Using militaries as police in Latin America: A discussion on citizen security and the way forward

On September 8, Brookings Senior Fellow Vanda Felbab-Brown participated in a Center for International Policy and Washington Office on Latin America event, “Using Militaries as Police in Latin America: A Discussion on Citizen Security and the Way Forward.” Felbab-Brown was joined on the panel by Adam Blackwell, secretary for multidimensional security at the Organization of American States; Richard Downie, executive vice president for global strategies at OMNITRU; and Adam Isacson, senior associate for regional security policy at the Washington Office on Latin America. Sarah Kinosian, lead researcher on Latin America at the Center for International Policy, moderated the event.

Felbab-Brown argued that police reform across Latin America over the past two decades has often been at best deficient or has failed outright. The lack of rule of law characterizes many countries in the region, including continually Mexico. Police forces are often not only corrupt, but highly abusive, and both police forces and military forces deployed for policing engage in major human rights violations. Even assumed exemplary experiments, such as the Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora (UPP) approach in Rio, have struggled to execute an effective handover from heavily-armed takeover forces to regular policing.

If governments choose to deploy their militaries in local policing roles, suboptimal as that is, the forces should adopt population-centric strategies, immediately develop concrete handover plans to police forces, and operate under a civilian coordinator. A key requirement for military forces is to respect human rights and due process and diligently prosecute perpetrators. Ultimately both police and military forces need to understand that their role is to protect society.

To some extent, Felbab-Brown argues, the resort to military forces for policing purposes is compounded by the lack of expeditionary police capacity by outside partners and donors, who overwhelmingly tend to deploy military forces for training policing. However, if the United States and outside donors want to make their policing assistance more effective, they should consider developing expeditionary police forces for such training purposes as well as a range of stabilization operations.

The most important factor for security efforts is citizen support. Marginalization, exclusion, and abuse from policing forces—be they police or military ones—have often prevented local populations from cooperating with law enforcement units and buying into rule of law: security or insecurity is co-produced as much as by citizens as by the police or military.