Law Enforcement Actions in Urban Spaces Governed by Violent Non-State Entities: Lessons from Latin America

Executive Summary: In response to a crime epidemic afflicting Latin America since the early 1990s, several countries in the region have resorted to using heavy-force police or military units to physically retake territories de facto controlled by non-State criminal or insurgent groups. After a period of territory control, the heavy forces hand law enforcement functions in the retaken territories to regular police forces, with the hope that the territories and their populations will remain under the control of the state. To a varying degree, intensity, and consistency, Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Jamaica have adopted such policies since the mid-1990s.

During such operations, governments need to pursue two interrelated objectives: 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. From the perspective of law enforcement, such operations entail several critical decisions and junctions, such as:

  • Whether or not to announce the force insertion in advance. The decision trades off the element of surprise and the ability to capture key leaders of the criminal organizations against the ability to minimize civilian casualties and force levels. The latter, however, may allow criminals to go to ground and escape capture. Governments thus must decide whether they merely seek to displace criminal groups to other areas or maximize their decapitation capacity.
  • Intelligence flows rarely come from the population. Often, rival criminal groups arethe best source of intelligence. However, cooperation between the State and such groups that goes beyond using vetted intelligence provided by the groups, such as a State tolerance for militias, compromises the rule-of-law integrity of the State and ultimately can eviscerate even public safety gains.
  • Sustaining security after initial clearing operations is at times even more challenging than conducting the initial operations. Although unlike the heavy forces, traditional police forces, especially if designed as community police, have the capacity to develop trust of the community and ultimately focus on crime prevention, developing such trust often takes a long time.
  • To develop the community’s trust, regular police forces need to conduct frequent on-foot patrols with intensive nonthreatening interactions with the population and minimize the use of force. Moreover, sufficiently robust patrol units need to be placed in designated beats for substantial amount of time, often at least over a year.
  • Establishing oversight mechanisms, including joint police-citizens’ boards, further facilitates building trust in the police among the community.
  • After the disruption of the established criminal order, street crime often significantly rises and both the heavy-force and community-police units often struggle to contain it. The increase in street crime alienates the population of the retaken territory from the state. Thus developing a capacity to address street crime is critical.
  • Moreover, the community police units tend to be vulnerable (especially initially) to efforts by displaced criminals to reoccupy the cleared territories. Losing a cleared territory back to criminal groups is extremely costly in terms of losing any established trust and being able to recover it. Rather than operating on an a priori determined handover schedule, a careful assessment of the relative strength of regular police and the criminal groups post-clearing operations is likely to be a better guide for timing the handover from heavy forces to regular police units.
  • Cleared territories often experience not only a peace dividend, but also a peace deficit –in the rise new serious crime (in addition to street crime).Newly-valuable land and other previously-inaccessible resources can lead to land speculation and forced displacement; various other forms of new crime can also significantly rise. Community police forces often struggle to cope with such crime, especially as it is frequently linked to legal businesses. Such new crime often receives little to no attention in the design of the operations to retake territories from criminal groups. But without developing an effective response to such new crime, the public safety gains of the clearing operations can be altogether lost.