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12 April 2024: First day of survey - read about it in "Criminology and Boxes."

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Crime in Latin America: The role of the state, the labor market, and the family

David R. Goyes and Sveinung Sandberg

University of Oslo, Norway


The Crime in Latin America (CRIMLA) project aims to generate a broad database for analyzing the phenomena of crime and punishment on the continent. A team of more than 40 researchers repeatedly interviewed 420 persons deprived of liberty in Latin American prisons. The interviews, conducted in three sessions per participant, used the life trajectory format in which the questions cover events from childhood, through adolescence and adulthood, to the circumstances of crime and life in prison. One of the central questions the project seeks to answer, based on the nearly 62,000 pages of compiled transcripts, is what is the role of the state, the labor market, and the family in the lives of people currently in prison.

Keywords: Latin America, narrative criminology, repeated interviews, prisons, life trajectory.

Criminology is the social science that studies criminality. To understand criminality, criminology investigates—among other things—the causes of crime, the processes through which a state defines certain behaviors as criminal, the efficiency (or unexpected effects) of responses to criminality, and the characteristics of those who commit crimes (Lomell & Skilbrei, 2017). Criminology was created in Europe (Garland, 2002) and much of its development has been the product of the work of authors in Europe and North America (Carrington et al., 2016). For more than a century, theories about criminality were created in the West (Europe and North America) and imposed on other regions of the world (Agozino, 2003; del Olmo, 1975, 1981; Morrison, 2006).

In Colombia, the lawyers who traveled to Italy in the 1930s to study criminal law brought with them the criminological theories developed by the positivist school (Carrington et al., 2019; Marroquín Grillo & Camacho Flórez, 1985). The Italian school of criminology postulated that criminality is caused by the 'biological atavism' of people: the lack of evolution of some individuals (Ferri, 1907). The positivist theories about crime have been widely falsified (Goring, 1913), but they dominated Colombian criminology—and were even implemented in the Colombian penal code of 1936—until the 1960s (Carrington et al., 2019). A similar phenomenon occurred in all Latin American countries (Goyes & Sozzo, 2023).

The example of how Colombia adopted the theories of the Italian school of criminology demonstrates that the uncritical importation of social theories developed in other contexts is not only scientifically incorrect—as it leads to extrapolating conclusions to different contexts—but also socially counterproductive—as it leads to considering that certain solutions are adequate without knowing what the causes of a problem are—. The causes of crime in Colombia or Latin America are not necessarily the same as those in Europe. The Venezuelan criminologist Rosa del Olmo (1975, p. 23), stated almost five decades ago that 'to develop criminology in Latin America and more concretely to prevent its violence, the first thing that must be done is to know the reality in which one is living'. This means that to adequately respond to criminality it is not enough to know the criminological theories developed in Europe and North America, but it is necessary to develop one's own studies considering the Latin American context and the dynamics of criminality in our continent.

Studying criminality in Latin America is urgent. Since the beginning of the 90s there has been a significant increase in the commission of crimes on the continent (Bergman, 2018; Durán Martínez, 2018). The registered figures of violence and homicides have increased and the states, which were already fragile, have been further weakened by the increase in criminality (OECD, 2019). However, due to the low economic investment in research on the continent (Goyes & Skilbrei, 2023), there has not yet been a macro-project of qualitative research that allows understanding the dynamics of crime and social control in Latin America in an empirical and systematic way.

Crime in Latin America: The Role of the State, the Labor Market, the Family, Culture, and Religion (CRIMLA) is a project funded by the Norwegian Research Council and led by the University of Oslo, Norway, which seeks to deeply understand criminality in Latin America. To do this, researchers in Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, and Honduras interviewed 420 persons deprived of liberty on the continent, inquiring about their life trajectories. In Colombia, CRIMLA had the authorization and support of the National Penitentiary and Prison Institute (INPEC).

Theoretical Framework
CRIMLA uses a longitudinal or life course trajectory perspective to understand why people commit criminalized acts (Blokland & Geest, 2017; Sampson & Laub, 1993). A life trajectory is composed of a sequence of phases, ranging from childhood, through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, to old age. The longitudinal perspective emphasizes that human lives are lived sequentially, which has two main implications: first, the events of a previous phase shape the course of subsequent phases (Becker, 1963); and second, an event has different consequences in a person's life depending on the phase in which they are (Carlsson & Sarnecki, 2016).

