[News] The Militarization of the World's Urban Peripheries

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Fri Feb 15 11:16:04 EST 2008

The Militarization of the World's Urban Peripheries
Written by Raúl Zibechi
Wednesday, 13 February 2008

Source: <http://americas.irc-online.org/am/4954>Americas Program

Urban peripheries in Third World countries have 
become war zones where states attempt to maintain 
order based on the establishment of a sort of 
"sanitary cordon" to keep the poor isolated from "normal" society.

"Army sources confirmed that techniques employed 
in the occupation of the Morro da Providéncia 
favela [slum] are the ones Brazilian soldiers use 
in the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Haiti."1

This admission by Brazilian armed forces largely 
explains the interest of Lula da Silva's 
government in keeping that country's troops on 
the Caribbean island: to test, in the poor 
neighborhoods of Haiti's capital, Port-au-Prince, 
containment strategies designed for application 
in the slums of Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, and other large cities.

But the news published by the daily Estadão de 
São Paulo goes farther in revealing the 
military's modus operandi. The commander of the 
9th Motorized Infantry Brigade in Haiti, William 
Soares, directed the occupation of Morro da 
Providéncia by 200 soldiers, who installed 
machineguns on "the community's only plaza, 
transformed into a military base," which were 
later withdrawn in order to facilitate a dialogue 
with the population. In the meeting with the 
Residents Association [Asociación de Pobladores], 
General Soares "promised projects, a Christmas 
party with gifts for the children, a vacation 
camp, film screenings, medical, and sanitation assistance."

According to the newspaper, "in exchange, the 
Army is gathering information on the slum and its 
inhabitants. Soldiers filmed and photographed the 
meeting and the entire troop deployment." General 
Soares made all those promises in order to 
"diffuse the revolt by community leaders against 
the social project programmed for the slum."

Urban Poor as a Threat

Urban theorist Mike Davis analyzes urban 
peripheral areas in terms of a commitment to 
social change. A single sentence synthesizes his 
analysis: "It's the slum peripheries of poor 
Third World cities that have become a decisive 
geopolitical space."2 He asserts that Pentagon 
strategists are lending great importance to urban 
planning theory and architecture, since the 
peripheries are "one of the most challenging 
terrains for future wars and other imperialist projects."

In fact, a study by the United Nations estimates 
that one billion people live in peripheral 
neighborhoods outside Third World cities and that 
the poor in the largest cities in the world 
number some two billion, that is, a third of all 
human beings. These statistics will double within 
the next 15 or 20 years, and "all future growth 
of the world's population will occur in cities, 
95% of it in cities of the Global South and the majority in slums."3

The situation is much more serious than the 
numbers indicate: urbanization, as Davis 
explains, has become disconnected and autonomous 
from industrialization as well as from economic 
development, which implies the "structural and 
permanent disconnection of so many city dwellers 
from the formal world economy." On the other 
hand, he notes that, "over the last decade ... 
the poor­and not just the poor in classical urban 
neighborhoods [with high levels of 
organization]­but ... this new poor, on the 
fringes of the city, have begun organizing 
themselves massively ... whether that's Sadr, in 
Iraq, or an equivalent slum-based social movement in Buenos Aires."4

In Latin America the main challenges to elite 
domination have arisen in the heart of poor urban 
areas­from the 1989 "Caracazo" riots to the 
Oaxaca Commune in 2006. Proof of this are the 
popular uprisings in Asunción in March 1999, 
Quito in February 1997 and January 2000, Lima and 
Cochabamba in April 2000, Buenos Aires in 
February 2003, and El Alto in October 2003, just 
to name the most relevant cases.

Even more, urban peripheries are spaces from 
which subaltern groups have launched the most 
formidable challenges to the system, becoming a 
sort of popular counter-powers. Davis is right: 
control of the urban poor is the most important 
objective planned by governments, global 
financial organisms, and the armed forces of the most important countries.

Many large Latin American cities seem to border 
at times on social explosion, and several have 
erupted over the past two decades for various 
reasons. Fear among the powerful appears to point 
in two directions: postpone or make unviable the 
explosion or insurrection, and, also, avoid the 
consolidation of those "black holes" outside 
state control, where the main challenges to the elites occur.

New Military Strategies

In recent years, publications on military thought 
as well as analyses by financial organisms have 
dedicated ample space to challenges presented by 
gangs and to debates on new problems arising from 
urban war. The concepts of "asymmetrical war" and 
"fourth generation war" are responses to problems 
identical to those created by Third World urban 
peripheries: the birth of a new type of warfare 
against non-state enemies, in which military 
superiority does not play a decisive role.

