Soldiers line up before leaving to patrol the streets in Bogotá, Colombia, Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019. 

Use the force: Part II

Critical State, a foreign policy newsletter by Inkstick Media, takes a deep dive this week into what happened when Colombia’s military took on police work in Cali, the country’s third-largest city.

This analysis was featured in Critical State, a weekly foreign policy newsletter from Inkstick Media. Subscribe here.

The notion that states have a monopoly on violence is more aspirational than actual. Violence occurs regularly below the level of states and can build to regular criminal capacity. While police forces nominally exist to prevent and thwart this type of violence, cops can be bribed to look the other way or can simply be ill-equipped to assert government control in the face of organized violence. To counter this, governments will sometimes turn to the military.

In the last Critical State, I wrote about what happens when countries “constabularize” their militaries or use them alongside police. The study, looking at past instances in Mexico, found an increase in complaints of human rights violations.

In “Little Evidence That Military Policing Reduces Crime or Improves Human Security,” authors Robert A. Blair and Michael Weintraub offer a deep look into what happened when Colombia’s military took on police work in Cali, the country’s third-largest city. The authors focus specifically on Plan Fortaleza, a program that had the military regularly patrol hot spots, targeting crime.

Studies on militaries doing the work of policing remain relatively young. Much of the speculative debate over military effectiveness in such work hinged on whether or not military training and accountability to a chain of command can overcome the limits of policing. 

“Only a small handful of studies have tested the effects of ‘constabularizing’ the military for purposes of law enforcement, all using observational data,” Blair and Weintraub note. For their study, in a plan approved by the Ethics Committee at Universidad de los Andes, they “randomized only the specific city blocks where soldiers would and would not patrol.”

The military patrols and Plan Fortaleza preceded the intervention by the researchers, and the new change in routes continued an ongoing pattern of patrols changing regularly so as to not become targets.

“Our results suggest that military policing in Cali was at best ineffective and at worst counterproductive,” the authors write.

“We find little to no evidence that Plan Fortaleza reduced crime in the administrative data while the intervention was ongoing, and if anything our results suggest that it exacerbated crime after the intervention was complete. We observe an increase in crime in the administrative data after the intervention alongside an increase in citizens’ accounts of witnessing and reporting crimes and an increase in the frequency of arrests.”

While both police and militaries are armed agents of the state, the ends to which they are bent and the context in which they operate are divergent enough that adapting soldiers to policing does not appear to have a meaningful effect on crime, with the researchers noting “we find little to no evidence that military policing improved perceptions of safety, except perhaps among business owners.”

Despite the lack of efficacy, sending in soldiers is one of the most visible kinds of “doing something” politicians can have. Conclude the authors, “If policymakers insist on adopting military policing strategies despite the small but growing body of evidence of their ineffectiveness, they should at least complement those strategies with robust systems for monitoring and prosecuting misconduct.”

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