Small Wars Journal

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Democracy and Security in Latin America: State Capacity and Governance under Stress

Wed, 02/02/2022 - 4:01pm

SWJ El Centro Book Review – Democracy and Security in Latin America: State Capacity and Governance under Stress

Pablo A. Baisotti

This book review is available in Spanish here.


Gabriel Marcella, Orlando J. Pérez, and Brian Fonseca, Eds., Democracy and Security in Latin America: State Capacity and Governance under Stress. New York and London: Routledge, 2021 [ISBN: 978-0367260538, Paperback, Hardcover, and Kindle, 236 pages, 13 b/w illustrations]

The international system depends on sovereign states to uphold their responsibilities for order and security. However, the state capacity of countries (especially in Latin America) oscillates between relative effectiveness and failure to control their national territories (p.1). Technology, globalization and the recent pandemic have multiplied the impact on Latin American states traditionally with few resources, leadership and professional personnel. These issues, especially the last one, added heavy problems including the deepening of the economic crisis and the rise of crime (p. 2).

Democracy and Security in Latin America: State Capacity and Governance under Stress analyzes the capacity of the democratic state in Latin America to effectively provide public security and national defense, historically fundamental issues in the region. The book consists of a collection of academic papers and addresses the nature and scope of state governance in Latin America and the close relationship between security and democracy (especially in times of pandemic). It presents and elaborates on the challenges to governance and some key state institutions such as the police, the courts, the armed forces, and the penitentiary system. To this end, the authors of this work analyzed the various issues from an interdisciplinary approach (historical, political, economic, military, among others).

The editors, Gabriel Marcella (Distinguished Fellow and former Director of the Americas Studies at the US Army War College), Orlando J. Pérez (Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences and Professor of Political Science at the University of North Texas at Dallas), and Brian Fonseca (Director of the Jack D. Gordon Institute for Public Policy at Florida International University’s Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs) are experienced scholars who have written extensively on Latin American security issues, US policy, US-Latin American relations, civil-military relations, among many other vital issues.

The authors consider, in the introduction, that there is a contentious nature to civil-military relations in the various Latin American countries, and concern about over-reliance on the military to safeguard public security, potentially becoming a threat to the democratic community (p. 2). At the time of the pandemic, the region was suffering from a high, diversified and highly dangerous criminality. Latin America is, so to speak, a region of great contrasts and inequalities revolving around the poverty/wealth duality. The authors also point out that in most Latin American countries, the armed forces were reluctant to play a policing role. Although interventions in countries such as Colombia or Brazil should not be underestimated (p. 2).

Democracy and Security in Latin America is divided into two sections:  The first part, Institutions (Chapters 1 to 5), focuses on challenges to governance and key institutions such as the police, the courts, the armed forces and the penitentiary system. The second part, Country Studies (Chapters 6 to 13), illustrates security challenges in country cases and the various means by which the state has addressed them (p. iii). The cases were specially selected to provide an understanding of the most important aspects of security and governance relations.

Part One: Institutions

Chapter 1, “The Crisis of Governance,” Phil Williams explores the crisis of governance (produced by elite behavior, violence and crime, corruption, contested sovereignty and the challenge of non-state armed groups) facing most Latin American countries. He stressed that Latin American states were not failed states, but weak and unable to control illicit transnational criminal networks exacerbated by the pandemic and massive economic dislocation (p. 10). The author concludes by noting that systemic and endemic problems affect governance, and that they intensified during the pandemic. The near future, he predicts, will bring a much greater governance crisis (p. 22).

The process of police reform in Latin America in recent years from a democratic consolidation perspective is examined in Chapter 2, “Policing” by Lucía Dammert. The author argues that insecurity is one of the main problems of Latin American democracies. In the last two decades, all countries have experienced increasing levels of daily violence and the presence of organized crime linked to the consolidation of illegal transnational markets (p. 27). The chapter discusses security threats, a discussion of policing, its institutional characteristics, and its potential reform and future challenges (p. 28).

In “Judicial System” Chapter 3, Mark Ungar studies the strengths and weaknesses of Latin American judiciaries by focusing on three interconnected factors that shape how courts relate to democratic governance: independence, authority and effectiveness, and citizen access. These factors are applied to the three all-important policy areas of corruption, organized crime and the environment (p. 40). Ungar asserts that despite the fact that Latin American constitutions mandate a balance of power among the three branches of government—the executive, legislative and judicial—the executive remains dominant by manipulating, threatening, and undermining the other two branches (p. 40).           