William S. Lind, director of the Center for 
Cultural Conservatism of the Free Congress 
Foundation, asserts that the state has lost its 
monopoly on war and elites feel that "dangers" 
are multiplying. "Almost everywhere, the state is 
losing."5 Despite supporting pull-out from Iraq 
as soon as possible, Lind defends "total war," 
which engages enemies on all fronts: economic, 
cultural, social, political, communications, and also military.

A good example of this full-spectrum war is his 
belief that the dangers for United States 
hegemony lie in all aspects of daily life, or, if 
you prefer, in life itself. For example, he 
believes that "in Fourth Generation War, invasion 
by immigration can be at least as dangerous as 
invasion by a state army." New problems rooted in 
the "universal crisis of the legitimacy of the 
state" have "non-state enemies" at the center. 
This leads him to conclude with a double warning 
to military leaders: no state military has 
succeeded against a non-state enemy.

This problem is at the heart of new military 
modalities of thinking, which must be completely 
reformulated to face challenges that used to 
correspond to "civilian" areas of the state 
apparatus. Militarization of society in order to 
regain control of urban peripheries is not 
enough, as revealed in recent military experience in the Third World.

Military commanders deployed in Iraq seem to be 
clearly aware of the problems they must face. 
Cavalry Division Commander General Peter W. 
Chiarelli, based on his recent experience on the 
outskirts of Baghdad in Sadr City, maintains that 
security is the long-term objective, but it will 
not be achieved through military action alone. 
"Executing traditionally focused combat 
operations ... works, but only for the short 
term. In the long term, doing so hinders true 
progress and, in reality, promotes the growth of 
insurgent forces working against campaign objectives."6

This implies that the two traditional armed 
forces lines of operation­combat and the training 
of local security forces­are insufficient. 
Therefore, three "nontraditional" lines of 
operation should be undertaken; ones that 
previously corresponded to the government and 
civil society: essential services provided to the 
population, building a legitimate government, and 
empowering "economic pluralism," that is, a market economy.

With infrastructure repair projects they attempt 
to improve the situation of the poorest sector of 
the population and, at the same time, create 
employment opportunities to send visible signs of 
progress. In the second place, creating a 
"democratic" regime is considered an essential 
point for legitimizing the whole process. For 
United States commanders in Iraq, the "point of 
penetration" of their troops occurred with the 
Jan. 30, 2005 elections. In strategic thought 
democracy was reduced to producing a vote.

Finally, the recruitment ability of the 
insurgents can be reduced through the expansion 
of market logic, "by 'gentrifying' city centers 
and creating business parks," that become a 
dynamic sector stimulating the rest of society.7 
 From then on, the poor population in urban 
peripheries becomes, in military jargon, "the 
strategic and operational center of gravity."

This combination of mechanisms is what the major 
global powers' armed forces today consider the 
means to achieve "true long-term security." In 
this way, "democracy," expansion of services, and 
a market economy will cease being citizens' 
rights or morally desirable objectives and become 
gears in a strategy of military control over a 
population or a region of the world and, of course, its resources.

Security and Cooperation: Two Faces of a Strategy

Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, 
the United States Agency for International 
Development (USAID) "has played an increasingly 
prominent role in the War on Terrorism."8 U.S. 
development programs are not directed toward the 
population that most needs them, but rather to 
the most "at-risk populations and regions," according to Pentagon strategy.

For military strategists like U.S. Army Colonel 
(Ret.) Thomas Baltazar, USAID programs "can play 
a crucial role in denying terrorists sanctuary 
and financing by diminishing the underlying 
conditions that cause local populations to become 
vulnerable to terrorist recruitment. Moreover, 
USAID programs directed at strengthening 
effective and legitimate governance are 
recognized as key tools with which to address counterinsurgency."

The Pentagon's strategy is to assure security for 
the United States, and to this end, it uses 
"democracy" and "development assistance" as 
complements to military operations. The U.S. 
National Security Strategy maintains that 
"development reinforces diplomacy and defense, 
reducing long-term threats to our national 
security by helping to build stable, prosperous, and peaceful societies."9

It seems necessary to emphasize that 
international cooperation, development aid, and 
the war against poverty­some of the favorite 
slogans of the World Bank and other financial 
agencies­are merely strategies to control and 
subordinate the population that is "potentially" 
rebellious or resistant to the objectives of U.S. 
multinationals. The Pentagon's analysis of 
African reality, according to Colonel Baltazar, 
identified "the causes of extremism," 
highlighting among others the existence of "large 
marginalized and/or disenfranchised populations, 
and exclusion from political processes, as key 
causes of instability in the region."

