Substitutive Security Governance

Replacing the Functions Gangs Fulfil for their Stakeholders

By Moritz Schuberth, 26 February 2017

moritz-schuberthThe year 2017 started with the news of a series of massacres in prisons across Brazil triggered by power struggles between the country’s two most notorious drug gangs – the Comando Vermelho and the Primeiro Comando da Capital. As these tragic events brought the problem of gang violence once again to international attention, the question of how to best to respond to the challenge posed by criminal gangs has become as relevant as ever. In this post, I will argue for a shift beyond common responses such as coercive mano dura policies and cooperative gang truces towards an integrated approach of substitutive security governance aimed at replacing the functions gangs fulfil for their different stakeholders.

In order to be able to design effective strategies to curb gang violence, it is imperative to understand the drivers behind their proliferation. Drawing on my findings of six months of field research in Haiti, I identified three different factions or ‘stakeholders’ of gangs, meaning different sets of actors for whom violence committed by gangs serves – to varying degrees – a primarily political, economic, or security-related purpose and who have therefore vested interest in their continued existence. As Figure 1 illustrates, I suggest that gangs serve primarily political purposes for their sponsors, fulfil socio-economic functions for their members, and protect their own communities as much as they prey upon them – which is the reason why community members might – at least initially – support their emergence. However, these functional relations and power dynamics between gangs and their stakeholders seem to be ignored by the most common policy responses to gang violence.


Figure 1 – Functions of gangs for different stakeholders

Indeed, standard carrots-and-sticks approaches consisting of mano dura policies and gang truces might exacerbate rather than relieve the challenge posed by gangs in contemporary Latin America. On one hand, mano dura or cero tolerancia policies, characterised by military raids in slums and the mass incarceration of presumed gang members, might strengthen gangs by further alienating marginalised communities from the state and by allowing gangs to position themselves as legitimate defenders of the community against abusive state security forces and foreign intruders. On the other hand, cooperative approaches consisting of the brokering of truces between criminal gangs might equally strengthen gangs by legitimising gang leaders as trustworthy dialogue partners and by granting gangs de facto control over their turf. As a consequence, the most vulnerable communities in many mega cities are caught between state violence fuelled by indiscriminately coercive anti-gang policies and violence from gangs, which have been empowered by cooperative policies.

Hence, as I argue in an article recently published in Stability, it is imperative to move beyond coercive and cooperative approaches vis-à-vis gangs towards what I call substitutive security governance – a comprehensive set of anti-gang policies aimed at replacing the functions gangs fulfil for different stakeholders. More specifically, substitutive security governance aims to replace all three functional dimensions of gangs – the security they provide for their community, the income-generating role they play for their members, and the political function they fulfil for their sponsors. As Figure 2 shows, such a coherent framework for action should focus on breaking the patronage between gangs and their politico-criminal sponsors while simultaneously cutting the ties between gangs and the community.


Figure 2: Integrated framework for substitutive security governance

In concrete terms, an effective framework for substitutive security governance combines elements of Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration (DDR), Armed Violence Reduction and Prevention (AVRP), and Security Sector Reform (SSR). While DDR can facilitate separating gang members from their patrons and reintegrating them into society, AVRP can help dis-incentivising at-risk sections of the population from joining gangs in the first place. Moreover, in order to replace the security function that gangs fulfil for their community, SSR – including police and justice sector reform – helps (re)establish order and the state monopoly over the legitimate use of force. Moreover, SSR can contribute to cutting the ties between gang members and their politico-criminal sponsors by ending the impunity enjoyed by the latter.

As illustrated in Figure 2, DDR programmes are one possible way to break the link between the politico-criminal elite and gangs by dismantling the former command structures and offering former gang members the possibility to give up their arms and start a new life. DDR can therefore be a useful tool to target those who have already joined gangs, even though preconditions for the successful implementation of DDR – such as a peace agreement between clearly defined and centrally organised conflict parties – are often absent in urban contexts. AVRP programmes such as MINUSTAH’s Community Violence Reduction initiative in Haiti, by contrast, try to prevent at-risk youth from joining gangs in the first place. Through the provision of temporary employment, often in the form of cash-for-work projects, AVRP can help sway unemployed youth away from economic opportunities offered by gangs.

Figure 2 above depicts two ways in which SSR can usefully complement DDR and AVRP efforts to cut the links between gangs, their sponsors, and the community. First, SSR can tackle the patron-client relationship between gangs and their politico-criminal sponsors by contributing to end the impunity enjoyed by affluent and influential sections of the population. To this end, assistance can be given to establish special courts or hybrid national/international tribunals to deal with transnational organised crime and to handle politically sensitive cases, as happened with Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity. Second, SSR can strengthen efforts to expand state security provision into areas formerly abandoned by law enforcement agencies in which gangs have temporarily assumed the roles of informal crime control and self-defence. This can be done by enhancing the capacity and legitimacy of police and judiciary through training as well as proximity policing techniques, as exemplified by the Pacifying Police Unit (Unidade de Polícia Pacificadora – UPP) in Rio de Janeiro.

Whereas coercive and cooperative strategies by themselves run the risk of strengthening the legitimacy of gangs while weakening that of the state, they can play a supportive role for the three substitutive strategies of SSR, DDR, and AVRP. Concerning coercive strategies, well-directed interventions by security forces can target exceptionally intractable gangs that cannot be dealt with by cooperative or substitutive means. In this respect, it is of utmost importance that the use of force is restricted in order to avoid civilian casualties. Moreover, cooperative strategies can facilitate safe access to neighbourhoods under the control of gangs so that international agencies can implement substitutive programmes. Still, whenever coercive and cooperative strategies are seen as an inevitable necessity in the short term to stabilise the situation and bring open hostility to an end, it is crucial to switch towards substitutive security governance with the least possible delay.

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