The Challenge of Replacing Organized Crime with Governance

Governments are struggling to move into gang-dominated slums in the cities of Latin America

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Reuters

Largely dominated by drug gangs, the slums and favelas of cities like Medellin, Ciudad Juarez or Rio de Janeiro are often beyond the reach and control of the formal government. In efforts to relinquish power from these gangs, these cities are increasingly staging interventions, often in the form of militarized police invasions. But even after such actions, officials struggle to integrate slums into the formal city.

The trouble often lies in the fact that the government has never been a part of these areas. A recent report from the Brookings Institution explores how government entities have been ineffective at entering these informal parts of the city, and how they might be able to change their approach.

“Many of these urban spaces are growing up extremely quickly without any oversight management by the state -- and often extremely problematically with the state not really being capable of delivering any public goods in vast segments of the city,” says Vanda Felbab-Brown, author of the report.

She’s been researching the role of governments in Latin American cities as they try to come up against the organized criminal groups that control slums. Her research has shown that normal government services are typically absent in these informal neighborhoods.

“Many cities in Latin America are in this shape, and often it is criminal groups that move into the void and start providing a variety of social and public goods,” Felbab-Brown says.

It’s a paradoxical situation in many of these areas. The drug lords and ruling gangs offer security and social goods to populations that are economically, socially and politically marginalized. Some of the gangs in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro provide handouts to locals, and even help resolve disputes with informal court systems. But they also keep control of the neighborhood through violence and crime. This is less than optimal, says Felbab-Brown, but it’s in some ways better than nothing, which in many cases is what the governments have provided these areas.

“These groups have the capacity to outcompete the state in those marginalized urban spaces in the delivery of public goods,” she says, “and as a result they have the capacity to rule those areas, not only through force but also through social assistance.”

And because of this provision of services and social systems, the idea of the government coming in to replace these systems is not an especially easy sell. Felbab-Brown says that even if local residents want the drug gangs out, there’s been little historical evidence that the government will be able to provide the services and social goods currently offered by the gangs. And the methods governments have used to reintegrate themselves into these marginalized areas haven’t exactly been the smoothest.

“Often the experience that people will have in such areas with the state is solely of the state coming in to do raids and killing all the people,” Felbab-Brown says.

This was the case last November in Rio de Janeiro, when heavily armed police forces raided one of the city’s favelas, leaving more than 40 dead. Felbab-Brown argues that solely using law enforcement to re-integrate the state into these areas creates an antagonistic environment that doesn’t fill the needs of local residents.

“Bringing the state to these areas requires a far more multifaceted focus on other manifestations of the state presence, such as the delivery of a justice system, a capacity to adjudicate disputes, a capacity to suppress street crime, as well as the delivery of social goods that are missing, like schools, infrastructure, the internet,” Felbab-Brown says.

Though costly, bringing in infrastructural elements can be relatively easy, says Felbab-Brown. Much harder is creating the jobs that can sustain the local economy as it shifts towards formality.

“To bring jobs in takes years,” she says. But the lifespan of police interventions into slums and favelas is often too short to bring about enough stability to lure and incubate businesses in these areas.

Another problem is spreading limited resources too thin. Felbab-Brown says that the approach to re-integrating the state can be too far-reaching to have any significant effect at any one location.

“Ideally the state would be able to engage comprehensively in multiple areas,” Felbab-Brown says. “But that’s often just not the option because the resources just are not there. The political resources are not there, the economic resources are not there.”

She argues that governments need to take a more comprehensive approach to providing the services and security that neighborhoods need to establish themselves, and to invest the time and focused energy from across multiple governmental silos to create stability.

“The politicians need to be willing to exercise leadership, and they need to be willing to explain why concentrating resources is necessary,” Felbab-Brown says. “But I think it needs to be coupled with some credible plan of saying that after success is achieved, the area will be expanding in other cities or other slums that qualify and other slums will then also then also be subject to this positive treatment. If we do it in one place and nowhere else then it will have no political traction at all.”

If the governments of cities and countries with crime-dominated slums want to effect positive change in these places, they’ll need to take a longer-term view of the needs of the neighborhood, says Felbab-Brown. By merely rolling in with guns blazing and no plan to keep the piece after the bullets stop flying, one form of lawlessness and economic despair will simply be replaced with another.

Photo credit: Ricardo Moraes / Reuters

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.