Electoral democracy and development are necessary 
to prevent terrorism, but they are not objectives 
in and of themselves. In countries with weak 
states and high concentrations of urban poor, the 
armed forces move to take the place of the 
sovereign government, reconstruct the state, and 
in a totally vertical and authoritarian manner, 
initiate mechanisms to assure the continuation of domination.

In Iraq, these policies have their obverse and 
complement in the building of large walls to 
separate neighborhoods in Baghdad. According to 
writer and Arab expert Santiago Alba Rico, the 
construction of walls in 10 neighborhoods in the 
Iraq capital is intended to turn each into "an 
armored closet whose inhabitants are filed away 
or abandoned in locked drawers and sealed enclosures."10

The logic is simple: "Neighborhoods that have not 
been crushed militarily are walled, enclosed, and 
abandoned to their luck. Complete areas of the 
city have been demarcated and segregated with 
inhabitants confined inside, subjected to entry 
and exit controls so ironclad that we can speak 
without hesitation of a ghetto policy."

Other parts of the world are not lacking in 
cement walls to isolate and separate peripheral 
neighborhoods. Symbolic walls are fabricated 
according to differences in color, dress, and 
ways of occupying space. But the results and 
objectives are identical. Control 
mechanisms­whether dressed in military garb, or 
as NGOs for development, or promoting market 
economy and electoral democracy­are interlaced 
and, in extreme cases like the suburbs of 
Baghdad, the slums of Rio de Janeiro, or the 
shanty towns of Port-au-Prince, they are subordinated to military planning.

In Brazil, to give just one example, different 
forms of control are simultaneously applied: the 
"Zero Hunger" government plan is compatible with 
the militarization of the slums.

In his reflection on Nazism in "On the Concept of 
History," German writer Walter Benjamin declared 
that "the tradition of the oppressed teaches us 
that the state of exception in which we live is 
the rule." United States policy since the attacks 
of Sept. 11, 2001, fits the concept of a "state 
of permanent exception." The "state of 
exception," which suspends civil rights and 
militarizes areas and complete nations, is 
applied in an indiscriminate way to different 
situations and for different reasons, from 
internal political problems to external threats, 
from an economic emergency to a natural disaster.

In effect, the state of exception was applied in 
situations such as the Argentine 
economic-financial crisis that burst into a broad 
social movement in December 2001, the response to 
Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and the 
containment of the rebellion by poor immigrants 
in the peripheries of French cities in 2005. The 
common thread, beyond circumstances and 
countries, is that in every case it is applied in 
order to contain the urban poor.

End Notes

    * Dantas, in Estadão (São Paulo).
    * Davis, interview.
    * Davis, "Mike Davis on a Planet of Slums."
    * Davis, interview.
    * Lind, 13.
    * Chiarelli and Michaelis, 15.
    * Chiarelli and Michaelis, 13.
    * Baltazar and Kvitashvili, 38.
    * Cited in Baltazar and Kvitashvili, 38.
    * Alba Rico.

Translated for the Americas Program by Maria Roof.

Raúl Zibechi is an international analyst for 
Brecha, a weekly journal in Montevideo, Uruguay, 
professor and researcher on social movements at 
the Multiversidad Franciscana de América Latina, 
and adviser to social groups. He is a monthly 
contributor to the Americas Policy Program 

For More Information

Santiago Alba Rico, "Emparedar a la resistencia," 
Diagonal, Madrid, 16 May 2007, 

Thomas Baltazar (Colonel, U.S. Army, Retired) and 
Elisabeth Kvitashvili, "The Role of USAID and 
Development Assistance in Combating Terrorism," 
Military Review, Mar.-Apr. 2007, pp. 38-40.

Peter W. Chiarelli (Major General, U.S. Army) and 
Patrick R. Michaelis (Major, U.S. Army), "Winning 
the Peace: The Requirement for Full-Spectrum 
Operations," Military Review, July-Aug. 2005, pp. 4-17.

Pedro Dantas, "Exército admite uso de tática do 
Haiti em favela do Rio," Estadão de Hoje (São 
Paulo), 15 Dec. 2007, <http://www.estado.com.br/>www.estado.com.br.

Mike Davis, interview with Geoff Manaugh, posted 
May 22, 2006, 
"Los suburbios de las ciudades del tercer mundo 
son el nuevo escenario geopolítico decisivo," 
posted 2 Mar. 2007, <http://www.rebelion.org/>www.rebelion.org.

Mike Davis, "Mike Davis on a Planet of Slums," 
interview posted 24 June 2006, 
"La pobreza urbana y la lucha contra el 
capitalismo," trans. Camila Vollenweider, posted 
25 June 2006, <http://www.sinpermiso.info/>www.sinpermiso.info.

William S. Lind, "Understanding Fourth Generation 
War," Military Review, Sept.-Oct. 2004, pp. 12-16.

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