Colloquium Reports

Please see below for a brief summary of the colloquium. For a detailed report, please click here.

“Transforming Public Security in the Americas”

A Summary by Eva Silkwood Baker, Institute for National Strategic Studies

How can nations better secure the safety and wellbeing of their citizens against the depravities of organized criminal networks, and do so within a democratic framework and the rule of law, all the while preserving and protecting basic human rights?  A consortium of six U.S. and Canadian universities posed this question at the 14th Annual Western Hemisphere Security Colloquium held in Washington, D.C. on May 8-10, 2011.

 Colloquium speakers and audience members explored ways to transform the character and capacity of public security in the Americas by integrating non-coercive and coercive responses to criminal activities and examined how to move beyond current frameworks which fail to integrate domestic law enforcement, border control, military support, and private security.  The Colloquium organizers sought to find new ideas on how to create positive momentum in order to combat the organized criminal networks which pose grave and multidimensional threats to social development and regional stability.  Colloquium discussions attempted to rethink how different societies are confronting deteriorating security conditions and to identify more effective domestic and subregional practices without creating fresh imbalances among military, police, and civilian institutions.

One major theme of the colloquium was the necessity to better engage society and get individual citizens and communities involved in making improvements to public security.  This is especially needed since organized criminal groups (including gangs and drug trafficking organizations) are vying with the state for sovereignty or control of territory and the “hearts and minds” of the citizenry in certain neighborhoods of cities or rural areas.  Criminal groups often provide their members with an identity and protection, and care for the welfare of citizens who are complicit in or turn a blind-eye to their crimes.  The state is competing with these groups for a variety of “sovereignty clusters” (even territory as limited as a few city blocks).  In this regard, “the state is no longer the center of the [domestic] political universe – the city is becoming more and more important.”  Therefore, governments need to implement localized measures that empower individual citizens and communities to de-legitimize and defeat criminal groups.

 One speaker adapted the old adage “all politics is local” to “all insecurity, all crime is local.”  Attention to the community and the individual affected by crime is often lost in the macro-level planning of national governments.  No criminal or criminal organization simply springs to life as national or international; it starts locally.  Within the current frameworks to combat crime, oftentimes “the notion of community gets lost, citizens become statistics, and communities become operational zones.”  Instead, government policymakers should be asking what can societal actors do to collaborate in enhancing public security and what can governments and citizens do together?  Since national-level security assistance programs trickle down slowly, societies must also adopt local-level measures.  Several speakers observed that citizens not only want to be more involved in providing for their own security – but it is also essential that they do so if the solutions are to be sustainable.

In addition to increased citizen participation and better distribution of social-economic services to the community, the state must be able to guarantee the physical security of its populace by directly confronting criminal organizations, improving security institutions, and utilizing as appropriate both its police and military forces.  Most speakers addressed the conventional idea that public security should be treated as a matter of law enforcement and domestic intelligence and debated the role of the military in public security.  Other speakers agreed that the state must use all of its strategic resources (including the military) to combat the challenge of organized crime and regain control of contested domestic space.  Instead of just following traditional defensive actions, the complexity of public security challenges requires the state to become more adept and intellectually flexible in its responses, even to go so far as to anticipate the next move of the criminal organizations.  The state must take the initiative.  For this to occur, however, several presenters noted that there must be a transformation in the organization, training, and doctrine of the armed forces when engaging with civilians in law enforcement activities.  Integrating human rights with security is vitally important if the state is to develop the trust and support of citizens.

The Colloquium discussed case studies of national and international cooperation, specifically among Canada, the United States, Mexico, Central America, the Caribbean, Colombia and Brazil.  Speakers encouraged policymakers to pursue additional intra-regional cooperation and capacity-building measures.  Successful mechanisms, such as Joint Inter-Agency Task Force South, and Rio de Janeiro’s on-going civil-military collaboration regaining control of favelas offered positive ideas for consideration. These lessons and shared experiences can be utilized to meet the challenges of public security and offer additional tools beyond traditional north-south security assistance programs which are facing a resource-constrained environment in the U.S. and other nations throughout the Americas.  Future collaboration requires Western Hemisphere governments to engage in both interagency and multinational approaches of a truly “flexible partnership” in order to overcome the agility and creativity of criminal networks. 

The sponsors of this event included The George Washington University’s Center for Latin American Issues, U.S. Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, National Defense University’s Institute for National Strategic Studies, Florida International University’s Applied Research Center, Cornell University’s Mario Einaudi Center for International Studies and Queen’s University’s Centre for International and Defence Policy.  Speakers and audience members included academics, private sector consultants, staff of the Organization of American States, U.S. and foreign ambassadors, U.S. and foreign military personnel and officials from the U.S. State Department, U.S. Defense Department, and U.S. Homeland Security Department.