Yes, Megan, There Are Enclaves of State Failure

I should preface this post by saying that I am a fan of Megan McArdle’s blog. I think she writes well, and I generally find what she has to say interesting, and intelligent, even though I don’t always agree with her. (I don’t always agree with anyone, which is why it’s good that I have my own blog.) I certainly don’t think I’ve ever had an occasion to describe her as “spectacularly uninformed” before.

So I won’t describe her that way now, and will instead take her recent post about the efforts of Rio De Janeiro’s police to reclaim (well, claim) control of the city’s favelas as a reminder that other people aren’t as obsessed with criminal violence and state failure as I am:

“I’m skeptical that the issue is inequality, if only because there have been a lot of very unequal countries in history but not many where the police effectively ceded large chunks of territory to the rule of violent gangs–I’m struggling to think of any after Sherwood Forest, but that’s undoubtedly a product of my limited historical knowledge.”

Um. Well. Yeah, I guess it is.

I’m struggling to think of any country in history where the police haven’t ever effectively ceded large chunks of territory to violent criminal gangs. (Frankly, the list of places where they aren’t doing that at the moment is pretty short.)

There’s certainly no need to stretch as far back as Sherwood Forest to find other examples. If we just jump in the car and start driving south, the hits will keep on coming. Ciudad Juarez, Mexico. Guatemala City, Guatemala. San Salvador, El Salvador. Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Kingston, Jamaica, (if we feel like going for a swim). Colombia has made great strides recently, but it’s still hardly a beacon of state-presence. And its historical record is not good – for instance, the “el Caguan” demilitarized zone that the Pastrana government ceded to the FARC in 1999 was more than 40,000 hectares. (Fun trivia: that would make the DMZ roughly the same size as the largest estimate I’ve seen of the size of Sherwood Forest back in Robin Hood’s day.)

This really shouldn’t be surprising. The role that police play in the United States just isn’t the role that they play in much of the rest of the world.

In wealthy, developed countries, we expect the police to enforce laws, investigate crimes, and come when someone calls for help. But in places without the rule of law – where the state doesn’t have a monopoly on violence, and the state’s use of violence isn’t constrained by law – that’s just not the role they play. There, the police are just another group that uses violence on behalf of the powerful. They’re not much different from death squads. (Often, when their shifts end, they’re not different at all.) So really, it’s inaccurate to talk about those states “ceding” territory to criminal gangs’ day-to-day rule, because the state was never in the business of day-to-day rule in those areas in the first place.

For some reason, this issue gets almost no attention when we talk about things like foreign policy, or economic development. Kate and I have taken to referring to this as “police blindness” – the phenomenon of otherwise-smart people never thinking critically about policing, even when analyzing issues directly related to it. (Crime, corruption, violence against women, etc.) Perhaps it’s because there is no MDG for freedom from crime and violence? (Or perhaps because NGOs aren’t exactly lining up to advocate for the interests of cops moonlighting as death-squadders…)

Amanda Taub


  1. It is a VERY under examined issue, especially as it touches on the essence of what the state is and who it serves. And of course to your list of Latin American countries you add a fair few African cities too (although, funnily enough, the authoritarian ones like Ethiopia have safer cities… perhaps they're all in government positions.)

    NGO wise there's this one:

    And DFID in the UK recently stated that security should be seen as a basic right, which includes policing.

    So I guess it is an issue starting to be looked at, but slowly…

  2. The U.S. does it to some degree as well. There are unofficial fault lines separating 'good' and 'bad' areas in our cities. The police tolerate some activities in the bad areas and treat any stepping outside of those invisible lines as trespassing.

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