Small Wars Journal

Urban Land Use by Illegal Armed Groups in Medellin

Mon, 10/17/2011 - 8:53am

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This article poses ideas about counterinsurgency, law enforcement and stability operations in the context of ‘land-use planning.’ Land–use planning carries many of today’s dominant theoretical currents as to centralized direction of urban life.   Here, seven proposed categories of illegal slum land use are tested against a recent, complex Latin American case.  Admittedly, this application of the term “land use” may be overly literal, and is to be distinguished from “land-use planning.” That latter term generally connotes a set of theoretical norms and objectives centered, in part, on the concept of ‘sustainability’ (often presented in planning literature as a balance or reconciliation of environmental stewardship, social equity and economic maximization).  Land-use planning also connotes a specialized set of opinions and plans coming from persons whom we can stereotype as technocratic and bureaucratic – as governmental.

Government land-use planning in Medellín, Colombia has sought to achieve the values supposed by ‘sustainability,’ but in the process has had to wrest land-use dominance from violent illegal armed groups, and to provide the population physical security and conflict resolution services. In such a violently conflictive urban geography, land-use planning has to account for illegal, violent land use.  In the long run, attainment of basic sustainability goals facilitates peaceful social contracts, but, in the nearer term, some aspects of urban design must directly address ease in policing and perhaps even effectiveness of military operations.  If experiences in Medellín foretell anything, it is that security planners’ conversation will necessarily shift toward land use, and the conversation of land-use planners toward security.

Non-autochthonous (outsider) illegal armed groups (IAG) pursue and enjoy eight principal, overlapping uses of urban slum land in relation to their illicit pursuits.  These eight land uses, in no particular order, are: 1. taxation;  2. free trade; 3. sanctuary; 4. clandestine manufacture or processing; 5. staging for violent operations outside the slum; 6. safe transit of contraband; 7. recruiting; and 8. as a prison or graveyard for their victims.  The eight categories could be used as part of taxonomy for geographic profiling (predictive geographic forensics).   The IAG land-use categories are suitable as variables (field descriptions or attribute names – the titles of the columns at the top of an SQL spreadsheet perhaps) in a forensic police/military Geographic Information Systems (GIS) data table.  

While such use of GIS may be the most immediate or directly relevant application to government reduction of illegal armed groups, other uses, such as informing urban building and street design, may yield the more important longer–term security benefits.  A correct GIS taxonomy, moreover, can speed the testing of broader insurgency and counterinsurgency theories and metrics, and hopefully fuel land-use planning strategies for building peaceful social contracts.  It is probably safe to assert that the common sense possessed by experienced detectives remains the primary source of successful predictions regarding points and times where an IAG member or asset is likely to be found.  It appears that such experiential common sense constitutes the backbone of police intelligence methods for anticipating criminal whereabouts in most foreign cities.   A more sophisticated epistemology, constructed as a GIS, can nevertheless improve, extend and accelerate common sense predictive victories.  With that optimism in mind, we consider the case of Medellín, which has been one of the most complex and challenging urban battlefields on the planet.

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Categories: El Centro

About the Author(s)

Geoffrey Demarest is a researcher in the US Army's Foreign Military Studies Office at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas. He holds a JD and a PhD in International Studies from the University of Denver, and a PhD in Geography from the University of Kansas.  He is a graduate of the US Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pennsylvania, and of the School of the Americas at Ft. Benning, Georgia. Demarest's latest book is titled Winning Irregular War.