Police-Building, Prevention, and Political Order – Report on Fieldwork in Guatemala

Surveillance and decentralized control: prevention politics in Villa Nueva

Surveillance and decentralized control: prevention politics in Villa Nueva

News from Mar 01, 2016

In the SFB project C3 - Police-Building und Transnational Security Fields in Latin America, we look at security governance transfers and the impact the historical legacy of such transfers has on current statebuilding interventions. At the focus of our investigation is the example of transnational police-building in Guatemala. Soon after we began, it became clear that police-building in Guatemala encompasses much more than simply the reform of the police as an institution. In the largest state of Central America, the range of international interventions in the area of security is enormous: external actors focus on institution building, capacity building, and “soft” forms of security such as community policing and the strengthening of local communities in the name of “citizen safety.”

While countries such as the United States and Colombia continue to engage in classic police-building in Guatemala, they are increasingly concerned with developing a “holistic” security approach. According to a USAID representative interviewed during my first fieldwork trip for the C3 project in November 2012, this approach aims at recuperating the public space. In the coming years, this is slated to become the new paradigm of security politics in Guatemala. The security concept, influenced in part by the US experience in fighting insurgents in Afghanistan and criminal gangs from Los Angeles to Medellín, is being implemented most clearly in Villa Nueva. Southwest of Guatemala City, Villa Nueva is a notorious crime hotspot and reflects many of the liberal statebuilding trends in the region.

In addition to “modern” strategies such as community policing, the current mayor of Villa Nueva, Edwin Escobar, relies on institutional cooperation between police forces and the military, as well as the use of new technologies from surveillance cameras to smartphone apps. Escobar is more familiar with the discourses and practices of external actors and security experts than nearly anyone else in Guatemala. He asks the residents of Villa Nueva to do their part as well: over hotlines, the internet, or by organizing into prevention committees, residents are expected to contribute to gathering information on criminality and reducing violence.

Through interviews with representatives of the Dirección General de Seguridad Integral and with community leaders from different parts of Villa Nueva, as well as my participation in two workshops on citizen security in 2014 and 2015, I got to know Villa Nueva’s “integral” security approach. This strategy ultimately aims to (re)establish the state’s consistent, overall presence. In addition to the measures mentioned above, it also encompasses prevention projects such as extracurricular activities for “at-risk youth”, as well as a reorganization of public space.

Villa Nueva provides a good example of how transnationally circulating security practices and discourses are appropriated and implemented locally. Even though US Vice President Biden declared Villa Nueva a role model in the region, reactions are divided on the consequences of Mayor Escobar’s approach.

The C3 project’s initial findings suggest that transnational security governance transfers reproduce historical patterns of privatizing social control and surveillance. This applies in particular to violence prevention programs and projects that aim to build “resilient” communities. Using the example of Villa Nueva, our research shows that adopting external expert knowledge can contribute to reproducing an exclusive order, fostered by the depoliticization of urban security governance that tends to go along with expert knowledge.

About the author:

Markus Hochmüller is a research associate in Research Project C3 - Police-Building und Transnational Security Fields in Latin America. In this capacity, he takes a field theory perspective to examine transnational police building and statebuilding in Guatemala.