HomeNewsAnalysisUngoverned Spaces in the Americas, Part II

Ungoverned Spaces in the Americas, Part II


In the second part of a series on ungoverned spaces in Central and Latin America, Southern Pulse surveys cities in the region where the security forces have been unable to establish full control, allowing criminal gangs to flourish.

A massacre at a bar leaving 20 dead would be news anywhere in Mexico. The fact that it happened in downtown Monterrey made it an instant crisis for the government. One of Mexico's most important cities economically, sections of Monterrey have fallen outside of government control. As major criminal organizations fight over the city, the question of whether the government actually has control over the urban area is at stake.

Monterrey's decline since March 2010 may be the most dramatic example of a trend in Latin America of ungoverned spaces in urban areas. Slums and other neighborhoods are an urban problem throughout the world, but the idea that governments lack control of areas with significant population densities has implications for security, politics and the social contract in general. Transnational criminal organizations have moved into a variety of these spaces, increasing their influence and finding new profit models.

To the north of Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez, Reynosa and Nuevo Laredo exemplify the fears of those in Monterrey. The border cities have had a near complete breakdown of governing in some aspects; in other aspects, they remain normal functioning cities flushed with border zone economies. Ciudad Juarez is perhaps the most infamous, with one of the highest murder rates in the world and Mexican troops patrolling the streets, but is perhaps not the worst of the group. Local government and police in Nuevo Laredo and Reynosa are almost completely under the control of criminal organizations.

Mexico will never be a "failed state" in the sense of other ungoverned countries of the world, but it increasingly faces the question of failed cities.

Mexico's urban problem is in some ways more resolvable than the situation presented by major cities of Central America. Every capital in Central America has barrios with skyrocketing levels of crime. Local drug trafficking and drug consumption, driven by the tendency for transnational criminal organizations to pay street gangs with cocaine, not cash, adds to the finances of the gangs and social order breakdown.

Central America

Each of the capitals in Central America's Northern Triangle -- San Salvador, Tegucigalpa, Guatemala City -- has neighborhoods that are almost completely controlled by youth gangs, organized crime or a combination of the two. Additionally, in Honduras, the city of San Pedro Sula and the port of La Ceiba have significant urban slums that are outside of government control and fit a similar pattern. In Guatemala, the city of Cobán is an exemplary case of how citizen and state operate in a city under criminal control. Many would argue that the Salvadoran city of Santa Ana is only a few years from becoming the next San Pedro Sula or Cobán.

One feature these cities and their neighborhoods share in common is an increase in illegal drug consumption and sales. The Central American corridor is no longer just a transit point for illegal drugs moving from South America to the US. There is an increase in the use of marijuana, cocaine and meth, as well as certain legal drugs and the use of paint and other chemicals to fight hunger, pass the time, or just escape a bleak reality. Criminal organizations control the distribution of many of these drugs. In some cases, the local gangs in urban areas are making higher profits from local drug distribution than the major trafficking of cocaine to the north.

Drug consumption, a social health problem exacerbated by the nature of paying criminal contractors with cocaine, is the underlying reason why Brazil was for many years second only to the United States for cocaine use. It's the same reason why Mexico has today surpassed Brazil as the world's number two.

While Central Ameria's Northern Triangle receives more attention, it's worth considering that Managua, San Jose and Panama City all have rougher sections of town where most people won't enter and where local police have told Southern Pulse investigators that they are not in complete control. The murder and crime rates may not be as high in these neighborhoods as in their counterparts to the north, but the lack of security and government control has citizens in all three capitals nervous. The fall from a once secure environment to the present condition has been more dramatic than any observers expected, especially in Costa Rica.


Not too long ago, any discussion of ungoverned spaces in the cities of the Americas would have started with Medellin. The city was notorious for its drug cartel, paramilitaries and local street gangs who controlled nearly every aspect of life in the city.

In the mid-2000's, the city went through a revival. Violence decreased dramatically, police established stations in neighborhoods where they had never had a presence, and foreign investment increased. The reasons behind the crime decline is subject to intense debate. The government's story is that Medellin finally got its act together, took on the violent groups, pushed them out, and brought in governance. Many critics, however, say the government struck an unwritten deal with a local paramilitary commander, giving his organization control in exchange for peace.

Today, Medellin's security is again starting to devolve. What was once hailed as a major success in restoring government control to an urban ungoverned space may show that short term victories don't necessarily equal long term success. Medellin is still far better than it was in the 1980's and 90's, but various criminal groups are fighting for control. From 2008 to 2009, the city's murder rate nearly doubled.


Perhaps one of the least governed capitals in the Americas is ironically in a country where the leader portrays himself as a modern-day caudillo rolling over government institutions and leading a revolution. While critics complain that the government is overreaching, the fact is that the police and military cannot even enter several barrios just a few miles from the presidential palace.

Caracas under Hugo Chavez has become one of the most violent cities on earth, with murder rates rivaling Ciudad Juarez or San Pedro Sula for the top spot on that notorious list. Kidnapping is endemic and muggings are so common in a number of neighborhoods that every family surveyed knows someone who has been a victim. At one point in 2010, the government instituted rolling blackouts in Caracas to manage their electricity problems, and the thieves instituted an organized rolling wave of robberies to use the lack of lighting and alarms to steal. It was one of the reasons the government relented so quickly to not rationing electricity in the capital.

Exacerbating this problem is the fact the Caracas police force is an institution of corruption. Current and retired police officials have been linked to a significant number of homicides, kidnappings and other crimes, and the numbers of people executed while "resisting arrest" has increased over the past decade.


To the south, Brazil doesn't just face ungoverned territory in the vast tracks of the Amazon and the "wild west" of the tri-border region. Several dozen favelas sit inside the city limits of Rio and São Paulo, which are the two cities that receive the most attention, while festering pools of insecurity grow in Salvador, Recife, and other northern cities.

Local militia leaders, who have spread their control across several favelas in Rio de Janeiro, control many of the neighborhood utility services. Connections to electricity, water or cable came with a "protection tax." Even sewage systems in some neighborhoods were unofficially "privatized" by the local warlord entrepreneur who filled in where the government services lacked. Extortion has never been more thorough.

In the run-up to Brazil's World Cup and Olympics, the country's military and police have been retaking cities, favela by favela, most focused on Rio de Janeiro. The operations, which have been successful in some key urban centers but may have brought unintended consequences in others, have opened a window into just how ungoverned these favelas were.

Brazil's security forces are now trying to create the model of retaking lost urban areas, bringing a "whole government" approach focused on providing all services as soon as possible after police have cleared a neighborhood of gang leaders.

In all of the cases above, the problem isn't simply government neglect or incapacity. Transnational crime actively works to undermine government initiatives and clear out government presence in urban areas. Criminal organizations have implemented a type of counter-counter-insurgency, in which their own "clear, hold and build" strategy works to dislodge the state, hold ground and then build up their own resilient parallel parallel institutions.

This doesn't indicate that the effort to provide governance is hopeless. Indeed, while Colombia and Brazil have seen setbacks, their success is measurable and has improved the lives of people living in the areas where governance has been restored. Citizens want governance, and while they will take gang and criminal leadership over anarchy, most people recognize it is not an ideal solution and a worse alternative to an effective municipal and nation-state government presence. Unfortunately, many municipal, state, and federal governments in Latin America have a hard time discerning between what's effective and what's simply "good enough" - a status quo easily attacked and defeated by criminal groups.

Reprinted with permission from Southern Pulse. Read the original article here.

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