Gated communities, slums, and the world in between: The case of Quito

You never know when it’s coming”, said our friend Irena. She herself lost one of her best friends in what appears to have been a homicide and once saw a hired assassin shoot a guy in the head right in front of her. It is these kinds of experiences and stories that contribute to the fact that many people in Quito live their lives with a heightened sense of insecurity. In fact, crime is the main public concern in Ecuador and will play a leading part in our portrait of Quito, as the pervasive fear of crime not only determines the way people interact with each other daily, but also shapes the physical environment in which they move around.[1] To reiterate the words of the Ecuadorian architect Carrión Mena: “there is a fear built in the city, but also a city built by fear”.[2]

By using both photography and ethnography, our goal is to depict life in Quito through personal and intimate portraits of Quiteños, and through this, paint an intimate portrait of the city itself. At the same time, one would do reality short by studying a city like Quito with a microscope without having eye for all the outside factors that influence daily life in Ecuador’s capital. Although geographically isolated being situated high up in the mountains, Quito is far from cut off from the world. Globalization, described as the “progressive enmeshment of human communities with each other”[3], has affected the city in myriad ways.

The gated communities, one of the most eye-catching characteristics of Quito when roaming its streets in a taxi, and one of our main objects of study, were imported from the United States in the 1970s, corresponding largely “to the adoption of a globalized lifestyle”.[4] Due to increased global interconnectedness, one can now buy Gouda cheese in the ‘better’ supermarket in Quito, watch Hollywood movies in its cinemas, while staying in contact with friends and family in the United States and Europe through Facebook or Skype.

In fact, being able to fly directly from Amsterdam to Quito in no more than eleven hours might be the ultimate proof of a world, including Ecuador, within reach. At least, for those of us who are lucky enough to be able to pay the expenses involved, or to be able to travel at all. The Ecuadorian girl sitting next to me in the airplane from Amsterdam to Quito was on her way back from a five months language course in the English city of Manchester. Working before as a publicist in Quito, she missed two chances for promotion because of her broken English, as the job required you to “be on the phone with Miami at least once a week”. Being able to speak English well now, she hoped to make the promotion.

Gated community, El Condado, Quito (2014)

Globalization of crime and fear

But as the spreading of gated communities already suggests, there are two sides to globalization. Where globalization has put people increasingly in contact with each other on a global scale, one could argue that exactly the opposite happens on a local scale, be it, the daily contact between fellow citizens. Indeed, the pervasiveness of crime and insecurity in Latin America and the consequent tendency among citizens to withdraw oneself behind walls, cannot be separated from some of the most dominant global processes and trends that have turned ‘local problems into global ones, and vice versa’.

Neoliberalism, arguably the biggest force behind and shaper of globalization, often serves as a symbol for all that is denounced by those critical of globalization – and not without reasons. The global prevalence for free-market policies, coupled with privatization, deregulation and individual responsibilization, has led to a worldwide interconnectedness that not only linked formal local markets to transnational trade flows, but also informal ones, creating the perfect circumstances for transnational crime to thrive in. It is from this perspective that organized crime may be thought of as “the dark side of globalization”. Being situated in between Peru and Colombia, two of the biggest cocaine producers in the world, Ecuador is both an important transit route for drugs on its way to the United States as well as a hub for laundering drug money.

Moreover, developing countries such as Ecuador embracing the neoliberal system not only “opened doors to foreign capital”, as Ecuador’s former president León Febres Cordero put it in the early 1980s[5], but also exacerbated unequal structures of economic, political, and social power. It is this deep social inequality that many see as one of the main producers of insecurity in Latin America. It is no coincidence that Latin America is both the region with the greatest gap between rich and poor in the world and the highest crime rate in the world. Recent developments, however, show that this relationship is far from linear, as the region saw a decline in economic and social inequality in the past decade coupled with rising crime rates – a seeming paradox that has been attributed to i.a. the combination of increasing consumer expectations and tenacious social immobility (stimulating “aspirational crimes”), and the rapid and chaotic expansion of urban settlements.[6]