Four elements shape the course that life trajectories take (Elder, 1998). First, historical times are the socioeconomic context in which people live. Lives are not lived in a vacuum, but, as Elder explains (p. 2), 'human decisions are dependent upon the opportunities and constraints of social structure and culture', so that the 'opportunity to make certain decisions depends upon the possibilities and limits of the historical moment' (p. 5). Second, the timing of lives indicates the time at which different events occur in a person's life. For example, being a victim of intrafamily violence in childhood greatly increases the probability of committing criminalized acts in adulthood, than being a victim of intrafamily violence in adulthood (Averijk et al., 2016). In what phase of the life trajectory events occur, matters. Third, the concept of linked lives refers to the importance of the interactions that people have throughout the life course. Fourth, human agency underlines that none of the three previous elements entirely determines the trajectory of a life, because human beings have agency. Agency means 'the experience of space for maneuver' in a given context (Todd-Kvam & Todd-Kvam, 2021, p. 918).

Seeing life as a trajectory means perceiving in a fluctuating, dynamic, and mobile way the days that people spend on earth. To capture the flow of developing lives, the longitudinal perspective presents three concepts. Trajectory, as we explained above, is 'the sequence of interconnected events in various spheres of life' (Teruya & Hser, 2010). Transitions refer to short-term changes in stages or roles—for example, getting married or divorced, or getting a first job. Some transitions, but not all, become turning points that generate permanent behavioral changes (Teruya & Hser, 2010).  Examples of turning points are the formation of a family that becomes the person's main social space, getting a stable job that occupies most of the days, or the disintegration of the person's social group so that the influences that the individual receives on a daily basis change (Carlsson & Sarnecki, 2016). The difference between transitions and turning points is that turning points lead to a real change of direction in life, while transitions are circumstantial changes that may or may not lead to directional changes.  

Life course criminology has developed three specific concepts for the moments when life trajectories take a course related to criminalized acts: Onset, persistence, and desistance (McGee & Farrington, 2019). Onset means the moment when the person began to commit criminalized acts; persistence refers to the period of life in which the person continues—consistently—committing crimes; desistance is the moment when the person moves away from criminal acts. The longitudinal perspective indicates that onset, persistence, and desistance in criminality are all part of a fluid process. Committing a first criminal act, for example, is not a coincidence but the product of the person's decisions and the circumstances in which they found themselves prior to committing the act.

The main life trajectory studies in criminology have been developed in the United States (Laub & Sampson, 2011), the United Kingdom (Farrington et al., 2023), and New Zealand (Nguyen & Loughran, 2014). A life trajectory study had never before been developed in Latin America.

Research Method
Between January 2022 and August 2023, a research team, which includes the two authors of this text, interviewed 420 people in seven Latin American countries. The persons who participated as interviewees in the project were chosen for having a final sentence and being in prison for any of the following crimes: sexual crimes, homicide, aggravated theft, kidnapping, drug trafficking. Most of the persons interviewed had committed the crime for which they were selected plus others. The research team visited 29 prisons in the 7 countries. To select the participating persons we used different procedures depending on the institutional possibilities that varied significantly due to the fact that the penitentiary regimes and contexts in Latin America differ significantly (Darke et al., 2021; Sozzo, 2021): in some countries, the institutions in charge of prisons gave us digital lists of the persons inside and from there we chose those who were interviewed. In other countries, we obtained confidential access to the physical files, and by reading the folders we identified the suitable candidates. Finally, other countries do not have a reliable registration system, so we had to go asking, person by person, to know their profile and decide if they adapted to the needs of the study.

Each of the persons was interviewed three times, with a lapse of approximately one week between interview sessions. Each interview session lasted between one and a half and two and a half hours. The interviews used the life trajectory model, which emphasizes the stages of life and the trajectories that result from the sum of these stages. CRIMLA also used a model of repeated interviews not only because they give more time to obtain more information, but because this method has three advantages: it generates trust, allows capturing nuances, and enables greater care towards the participating persons (Goyes & Sandberg, In print, 2023).

The repeated encounters with the interviewees generated more trust in the interviewer, as the time between sessions allowed the relationships to mature; and the more trust there is between interviewee and interviewer, the more the person will reveal about their life and the more empirical material the study will have. Second, the repeated interviews favored finding nuances in the information not only because we obtained more information, but because by having several opportunities to talk about the same event, the people narrated the same episode from various angles, revealing contradictions and ambiguities in the way the person interprets their life. Third, the repeated interviews allowed the ethical care of those who were interviewed. Meeting several times with those who participated in CRIMLA indicated to the interviewees that they are not seen only as a source of information, but as people. The repeated encounters also allowed for emotional and practical follow-up of those who participated. Finally, the repeated encounters made it possible to implement a fluid and continuous informed consent, in which the persons had multiple opportunities to withdraw from the project if they so desired (Todd-Kvam & Goyes, 2023).

