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The transnational expansion of military urbanism

While military budgets of states are increasingly subject to cuts, the intelligence and weapons industries turn to police corps and local authorities as customers.

Tomaz Paoliello Manoela Miklos
30 May 2012

The “Cracolândia” region in Brazil is an area where drug users and traffickers gather, particularly those involved in the crack and cocaine trade. In early January this year, the Military Police (PM), with support of the Metropolitan Civil Guard has begun to forcefully remove the population from the neighborhood. The authorities claim that the operation aims at interrupting access to drugs as well as bringing "pain and suffering" to addicts and forcing them to seek treatment.

Operation "Sufoco" serves as an example for a whole set of highly questionable public policies that the city and state of Sao Paulo have recently implemented. It illustrates an accelerating process of militarization of urban governance.

At the end of 2011, 28 of the 31 “suprefeitos”, or sub-mayors, of the city of São Paulo were military retirees. 96 reserve soldiers had been assigned to work for the Secretariat for the Coordination of Subdistricts (SMSP). Retired PMs also occupy positions in other parts of public administration in São Paulo, are present in the Traffic Engineering Company, the Service Mobile Emergency Care, the Secretary of Transportation and even the Funeral Service.

Moreover, the Military Police plays an important role in designing and implementing anti-piracy and municipal surveillance activities. Since 2005, PMs have been assigned to the Urban Security Bureau, the Metropolitan Civil Guard and the Civil Defense. All this comes as part of a larger "fight against urban disorder" proclaimed by São Paulo’s Mayor Kassab. When questioned about his policy of systematically appointing military personnel to senior positions in public management, Kassab publicly maintained that doing so was his way of confronting accusations of having staffed the municipal administration according to personal political and electoral interests.

Another aspect of Kassab’s policy of "fighting urban disorder”, the "Operação Delegada", established in 2010, consists of the city of São Paulo contracting PMs to control irregular activities in their spare time. According to the program, all sub-districts of São Paulo can rely on PMs to act and combat illegal activities in the streets in their off time. Last year alone the budget for such activities amounted to $100 million - a fourfold increase over 2010 figures.

However, such developments transcend local dynamics and are becoming a phenomenon of international scale.

On January 23, 2012, the Miami-Dade Police Department in the United States announced the purchase of drones. Such war technology - commonly used by the U.S. military in Iraq and Afghanistan - assists both in surveillance and attacking enemy targets. NBC reported that the Miami-Dade Police thereby gained the ability to deploy two drones at short notice. That same week, CBS reported on experiences of the New York Police Department with drones. Both police departments emphasized that their drones lacked lethal weapons and carried only surveillance cameras. However, this episode illustrates a larger process of technology transfer from military to police operations, promoting the militarization of urban governance.

In a recent article on openDemocracy, Christopher McMichael details a similar case that took place in Cape Town. The Democratic Alliance (DA) - the official opposition party to South Africa’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) - currently governs Cape Town. As part of its policy of opposition, the DA proposed to make Cape Town an example of "good governance". To this end, it has been implementing policies that are all too reminiscent of Mayor Kassab’s strategy to "fighting urban disorder" in São Paulo:

The DA’s official line on urban safety promises to enrol ordinary people in the improvement of the city through social crime reduction strategies: as one memorable slogan in the recent local election campaign noted “a child in sport, is a child out of court”. Notably, the DA claims that its policies are linked by a concern for individual freedom and the limitation of abusive state power.

However, as the last few years have shown much of the self-proclaimed success of this model is in fact contingent on state violence and the perpetuation of a low level social war against the urban poor. Rather than an aberration this betrays a basal authoritarianism within the DA, which views the poor as targets for pacification, containment and ‘warehousing’.

Each of the abovementioned cases supports the thesis that there is a visible upgrading of what Stephen Graham calls "military urbanism": the intention of controlling the population through the systematic employment of aggressive tactics and the use of media for the dissemination and standardization of discourses. However, the previously cited cases call attention to a new element: to fully comprehend the on-going processes, one needs to look beyond local phenomena. The contemporary challenge is to understand these developments as a multidimensional process that results in the emergence of a transnational pattern of military urbanism. This process is aggravated by the need of the military industry to diversify its customer base: while military budgets of states are increasingly subject to cuts, the intelligence and weapons industry turn to police corps and local authorities as customers.

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