There is no doubt, however, that Ecuador, with both inclusive economic growth – reducing poverty as well as inequality levels – and some of the lowest crime rates in recent history, belongs to the top of its class. In four years, the number of homicides in the country dropped with an astonishing 42 percent to a homicide rate of 10.8 per 100,000 population[7]; a number that would still put the Netherlands in an immediate state of crisis. President Rafael Correa, who won the 2006 presidential elections with the promise to end “the long and sad night of neoliberalism”[8], seems to have determined the right course for Ecuador as 77 percent of its population in 2013 had the feeling that the country was moving forward – the highest percentage in the whole of Latin America.[9] There might be tense times ahead though, as Latin America’s economic growth seems to have reached a point of slowdown, with possible far-reaching consequences for the region’s newly arrived middle class.[10] With continuous high levels of income inequality and more than 60 percent of the population in informal jobs, Ecuador’s economic advance – although hopeful – seems fragile, just like its newfound relative safeness. These potential dark clouds on the horizon did not stop José Serrano, Ecuador’s Minister of Internal Affairs, recently from expressing the ambition of working towards a country in which all citizens “live without fear”.[11]


Security guard, El Condado, Quito (2014)

He, however, would have to do more than lowering the crime rates in Ecuador to reach this. Due to the global reach and pervasiveness of (electronic) mass media, increasingly permutated by social media, fear itself is globalized in the sense that what happens in other countries may have direct consequences in Ecuador, and the other way around. Crime has become a commodity, in a world that is just as much attracted to danger, as it is wary of it. And just like the disappearance of three year old Madeleine McCann in Portugal a decade ago may have caused mothers in Europe and beyond to keep an extra eye on their offspring for a while, reporting on criminal violence in Colombia, Venezuela, or to keep it closer to our current home, Guayaquil (Ecuador’s biggest city), may directly inject fear into the lives of people in Quito.

At the same time, fear of crime exceeds the issue of crime alone. Chile, the safest country in Latin America, long dealt with one of the highest fears of crime in the region among its population. This seeming remarkability may well be explained by what noted British sociologist Anthony Giddens describes as ontological insecurity: “the confidence most human beings have in the continuity of their self-identity and in the constancy of the surrounding social and material environments of action.”[12] Poverty, economic insecurity, health issues, laborious democratization processes, and crime, to name a few, all contribute to a more general feeling of helplessness among Latin American citizens, which translates itself into a pervasive sense of insecurity.

Gated communities could be considered both a cause and an effect of this insecurity. City-dwellers that can afford it, seclude themselves in walled neighborhoods, where life is ‘compressed’ and risks of being victimized are minimized. However, by living separately from each other, fear of one another only grows. Life in these modern fortresses tends to become a matter of ‘us’ within the walls and ‘them’ outside the enclosure. This residential introversion may become even more preponderant if gated communities consist of houses that are individually fenced-off for security reasons.

Evening walk

A visit to El Condado last week, one of Quito’s largest and richest barrios cerrados (closed neighborhoods), showed us some of the possible consequences for the physical environment of communities ‘lucky enough’ to be able to withdraw themselves from the outside world. Impersonal streets, marked by numbers, with on both sides high walls and thick gates with pieces of broken glass sticking out on top of it, often finished with another meter of electric fence. And behind these security walls, more often than not, barking dogs. No burglar’s dream, and indeed, few thieves try their luck in the neighborhood, as a private security guard told us. The fact that, besides the occasional private security guard passing by, the streets where almost completely empty during our visit, gave the neighborhood an almost post-apocalyptic atmosphere. As Irena told us, no one of her friends (most of them living in gated communities) would ever come up with the idea of going for an evening walk; not within their gated community, and especially not outside of it.

Gated community, El Condado, Quito (2014)

The same can be said for the less privileged barrios in Quito. In Atucucho, a crime-stricken slum built against the flanks of the Pichincha volcano, a neighborhood where I studied lynchings in 2010, few residents left their house after sunset. At night, they declared, the streets were owned by the ladrones, thieves often organized in gangs. Instead of lurking behind heavily securitized walls, danger in this marginalized sector was as real as it could get. The lynchings and other acts of mob justice did not only serve as a punishment for ladrones caught red-handed, but also as a warning for other criminals. In the absence of enclosures, guards and cameras, they were the measures taken to no avail to keep crime out.

