From Mexico to Honduras to Ecuador, Latin American societies are increasingly buffeted by the complex threat of violent criminality – from street gangs to transnational organized crime – and their governments are today mounting highly militarized responses to the challenge. A new Brookings Institution report by Vanda Felbab-Brown (entitled “Bringing the State to the Slum: Confronting Organized Crime and Urban Violence in Latin America”) explores this challenge, gathering lessons learned for law enforcement and policymakers.

The report focuses on military-type actions intended to ‘retake’ slums from criminal or insurgent groups that have replaced government rule in such spaces. In essence, the report applies counterinsurgency doctrine to some of the key non-war zones of the ‘urban century’ in a three part strategy. First, Felbab-Brown explores the many practical dilemmas of using military force in a ‘clearing’ operation designed to take back territory and arrest key criminals in what is often a war-like armed confrontation. Second, clearing operations must be followed by long-term initiatives to replace criminal structures with state-based security and justice provision that respond to the needs of the community. She emphasizes community policing and a highly visible police presence as keys to winning hearts and minds in the urban periphery. Finally, the report emphasizes the imperative of long-term and comprehensive economic development to address all structural drivers of illegal production and provide viable legal livelihood opportunities. Ultimately these three prongs aim “to better establish the state’s physical presence and to realign the allegiance of the population in those areas toward the state and away from the non-state criminal entities.”

The many practical issues raised by Felbab-Brown have significant implications for security governance and security sector reform. In particular she highlights the threat posed by the deployment of soldiers to human rights and civil liberties in Latin American societies. Indeed, amidst a history of brutal civil wars, state sponsored repression and military dictatorship throughout the region, one of the chief SSR goals in pursuit of peace and democracy is to reduce if not eliminate the internal security role of the armed forces. Such a complex threat as violent criminality, however, creates the temptation to reverse this trend. In any case, it remains unclear just how the security sectors of Latin American countries can effectively respond to this growing challenge, especially without sacrificing human rights and democracy on the alter of security.

The recent focus on fiscal sustainability within the SSR literature also provides a potential area for further research on the challenges and strategy proposed by the report. A key imperative for security sector reform is to design actions that a government can maintain over the long-term in order to have a lasting impact. To some extent, a strategy of ‘bringing the state to the slum’ may simply restate the problem: slum areas, even when ‘secure’, are unlikely to generate the tax revenues or hold the political interest necessary to sustain pervasive, effective and responsive security and justice services or the long-term development plans necessary to build communities’ allegiances and address all the structural drivers of criminality. The underlying problem in many Latin American societies is that the state simply does not have the resources to provide security, justice and welfare to many segments of the population, who then turn to informal and criminal means of livelihood and the alternative authorities that facilitate and tax such practices.

Such a political-economy perspective in an era of fiscal austerity offers a potential next step for research on the growing security threat of violent criminality. Two important questions stand out: If the state is incapable of providing development and communities turn to criminality instead, what are the security forces to do? If militarized approaches only escalate insecurity, or temporarily restore state rule before political attention and state resources are focused elsewhere, is this a worthwhile strategy?