Development and pacification at cross-purposes

Book review of: Gledhill, John (2015). The New War on the Poor. The Production of Insecurity in Latin America. UK: Zed Books.

Rumour has it that international development might somewhat, somewhere, sometimes be at odds with its very aim: development. In his astonishing book “The New War on the Poor. The Production of Insecurity in Latin America”, British social anthropologist John Gledhill delivers a piece of inconvenient truths along with explosive theoretical suggestions. Not only does his coherent combination of elaborate conceptualisation, ethnographic detail and historic junctions provide its readers with multiple perspectives on an almost overwhelming number of facets on the receiving end of pacification policies – it also, and that is where its actual strength lies, is shockingly sober and accurate in pointing out the blurred lines between side-effects and intentionality, principality and agency, security and insecurity.

Gledhill begins his argument by thoroughly laying out and contextualising two key theoretical pillars: The development-security nexus, originally introduced by Mark Duffield, and the model of accumulation by dispossession, borrowed in turn from David Harvey. Both are firmly positioned within a neo-Marxist analytic approach in which “some major problems with securitization [sic] relate to the transnational and global relations generated by capitalist uneven development and the logic of maintaining the capitalist accumulation process” (20). The former term directly ties in with the human security discourse, connecting development aid with global security strategies – development has been “harnessed to counter-insurgency operations” (20), a perspective that offers a useful frame for this application in particular. The latter, on the other hand, refers to the way in which securitisation and, more specifically, pacification yields the aforementioned contribution to capitalist accumulation. Poverty and violence management logically bring about more than just a decrease in homicide rates: Pacification, as Gledhill illustrates at the example of Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, “also increases the value of favela land and property, and it will also increase the real estate values of homes located on the frontiers of favelas whose values were previously depressed” (59). This, along with a range of other observable side-effects, might not hold up as merely a side-effect after all. Instead, these structural outcomes have powerful and profitable implications that pose economic, institutional and governmental benefits.

The book then is divided into two rather differently approached expositions of field work conducted in Latin America: The first delivers a detailed ethnography of Brazil’s urban landscapes in Rio de Janeiro as well as Salvador de Bahía, whereas in the second the author reconstructs the historical development of structures of rural violence in the southern Mexican states of Guerrero and Michoacán. Equipped with a passion for detail and the talent of a storyteller, Gledhill invites his readers to follow him through the steep and mazy alleyways of Brazil’s metropolitan conglomerates, always carefully balancing compassionate immersion with adequate degrees of objective distance. The smells of street vendor’s food, sweat and suspense leak from the pages without compromising analytic clarity that is equally given. Gledhill covers a broad scope of aspects in a setting in which the rule of law undergoes transgression with the rule of crime; a setting thus in which surfacing tabloid topics like police corruption can be understood as symptomatic of a much deeper reaching superstructure. The author vividly explains the impact local pacification projects (particularly what is called proximity policing) have on communal security, solidarity but even gender roles. Be it the UPP units in Rio de Janeiro or BCS bases in Salvador de Bahía – in spite of differences, the conclusions drawn are rather disapproving: Policing has not created communal proximity but instead brought about a not-so-seamless transition – from military police raids to a dangerous fragmentation of criminal structures, further blending of criminals with local police as well as spatial shifts of violence (more than the reduction of it).

Although linkages might have been presented more clearly between the chapters (rather than merely in the end), the book does not suffer significantly from its perhaps inelegant passage from Brazil to Mexico. What is surprising, however, is that Gledhill in Mexico employs a fundamentally different analytical approach – something that can be attributed to the fact that one part zooms in on urban structures, whereas the other considers rural developments. Thus, the initially perplexed reader will quickly realise: This difference makes sense. Two southern Mexican states are portrayed in the historical development of each with regard to political actorhood, the emergence of organised violence and respective intervention on the part of the federal government. In both Guerrero and Michoacán, but also in Chiapas, the picture drawn differs from the one in Brazil: While in Brazil the focus has principally been put on the pacification of unwanted segments of the urban periphery, in Mexico the reader is confronted with a dense entanglement of state actors with drug traffickers, indigenous autonomy with forced compromise, and, again, development with security.

These phenomena are highly evocative of Arias‘ nested networks of “criminal governance” (Arias 2006), but they also, and that is one remarkable contribution Gledhill makes at this point, create “deniable violence” (130). This term breaks down the dilemma of lacking accountability and systematic impunity to its smallest common denominator: deniability – a phenomenon all too often encountered within local, regional, national, but even supranational institutions. Gledhill’s insightful analysis goes another step further and takes into account how conditional cash-transfer programmes in Mexico’s south have, historically, sporadically been used as co-optative form of counter- insurgency – Gledhill links this to what Armando Bartra calls “counter-insurgent developmentalism” (136).

The overall structure of Gledhill’s book is thus convincing after all. After a theoretical introduction that provides readers with useful background information someone without much points of contact with social anthropology might lack, the author delves into the deeper complexities of problematic implications on the ground in both Brazil and Mexico. By consulting an extensive literature and smoothly translating existent findings into comparable contexts (for instance, building his arguments for Salvador de Bahía on what others have observed in Rio de Janeiro), Gledhill offers more than a meta-analysis: The large amount of his own field research is neatly embedded within this broad framework and thus completes the picture considerably. Therefore, in a potential weakness we find another core strength of this work: The broad range of secondary sources employed does not compromise originality; instead it provides the ground for it.

It is utterly worthwhile to pay close attention to the conclusions Gledhill offers in the final chapter of his book. Building on a phenomenon he observed before, particularly in southern Mexico, he strongly opposes the selective perception of actors involved with practices and programmes of development and pacification: As “attention […] tends to focus on the most visible forms of violence” (197), often only superficial remedies are offered that deliberately leave open gaps that are usually filled with additional, risk-inducing insecurity – security strategies, at this point, end up at cross-purposes with security. Speaking in more general terms it is as unsettling as alarming that programmes thus far put into practice “may prove as much part of the problem of achieving personal security as a solution to that problem” (197).

Gledhill furthermore refers back to his initial theoretical application of accumulation by dispossession and derives a number of examples from his analysis. As the title of the book already suggests, there is a much larger dimension to the structures, the strategies, the strivings and the failings examined: At the receiving end resides, speaking with Marx, a dispossessed surplus population that is being displaced, extorted, left – in ambiguity, incertitude, insecurity. All of this, bringing together the findings from Brazil and Mexico, indeed “transcends the rural-urban distinction” (198). Poor segments of the population do get to feel the immediate impact of class- selective applications of law, the sweeping privatisation of security enforcement, and damaging aspects of globalisation such as the extortion of sovereignty by multinationals or the financialisation of development aid through institutions like the World Bank.

The author could have made institutional linkages somewhat more explicit, for example by further elaborating on the involvement of the UNDP with Brazilian proximity policing. Nevertheless he does touch upon the issue of transnational responsibility for the real effects neoliberal development agendas have and draws practical conclusions as well: On a local level, incentivisation policies (stressing the advantages of non-violence) seem to Gledhill more promising than counter-violence. On a global scale, with a critical stance over the persisting hegemonic influence of the US, he suggests a further deepening of pan-Southern alliances in the future. Rumour has it that development aid might be at odds with development, and that security strategies might in fact impede the creation of security. Gledhill, with “The New War on the Poor”, tears down the grapevine and confirms the rumour.


This essay was submitted in 2015 as part of an undergraduate course in Latin American Studies at University College Utrecht, The Netherlands.

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