CRIMLA obtained approval to store the information from the Norwegian Centre for Research Data. Likewise, CRIMLA obtained ethical approval for the research in each of the seven countries where it interviewed persons deprived of liberty. The Ethics Committee of the Antonio Nariño University endorsed the project in Colombia. All the persons interviewed by the team also obtained an oral and written explanation of the informed consent that contained information about the purpose of the project, the type of questions that would be asked in the interview, and the freedom they had to decide whether or not to participate. All interviews were stored in the secure system Services for Confidential Information (TSD, for its acronym in Norwegian). The interviews were transcribed and anonymized.

Interview Guide and Analysis Process
The interview guide was extensive and included questions about the family of origin, the context in which the person was born, childhood, adolescence, adulthood, circumstances of the crime, practices of violence, perceptions about the victims, legal process, and life in prison. However, participants and interviewers had full freedom to explore other topics not covered by the guide and to tell their stories in the way they wanted.

Once the interviews were transcribed, the research team coded them in the Nvivo program using a codebook with more than 230 nodes. The informed consent model, the interview guide, and the codebook are available on the website

Preliminary Results
CRIMLA finished the fieldwork in August 2023. In total, the team interviewed 420 people, collecting 1260 interview sessions, more than 2500 hours of recording, and about 64,000 pages of transcripts. During the fieldwork, the team wrote methodological articles based on the field diaries and the transcribed interviews. Two of these articles are:

"This is my Story": Why People in Prison Participate in Qualitative Research, written by Martín di Marco and Sveinung Sandberg (2023). The article shows that people see research interviews as a space to (a) heal and improve, (b) vent their emotions, (c) present alternative stories about their life, and (d) aspire to generate individual or systemic change. The grand conclusion of this article is that people who are in prison view being interviewed for a research project in a positive way. The article is available at 

Trust, Nuance, and Care: Advantages and Challenges of Repeat Qualitative Interviews, written by David R. Goyes and Sveinung Sandberg. The article shows that—as we explained on pages 5 and 6—interviewing the same person several times increases trust, allows obtaining more nuanced information, generates reflexivity in participants and interviewers, and facilitates more ethical research. The article will soon appear in the journal Qualitative Research.  

Conclusions and Recommendations
To understand crime in Colombia, it is necessary to be able to collect empirical material in a broad and systematic way. Only this will allow academics to identify patterns in the lives of those people who have committed criminalized acts and who are in prison. As Rosa del Olmo (1975, 1981) said, a prerequisite for preventing delinquency is to understand one's own context. For this, it is essential to have access to the lives of people who have committed criminalized acts. Additionally, broad and systematic empirical studies make it possible to avoid the 'law of small numbers' (Kahneman, 2011) that leads to generating extraordinary findings, since studying few people tends to lead to knowing extreme cases. Studying the lives of hundreds of people who are in prison allows finding patterns—or what is 'normal' to occur in social life.

In the social sciences there is a concern about academic extractivism or 'cognitive pillaging' (Grosfoguel, 2016) in which data is extracted for the benefit of the person leading the research and who gives nothing back to those who provide the information (Cruz & Luke, 2021)—taking resources for their own good without returning any benefit and leaving people more impoverished. However, CRIMLA, based on empirical evidence, has shown that in the prison context people enjoy and benefit from being interviewed because it allows them to vent, build a better image of themselves, and feel that they are contributing to society. More importantly, academic research gives back not only through personal contact with those who participate in the research, but through the findings about the causes of crime.

Agozino, B. (2003). Counter-Colonial Criminology. A Critique of Imperialist Reason. Pluto Press.

Averijk, M., Van Gelder, J.-L., Eisner, M., & Ribeaud, D. (2016). Violence begets violence...but how? A decision-making perspective on the victim-offender overlap. Criminology, 54(2), 282-306.

Becker, H. (1963). Outsiders. Studies in the sociology of deviance. The Free Press.

Bergman, M. (2018). Illegal Drugs, Drug Trafficking and Violence in Latin America. Springer.

Blokland, A., & Geest, V. v. d. (2017). Taking stock of life-course criminology. In A. Blokland & V. v. d. Geest (Eds.), The Routledge International Handbook of Life-Course Criminology (pp. 1-8). Routledge.

Carlsson, C., & Sarnecki, J. (2016). An introduction to life-course criminology. Sage.

Carrington, K., Dixon, B., Fonseca, D., Goyes, D. R., Liu, J., & Zysman, D. (2019). Criminologies of the Global South: Critical Reflections. Critical Criminology, 27(1), 163-189.

Carrington, K., Hogg, R., & Sozzo, M. (2016). Southern Criminology. British Journal of Criminology, 56(1), 1-20.

Cruz, M., & Luke, D. (2021). Methodology and academic extractivism: the neo-colonialism of the British University. In S. Morreira, K. Luckett, S. Kumalo, & M. Ramgotra

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