwellers paying water vendor up to fifty times more
for clean water than a resident living a stone’s throw away in a
neighborhood which is fully serviced (Beall, Gua-Khasnobis, &
The “ecological” model explains violence as the product of a
combination of factors at different levels—individual, interper-
sonal or relational, institutional or communitarian, structural or
societal (Rosenberg, et al., 2002; Agostini, et al. , 2010).
1. Economic violence
Most of the authors concerned with economic violence agree
that urban inequality and poverty produce unequal access to
economic opportunity and are the significant determinants of
crime and violence (Bourguignon, 1999; Fajnzylber, Loayza, &
Lederman, 2002; Muller, 1985; Agostini, et al., 2010): “due to
frustration and insecurity and the presence of absolute and rela-
tive poverty, the urban poor are forced to resort to crime and
violence…rising expectations and a sense of moral outrage that
some members of society are getting rich while others are de-
nied even the most basic levels of existence has been a well
known source of…discontent in the poorest as well as richest
countries” (Zaidi, 1999; Agostini, et al., 2010).
A further condition for economic violence to occur is the ex-
istence of the informal sector and the discriminatory treatment
of the state and the elite towards it. As De Soto (1989, Agostini,
et al., 2010) outlines, the presence of the informal sector ex-
presses the incapacity of the legal economy and the judicial
system to guarantee to the majority of the population economic
rights and participation. When this is the case, the poor find a
means of gaining livelihood in the illegal economy.
2. Political violence
Political violence contains a wide range of violent outcomes,
one of these is the normalization of violence which requires a
system of norms, values or attitudes which allow, or even
stimulate, the use of violence (Agostini, et al., 2010), and
mainly culminates in a form of state violence. Another form of
political violence perpetrated by the state is the lack of reform
within the police and judiciary or the inability to provide le-
gitimate institutional control over violence. This de-legitimisation
is described in the literature, as it relates to drugs, as what
Dowdney calls ‘narcocracy’ (Winton, 2004; Agostini, et al.,
2010). Drug trafficker left as rulers of poor communities and
low-income neighborhoods, impose their own norms “con-
structing a simulacrum of governmental control” (Pengalese,
2005; Agostini, et al., 2010). The state’s failure in providing
security for the citizenship opens the path to a wide range of
arrangements that are conducive to viol e nce.
3. Social violence
The label “social violence” is used for describing a wide
range of acts, which depending on the perspective taken can
exemplify economic or political violence, as well as social vio-
lence (Winton, 2004; Agostini, et al., 2010). In this vein, forms
of social violence can coexist with, or be motivated by, eco-
nomic violence. This is clear in the case of gangs. Considering
the gang phenomenon from an economic perspective, its eco-
nomic nature is clear, but here it is important to also consider
the social aspect of the phenomenon. Gangs are formed as a
response to social and economic exclusion of youth and repre-
sent an alternative societal membership in communities where
social capital is lacking (Winton, 2004; Rodgers, 2005a, 2006a;
A. K. ACHARYA 179
Trend of Urbanization in Monterrey
Moser & Winton, 2002; Agostini, et al., 2010).
Urbanization in Nuevo León State
The Monterrey Metropolitan Region (MMR) is the third
largest city in Mexico after the Mexico DF and Guadalajara. As
we have seen in earlier discussion; it comprises major part of
the state’s population. In the Table 2 and Figure 2, I have ana-
lyzes the total population of MMR and its share in overall
state’s population. In the year 2005, the Monterrey Metropoli-
tan region had 3.6 million population out of 4.1 million state’s
population (86 percent) and 90 percent of the total state urban
population. This higher concentration of population in one cen-
ter dominates MMR as a Monocentric urban zone in the state.
The larger concentration of urban population in MMR is ac-
companied by an increasing primacy in state as well as in coun-
try because of economic importance.
Nuevo León is one of the most urbanized state in Mexico. In
the year 1930, 41 percent of the state population was living in
urban areas and it reaches to 95 percent in 2005. The state ob-
served its higher urbanization rate during 1950-1970, afte rwar ds
the growth rate has declined due to greater staturation as well as
higher international migration from Mexico to United states of
America as well as in particular from Nuevo León, thus in 2005
the growth rate was only 2.09 percent. In Nuevo León major
part (85 percent) of the state population and 90 percent of the
total state urban population concentrated in Monterrey Metro-
politan Region. Monterrey Metropolitan Region is conform
with 9 out of 51 districts of the state (see Table 1 and Figure 1).