In Chapter 4, “Prisons,” Jonathan D. Rosen reviews some of the general prison trends in Latin America, the most violent region in the world. In particular in El Salvador and Mexico, countries suffering from high levels of crime, with prison systems plagued by chronic overcrowding and widespread human rights abuses. These countries have also implemented strategies to combat organized crime and gangs. The reduction of violence is perhaps the main concern in the continent; hence many politicians introduce the argument of ‘mano dura’ (iron fist) against this phenomenon (p. 54).       

Closing the first section is Chapter 5, “Ministry of Defense and the Armed Forces” by Gabriel Marcella. The author provides a particular view on the role of the armed forces and the ministries of defense in addressing the security challenges of the countries of the region in the context of democratic civil-military relations. It states that the region faces the contradiction of being relatively free of inter-state conflicts and, at the same time, having the highest levels of crime in the world. It warns that the use of armed forces in internal security missions, while often necessary in the short term, poses challenges to civil-military relations and the long-term stability of democratic governance. The urgency was underscored by the deployment of military troops to help deal with the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 (p. 66). He analyzes in particular the cases of Colombia, Brazil and Chile and concludes that meeting the challenges of the 21st century will require a new civil-military coalition for national defense, and for the proper functioning of democratic civil-military relations: control, civilian participation, and societal support (p. 76).

Part Two: Country Cases

The next section that studies national cases beginning with “Colombia: Security Challenges and State Capacity” by Jennifer S. Holmes, and Sheila Amin Gutiérrez de Piñeres. This chapter 6, assesses the effectiveness of the Colombian state in the face of criminality. It states that some areas of the country remain vulnerable, compelling the development and effectiveness of some state organizations (p. 81). Progress against crime has never been completely linear, as challenges remain (continued political violence by groups such as the ELN and BACRIM/neo-paramilitary violence, for example) and ultimate peace, the authors argue, depends on the State being able to reduce insecurity to prevent the emergence of new illegal actors (p. 93).

This is followed by Chapter 7, “Mexico: Dilemma between Democratic Recession and Internal Security,” in which Raúl Benítez Manaut studies the security environment in which the Mexican army and government operate. He argues that the fight against organized crime has become the main mission of the armed forces, within a legal framework that does not favor the success of this mission due to contradictions in the constitutional and legal systems that give advantages to criminal activity. The military, he argues, contributes to security, but not to democratic security. He concludes by commenting on the recent reforms of President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, who reduced the Secretariats of National Defense and the Navy and created the Guardia Nacional (National Guard) (pp. 96, 105).

Luis Bitencourt analyzes the main historical, political and institutional factors that have been shaping Brazil’s sovereignty, governance and civil-military relations in the last three decades in Chapter 8 “Brazil: The Evolution of Civil-Military Relations and Security.” Through a political-historical analysis, some features of the Brazilian Armed Forces are highlighted. The author demonstrates that the military enjoys a very favorable reputation among Brazilians in recent decades, being the most trusted Brazilian institution. Brazilian democracy is seen as a complex mix of relatively sophisticated institutions and a broad legal framework with relatively fragile accountability practices and processes in a society marked by deep inequalities. This article used a ‘checks and balances’ model to consider how the mandate and powers of organizations responsible for national security are legally defined and supported (p. 112).

“Peru: Counterinsurgency and the Rule of Law during Re-democratization” is Chapter 9 by Maiah Jaskoski who addresses military involvement in the internal counterinsurgency mission to eliminate the presence of armed guerrillas. He focuses, in particular, on the performance of the Peruvian army in its fight against the Shining Path guerrillas in the decades following Peru's transition to democracy in 1980. When the army's autonomy was challenged by civilian politicians and the courts in the 2000s, the army refused to eradicate the remnants of Sendero. The chapter analyzes the period 1980–2008, offering insight into political regime types and the army's counterinsurgency performance (p. 128).

In Chapter 10, “Cuba: The Exceptional Case,” Brian Latell explores the changes brought about by Raúl Castro's rise to power and his recent withdrawal. He describes the scope and limits of reforms in a post-Fidel Cuba. He stresses that the prospects for meaningful reform of the repressive one-party political system are remote. Improvement would come, the author comments, with economic liberalization that would allow a new Cuban entrepreneurial middle class to proliferate and accumulate greater wealth. The post-Castro era began in April 2018, when Miguel Díaz-Canel Bermúdez replaced Raúl as president of the Councils of State and Ministers (pp. 145, 155).          

Chapter 11, “Venezuela: The Erosion of Security Capacity,” John Polga-Hecimovich begins by defining and assessing state and security capacity, which is very low. The author considers that the autocratic government has lost its monopoly on the legitimate use of force and cannot effectively control the borders or protect its citizens against organized criminal groups or street crime. This situation was exacerbated since the early 2010s due to the economic collapse. The economic and political crises under the government of Nicolás Maduro (2013-present) weakened the operational power and territorial presence of state security forces, while they have incentivized and empowered non-state organizations (p. 157).

