Small Wars Journal

Urban Black Holes

Fri, 09/09/2011 - 12:30pm

In November last year, the Brazilian government deployed armoured vehicles and hundreds of special forces to regain control over the favelas (slums) of Rio de Janeiro. During this offensive, government forces arrested almost 200 gang members and seized large quantities of guns, explosives and drugs. The governor of the Rio de Janeiro state, Sergio Gabral, said that at least 2,000 troops will be permanently stationed in the area as a stabilisation force. Given the ongoing growth and impoverishment of the world’s major cities, this unconventional move on Gabral’s part might well be a harbinger of things to come. We need to come to terms with the notion that state failure will increasingly become an urban phenomenon, as much urbanization and megacity-growth takes place in countries like Pakistan, Congo, Nigeria, India and Bangladesh, where governmental control is already weak or under pressure.

The security threats from urban black holes emanate primarily from criminal organisations and street gangs that emerge as a result of a dynamic that is quite similar to the one that gives rise to warlordism, armed militias and piracy in countries like Yemen and Somalia. With no police around to uphold the law, pressured city-dwellers live in a dog-eat-dog world, where power can be seized by a wide variety of criminal organizations. These organizations should not be seen solely as vehicles for those with strong criminal proclivities. People living in urban black holes turn to or join these organizations for protection and survival. A good example is the street gang. Although street gangs are, of course, criminal organizations, they also serve a protective function in a lawless environment. They offer a form of security to their members, mostly young men, who can count on the protection of their fellow gang members. Gangs typically engage in a wide variety of crimes, ranging from robbing stores and killing their enemies to more elaborate and sophisticated activities like running drug rackets. The scale and degree of professionalism of these criminal activities differ, but in the most extreme cases gangs end up running the areas where they are based. Some gangs even explicitly stake this claim. For example, one of the major criminal organizations of São Paulo is called Primeiro Comando da Capital (First Command of the Capital, PCC). Further, the rise of these actors may trigger the formation of vigilante groups. These groups are set up to protect the population against extortion, robberies and general chaos, but they regularly engage in hate crime.

What makes urban black holes a matter of international security rather than a local law enforcement issue is the spill-over of the criminal activities beyond the urban region where they originate. First, urban black holes facilitate massive drug trade, as can be illustrated by the example of Mara Salvatrucha (Salvadoran Gang, also known as MS-13). This gang started out as a street gang in Los Angeles, but now has its tentacles in Central America and several US states. Evidence found by the Salvadoran police that Mara Salvatrucha leaders who were jailed in El Salvador ordered liquidations of people residing in Virginia illustrates the organization’s transnational nature. Second, urban black holes may fuel other security threats. They offer opportunities for illegal arms trade and recruitment for terrorist organizations. Such collusions between terrorist organizations and criminal gangs are by no means unprecedented. For instance, the D-Company, originally a street gang in Mumbai and now one of the main criminal gangs in India, is widely believed to have been involved in arms deals with Al Qaeda. Criminal gangs may also offer terrorist organizations access to their smuggling routes, which, of course, flourish in the absence of state authority. Third, state failure in urban regions suggests instability and the threat of large-scale violence, which became clear during the 2006 São Paulo riots. In retaliation for the killing of some of their officers, the São Paulo police launched a series of operations to find the perpetrators, but in doing so sparked a major PCC-led rebellion. 141 people were killed in a crisis situation that lasted for four days. In more general terms, urban black holes have reservoirs of violence-prone groups that can exacerbate crisis situations. In times of political or ethnic tension, street gangs may easily be swayed by one of the parties to act as an armed militia.

A radical option to curb urban black holes is an urban version of the ‘traditional’ stabilisation mission carried out in conflict areas, with the operation in Rio serving as a real-world example. The urban stabilisation mission may seem far-fetched, but as the degradation of poor urban areas continues, it may well become a serious option. Dealing with urban black holes will be operationally very different, but strategically quite similar to dealing with rural black holes. On the strategic level, urban black holes require a broad approach, comparable to the one that has been tried and tested in many counterinsurgency operations carried out in zones without state control. In this respect, urban stabilisation missions will be no different, as the main objective should be to show the population that the state is the only actor that provides security. Due to operational difficulties, however, it will not be easy to win this trust. Clashes with street and criminal gangs will be unavoidable, and the density of megacities and the unfamiliarity of the armed forces with the terrain make collateral damage practically unavoidable. Specific training and research & development will be needed to improve security forces’ ability to apply surgical violence. Nevertheless, while countering the threat of urban black holes may pose a need for new tools and skills, it is essentially a new incarnation of an old craft: pacifying the area, building effective governance structures and gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the population. With an increasing number of urban black holes around to spawn monsters like MS-13 and the PCC, we need to be ready to go in and drain the swamp.