Urbanization process in Nu ev o Le ón s ta te .
Year Total Population Total urban Population Percentage of urban population Growth rate in percentage
1930 417,491 172,175 41.24 -
1950 740,191 416,605 56.28 7.0
1970 1,694,689 1,296,843 76.52 10.56
1990 3,098,736 2,872,967 92.71 6.07
2000 3,834,141 3,605,616 94.03 2.55
2005 4,199,292 3,982,994 94.84 2.09
Source: INEGI, 2010.
Trend of urbanization in Monterrey Metropolit an Region.
Year Total Population Total urban
Population Total population of
MMR Share of population of MMR in
state population Share of population MMR in
state urban population
1930 417,491 172,175 164,210 39.0 95.3
1950 740,191 416,605 389,629 52.6 93.5
1970 1,694,689 1,296,843 1,254,691 74.0 96.7
1990 3,098,736 2,872,967 2,573,527 83.0 89.6
2000 3,834,141 3,605,616 3,243,466 84.6 90.0
2005 4,199,292 3,982,994 3,598,597 86.0 90.1
Source: INEGI, 2010.
Figure 1. Trend of urbanization in Monterrey Metropolit an Region.
Urbanization process in Nuevo Leó n s ta te.
A. K. AC HARYA
The trend of urbanization in MMR cannot be understood
properly without analy zing the spatial dimension of urbanization
and urban growth of the region. As it is describes earlier, the
metropolitan region is conform with nine municipalities of 51,
such as: Monterrey, San Pedro Garza Garcia, San Nicolas de los
Garza, Guadalupe, Santa Catarina, Juarez, General Escobedo,
Apodaca and Garcia. In Table 3, I have presented the trends of
population growth in metropolitan region according to munici-
palities. We can see that in 1930 the total population of the
region was 164,210 and after the 75 years (in 2005) the popula-
tion increases 22 times and reaches to 3,598,597.
Whilst on regional distribution of population, we can see that
during 1930 only municipality of Monterrey had more than 100
thousands population and it was the mostly populated compa-
rable to municipalities of city center and peri-urban region.
After the year 1930, the population in all municipalities started
growing due to economic miracle in the region and today all
municipalities have more than 150 thousands population. For
example municipality of Monterrey has more than 1 million
Growth of Urban Violence in Nuevo León State
The urban violence in Nuevo León has steadily increased
since the President Calderon imposed his plan to combat the
drug trafficking in México. As Nuevo León is border state be-
tween Mexico and United States, it acts as a transit point for
drugs to United States. On the hand, Monterrey is the capital
city of Nuevo León also known as economic capital of Mexico,
received migrants from all over the country. Many migrate to
city in search of an employment and better life style, thus city
has higher socio-especial segregation. Due to higher internal
migration as well as for drug trafficking the cities has become
more violent since last five years. In the following table we can
see that the total number of urban violence registered in the
state was 70,431, whereas in 2009 and 2010 it decline to 62,482
and 66,367 (see Table 4).
Types of urban violence in Nuevo L eó n s ta t e.
Urban violence 2008 2009 2010
Property Robbery 12,425 4677 4373
Theft 3637 3689 5014
Vehicle Robbery 10,936 12,797 15,493
Murder 732 705 1269
Gang violence 1942 1545 1657
Source: Government of Nuevo León, 2011.
Growth of urban violence in Nuev o L e ón s ta t e.
Year Total number of urban violence
Source: Government of Nuevo León, 2011.
Causes of Urban Violence
There is no single cause that leads the urban violence. The
accumulation of risk factors is associated with an increased
tendency of being a victim or a perpetrator of violence. Con-
versely, protective factors can be understood as characteristics
of an individual and his/her environment that strengthen the
capacity to confront stre sses without the use of violence. In the
field of violence prevention, these factors are generally under-
stood within an “ecological model.” Employed predominantly
within the public health approach (WHO, 2002), this model
outlines factors at the individual, interpersonal, community, and
society levels. Most individuals are able to cope with low levels
of risk in positive ways, even while growing up in high-risk
environments (World Bank, 2008; O’Toole, 2002), then the
question arises, why are some individuals able to survive even
in high-risk environments, while others are not? It is mainly
because of accumulation of different risk and protective factors.
Studies in the United States (Sameroff, et al., 1987; Dunst,
1993, in World Bank 2011) suggest that the accumulation of
risk is more influential than the impact of any one risk factor.