Rut Diamint in Chapter 12, “Argentina: Legality or Disobedience?” studies the transformations of civil-military relations in post-authoritarian Argentina taking into consideration the geostrategic environment and the security challenges faced by the State. She asserts that the military issue was never fully resolved, nor was a redefinition of the role of the military and a reorganization of the police. The author asserts that Argentina, compared to other countries in the region, would advance by enacting defense and democratic policies that safeguarded the rights of citizens by establishing a legal separation between defense and security. Despite excelling in the state’s capacity for civilian control, defense policy directives were relegated in the face of the urgency of various political and economic crises. The Argentine state, he concludes, responds to these risks in an improvised manner (pp. 175, 185).

In Chapter 13, “Chile: A Secure Democracy,” G. Alexander Crowther explores the evolution of Chile's security forces, highlighting the institutional and professional capacity of the armed forces. Chile had a remarkable consensus on what national security looked like until 1973, when the military overthrew Allende and ruled until 1990. Since 1990, everyone thought unanimity had returned. The events of 2019 put an end to that theory and the armed forces and carabineros adapted to the new global strategic environment, although new internal challenges arose recently straining civil-military relations (p. 205).


In their conclusion, Marcella, Perez, and Fonseca note that democratic governance is under attack from several directions. Some of the security problems are old and systemic (corruption, weak institutions, and economic inequality); others stem from these structural deficiencies (high crime, illicit trafficking, weak civil society, and crisis of representation).

The pandemic is possibly the event that will most affect hemispheric security in the short term since it exposes the growing fragility and inadequacy of state capabilities. This could lead to the emergence of populist and authoritarian-leaning leaders (both left and right) undermining democratic governance in the long term. It is quite possible that these potential leaders will look to military institutions for support in governing, and that they will be pushed into non-military missions, including active engagement in domestic politics (p. 209). On the other hand, in many countries of the continent, the police, the penitentiary system, and judicial independence demonstrate a scarcity of resources and capacity to effectively manage the problems of insecurity.

The country case studies (Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Peru and Venezuela) demarcate advances and shortcomings in democratic governance and the security establishment across the region. Overall, though, Latin America experienced significant democratic setbacks in the last decade through the rise of populism, executive authoritarianism, and criminal violence. Hence, the military has been called upon, once again, to play a mediating role as in Peru and Venezuela, becoming potential threats to democratic governance (p. 210).

Final words

This book is an important contribution for any student, professor or researcher interested in the issue of security and its relationship with Latin American democracy. This book could be a reference guide. Democracy and Security in Latin America: State Capacity and Governance under Stress proves to be a valuable contribution to the debate on security, governance and criminality, and could stimulate the debate on these arguments, rekindling it with new questions. Therefore, I consider this work a good exercise to understand the structural and recent challenges at continental, regional and national levels in governance and security, both continually tested by old and new threats. It is a work of an academic nature but accessible reading for all those interested in the above-mentioned topics.

Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Dr. Pablo A. Baisotti received his PhD in Politics, Institutions and History from the University of Bologna School of Political Science in 2015. Before that he received an M.Phil. in International Relations Europe-Latin America from the University of Bologna in 2008 and an M.A. in Law and Economic Integration from the University Paris I Pantheon Sorbonne and the University del Salvador in 2007. He was Fellow Researcher at Sun Yat-sen University in China and a full-time Research Fellow at the Maria Sibylla Merian Center, University of Costa Rica. Currently he is an  Associate Researcher at the Department of Latin American Studies at the University of Brasilia, and External Lecturer at the Institute of Iberian and Ibero-American Studies, Warsaw University. As editor/author he has published more than 20 books on Latin American history, politics, literature and economic policy.



Thu, 02/10/2022 - 4:04am

Stress is an integral part of life. It may arise from a variety of sources while varying in its intensity. The idea is to adopt ways of managing stress which are personally relevant and help optimise health and well-being. Try to understand the situation which may be causing stress. Describe your situation and identify the source(s) of stress. Become more aware of your feelings and accept them rather than pushing them away. Take action towards working on things which lie under your control. This offers a sense of online proofreading service and control. Adopt a problem solving approach which allows you to think about possible solutions to your problems. Connect with others and reach out for support when required. Avoid the use of substance as it contributes to negative impacts on one’s physical and mental health. Adopt positive lifestyle changes like having a routine, setting aside time for self-care, taking care of your sleep and meals along with taking out time for some physical activity.