But as today’s risk societies prove, crime and other risks do not have to be tangible for them to become “real in their consequences”.[13] This means that the lives of the rich and poor in Ecuador have more in common than one might assume, or that they themselves would admit. Just yesterday an Afro-Ecuadorian lady in Atucucho – a neighborhood that will play an important role in this project as well – told me she believed the poor were more happy than the rich as they have less to lose, giving the example of “scared [rich] white ladies in public transport holding their purses firmly when she passes by.” Meanwhile, she herself seldom goes out at night because of all the crime in her neighborhood. In a world where both crime and fear is globalized but far from equally divided, Latin America seems to have been dealt a poor hand of cards. This makes Quito not the city built by fear, but one of the many out there.

It is this notion that makes our project more than just a case study of Quito. At the same time, we have to put limits on our ambitions, as three months of fieldwork only allows us to study a few barrios of Quito – not enough to give an image of the complete city, let alone of the region and beyond. Our working title, ‘city built by fear’, suggests a rather bleak outlook on how modern cities develop. During our time in Quito, however, it is our goal to stay open for new ideas and points of view. Having already visited Atucucho more than a handful of times in the past three weeks, I could tell that the neighborhood has gone through some changes over the past couple of years, and for the better. The story of Atucucho seems to be one of a barrio that is finding its way up. This will provide more than enough material for a later blog.


[1] Latinobarómetro, 2013. Informe 2013. Santiago de Chile: Corporación Latinobarómetro.

[2] “Hay un miedo construido en la ciudad y también una ciudad construida por el miedo” [Translation TP], see: Carrión Mena, Fernando. 2007. Percepción inseguridad ciudadana. Boletín Ciudad Segura – FLACSO Sede Ecuador, 15, page 1.

[3] Held, David. 2000. The changing contours of political community, in: Richard Ericson and Nico Stehr (eds.), Governing Modern Societies, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, page 42.

[4] Coy, Martin and Pöhler, Martin. 2002. Gated communities in Latin American megacities: Case studies in Brazil and Argentina. Environment & Planning B: Planning & Design, 3, 355-371, page 358.

[5] Krupa, Christopher. 2013. Neoliberal reckoning: Ecuador’s truth commission and the mythopoetics of political violence, in: Mark Goodale and Nancy Postero (eds.), Neoliberalism interrupted, Stanford: Stanford University Press, page 179.

[6] UNDP. 12 November 2013. Citizen insecurity thwarts Latin America’s development, says UNDP, see:

[7] El Tiempo. 7 January 2014. Ecuador redujo homicidios y aumentó decomiso de droga en 2013, see:

[8] Ecuador Inmediato. 9 December 2006. Presidente Ecuador: Superamos la triste noche neoliberal, see:

[9] Latinobarómetro, 2013, ibid.

[10] Moody’s. 2014. Latin America’s middle class growth slows, tempering prospects for retailers, banks and homebuilders. Credit Policy.

[11] El Tiempo. 7 January 2014. Ecuador redujo homicidios y aumentó decomiso de droga en 2013, see:

[12] Giddens, in: Franko Aas, Katja. 2013. Globalization and crime. London: Sage.

[13] Derived from the ‘Thomas theorem’: “If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences”, see: Thomas, William Isaac and Thomas, Dorothy Swain. 1928. The child in America: Behavior problems and programs. New York: Knopf, page 571.

herman kempers - October 6, 2014

Ziet er goed uit, guys !!!

fraaie photography Phelim

Earl - October 7, 2014

Tough life in the barrios… Keep up the good work gents.

Stefan - October 12, 2014

Dat zijn nog eens verhalen en pics, mannen! Klinkt alsof jullie flink aan de weg aan het timmeren zijn! 🙂 Timo, no olvidas la poesia y Phelim, cuidado por las latinas! 😉

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