Conversely, protective factors accumulate to facilitate healing
and decrease the propensity for violence. Generally speaking,
“risk accumulates; opportunity ameliorates” (Garbarino, 2001,
in World Bank 2011). Much of the evidence on violent behav-
ior points to the importance of a sense of social connection as
an important protective factor against violent behavior.
In this matter, some research indicates that, a child exposed
to violence in her home will look first for refuge in her com-
munity. Indeed, these family experiences can often be mitigated
by positive support at school, community groups, and other
bodies. Studies of the United States (Blum, et al., 2002, in
World Bank 2011) and various countries across Latin America
and the Caribbean (World Bank, 2008) found that the impacts
of exposure to violence in the home can be mitigated by a sense
of social connection to school and/or community. Other studies
in the U.S. have found that a sense of social connection, in-
cluding opportunities for participation in social and economic
life, help protect against violent behavior (Garbarino, 1995;
Benard, 1996, in World Bank 2011).
Studies on protective factors in North America identified 40
different factors, of which half were individual characteristics,
and half were associated with the community and home envi-
ronment (Search Institute, 1998). These findings suggest that
community-level factors are at least as important as individual
level factors in protecting against violent behavior. Access to
employment opportunities often is set forth as a protective fac-
tor against violent behavior. However, in the literature, the
relationship between employment, especially youth employ-
ment, and violence outcomes is inconclusive. One recent study
of unemployment and crime in France over 1990-2000 found a
positive, causal effect of unemployment on property crimes and
drug offenses, yet no effect on rapes, homicides, or other vio-
lent crimes (Fougere, et al., 2009, in World Bank 2011).
Other studies of crime and unemployment generally have
found a positive relationship, but the effect is not always sig-
nificant; and some have found a negative relationship (Chirico,
1987, in World Bank 2011). This distinction is important, as
many programs promote youth employment as a means to
combat both crime and violence. Lamas and Hoffman (2010, in
World Bank 2011) note that unemployment can lead to bore-
dom and depression, which, in turn, are connected to substance
abuse and perpetration of violence. These dynamics have been
documented in qualitative studies (Moser & McIlwaine, 2004,
A. K. ACHARYA 181
in World Bank 2011), and particularly in refugee camps in
various contexts (Benjamin, 1996, in World Bank 2011). It
could be that the type of employment is equally, or even more,
important than the fact of employment itself. In particular, the
type of social connection created by access to employment could
be an important factor. Taking into consideration, in the follow-
ing figures we have identified t he possible key factors as sociated
with the urban violence in Nuevo León (see Table 5).
Urban populations, particularly in developing countries, will
continue to grow over the next decades, and the total urban
population in the world is expected to nearly double over the
next 40 years. Hence, enhancing our knowledge on the deter-
minants of urban disturbances should be given top priority, not
least because citywide violence may have serious global effects,
such as destabilizing worldwide financial markets and destroy-
ing infrastructure, thereby affecting already fragile national
economies, or igniting violence in entire regions. It is estimates
that in the next two decades the urban violence will rise 3 to 5
percent (Rosan, Ruble, & Tulchin, 2000). In the third world
countries and Eastern Europe, the urban violence has increases
and the figures of past few years showing an alarming scenario.
The development of drug related organized crime playing a
major contributor to the level of urban violence especially as
we have observed in the case of Mexico basically in Nuevo
Key factors of urban violence in Nu e vo L e o n s t at e .
Level Key Factors
Engagement in Risky behaviors
(Alcohol, Drugs, sexual behaviors)
Family break down
Negligence of parent
Low access of education
High levels of neighborhood crime and violence
Easy availabil i t y of drugs, a l cohol
(weak governance, weak control of arms and drug
In Nuevo León, the urban violence is dominated by the
crimes against property, which is also account at least half of all
offences in cities all over the world. It also seen that theft, vehi-
cle robbery and murder are the fastest growing crimes in urban
centers of the states. As it is discussed early in the ecological
model, the urban violence in Nuevo León is mainly associated
with the intra-individual inequality as well as inter-group in-
equality, or relative deprivation of rural-to urban migrants com-
pared to the rest of the city population. Studies indicate that
both inter-individual and inter-group inequalities seem to mat-
ter for lethal forms of urban violence. Thus, considering this it
is important that policymakers should aim to facilitate more
equitable access to basic social services among city dwellers.
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