Counterinsurgency as an Approach to Organized Crime in Latin America

Brazilian security services. Photo Credit: Getty Images

By: Yuri Neves, Columnist

The growing complexity and capabilities of criminal organizations in Latin America necessitate a new approach to fight crime in the region. The conditions that give rise to insurgencies, are similar to those that allow organized crime groups to prosper. Furthermore, both entities utilize similar strategies. Therefore, any policy that aims at defeating these groups should utilize counterinsurgency strategies (COIN).

While many have critiqued using counterinsurgency tactics to combat criminal organizations, many of these critiques are misguided or narrowly conceived. Counterinsurgency simply refers to tactics used to combat an enemy that relies upon, and blends in, with the civilian population. So, while counterinsurgency inevitably conjures images of security forces utilizing heavy duty military hardware against masses of populations, this is only one application of COIN doctrine. Using COIN strategies to combat organized crime is not the same as militarizing the police. Rather, it is an appreciation of the political causes of organized crime. Counterinsurgency campaigns can range from a “hearts and minds” approach, in which the focus is on winning the population’s support, to the kind of brutal tactics employed by the Sri Lanka government in their fight against the Tamil Tigers. While insurgencies differ in that they aim to overthrow the existing government, there are enough similarities with criminal organizations to make use of COIN tactics appropriate.

While criminal organizations do not seek to overthrow the state, many seek to create a “para-state” in pursuit of their economic goals. Gangs in Brazil, Mexico, El Salvador and other Latin American countries integrate themselves into the lives of the citizens and take over many of the functions typically reserved for the state. These organizations create crude justice systems, take control of transportation and utility networks, tax residents, and provide security. This not only wins them support from the population but provides them with additional sources of revenue.[i] These tactics also serve to ingratiate citizens to the gangs, which provide the employment, security and services that the government has failed to. This makes it difficult for security services to obtain information or operate within these environments. Similarly, to many insurgencies, the gangs also threaten harsh reprisals against those working against them. The Comando Vermelho in Rio de Janeiro is infamous for its use of the microondas, a tactic whereby an individual is placed within a stack of tires and then set on fire. Such acts ensure the silence of citizens in opposition to the group.[ii] These two strategies exemplify the reasons why individuals join criminal organizations and insurgencies alike.

Many of the causes that give rise to insurgencies: oppression, perceived inequality, political marginalization, security concerns, are the same that motivate citizens to join criminal organizations. Citizens in poor communities in Latin America feel apathetic and disdainful of a government that not only has failed to give them a voice, but consistently fails to protect them. Criminal gangs provide citizens with employment, prestige and status and a way to rebel against a system that they see as oppressive. The state further fails by failing to secure the vulnerable populations from predation by the gangs. Many of the refugees fleeing Central America cite fear of recruitment to the gangs as a major cause.[iii] Citizens are forcibly recruited into Latin American gangs in the same way that individuals are forced to join insurgencies in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Sierra Leone and elsewhere. COIN strategies seek to secure the population and simultaneously prevent them from being a resource to the insurgents. These same strategies are necessary to combat the powerful criminal organizations that exist in Latin America.

Attempts at utilizing counterinsurgency strategies against criminal gangs have already demonstrated some success. Police in Springfield, Massachusetts implemented a policing strategy that drew heavily on many police officers’ experiences fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. The strategy focused on working with local community leaders to address grievances, shifting away from tough on crime policing, building trust within the community, and gaining information about the criminal gangs operating in the neighborhood. The approach yielded dividends, as arrests went up while the crime rate declined.[iv] Critics would point to other such programs that failed, in order to discredit the COIN approach to fighting crime.

One such case is the Unidades de Policia Pacificadora (UPP) program in Rio de Janeiro. The program focused on clearing out favelas controlled by the gangs and posting a permanent police presence. The strategy had some initial successes and from 2011 to 2016 the murder rate in “pacified” communities dropped to 1/9th of their original number.[v] The program continues but has failed to achieve its full potential because it ultimately only embraced the security side of COIN. As the gangs were driven out, the services that they had been providing were not taken over by the state, undercutting the legitimacy of the UPP.[vi] Citizens have not been consulted on the program and are beginning to view the police as just another force seeking to control them, rather than as an entity fighting to keep them safe. This failure is indicative of many past approaches of using COIN strategies to combat crime. All the kinetic methods are heavily emphasized, while the political and social programs necessary to ensure lasting peace are sidelined. Nevertheless, this does not discredit the approach entirely and aspects of COIN could be utilized to combat the criminal organizations currently plaguing large parts of Latin America. Detractors of this approach would also point to the heavy financial and time commitment necessary in an enduring counterinsurgency strategy. Counterinsurgency certainly requires a long-term investment, but previous strategies have also been costly yet failed to significantly reduce violent crime. Over the last two decades, crime in Brazil has cost the nation $1.937 trillion dollars and the violence has only worsened.[vii] In 2015 there were more violent deaths in Brazil than in war-torn Syria and the number has only continued to rise.[viii] It is clear that a new approach is needed and utilizing tested counterinsurgency methods can help countries in Latin America combat the powerful criminal organizations responsible for such violence.


[i] Cruz, Claudio Ramos Da, and David H. Ucko. “Beyond the Unidades De Polícia Pacificadora: Countering Comando Vermelho’s Criminal Insurgency.” Small Wars & Insurgencies29, no. 1 (2017): 38-67. Accessed April 19, 2019. doi:10.1080/09592318.2018.1404772. Pg. 46

[ii] “Beyond the Unidades De Polícia Pacificadora” Pg. 49

[iii] “Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle.” Council on Foreign Relations. Accessed April 20, 2019.

[iv] Maeda, Wendy. “Harvard Team Analyzes Springfield Policing Effort Inspired by Military Counterinsurgency Tactics – The Boston Globe.” August 20, 2012. Accessed April 20, 2019.

[v] “Beyond the Unidades De Polícia Pacificadora” Pg. 51

[vi] “Beyond the Unidades De Polícia Pacificadora” Pg. 57

[vii] Londono, Ernesto, and Lis Moriconi. “Brazil’s Spending on Public Safety Soared. So Did Violence.” The New York Times. June 11, 2018. Accessed April 19, 2019.

[viii] Worley, Will. “Brazil Saw ‘more Deaths from Violence in 2015 than Syria’.” The Independent. October 29, 2016. Accessed April 20, 2019.

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