On the Same Page? Understanding ‘Ungoverned Areas’ in US doctrine in Latin America

On the Same Page? Understanding ‘Ungoverned Areas’ in US doctrine in Latin America

19 Jun, 2023

To best counter the threat of organised crime originating from tough-to-reach areas, Latin American and US policymakers and officials need to come to a common understanding on ‘ungoverned areas’ and how they can best collaborate to address the threat. 

Current Context

Over the past few years, statements made by civilian and military personnel from the United States (US) regarding regional security have garnered significant attention, particularly in Latin America and the Caribbean. US military commanders have underscored the increasing significance of emerging threats facing the US operations across a range of thematic and geographic strategic, operational, and tactical spheres. Critically, there exists a general consensus among them that transnational criminal organisations – ever-powerful in Latin America – pose a severe menace to US and allied sovereignty. The way these groups exploit corruption engenders a corrosive effect on the fundamental structures of the state. Furthermore, the high number of annual deaths resulting from violence or drug overdoses profoundly undermines the rule of law.

There is also growing apprehension expressed by them regarding the exploitation of antidemocratic powers such as Russia or China, each vying to establish a presence in multiple regions – including Latin America. To this end, there are concerns of potential infiltration of Chinese or Russian influence in “non-governed areas” through organised crime. This infiltration is alleged to occur through a number of tools – ranging from corruption to money laundering – contributing to the amplification of transnational organised crime and drug trafficking.

To counter non-US influence and threats emanating from organised crime, US diplomatic dialogues have focused on developing improved strategies for managing and preventing these issues. Conversations on criminal justice policy, large-scale migration, employment and environmental concerns have been supplanted by a focus on ‘ungoverned spaces’.

‘Ungoverned Areas’ Conceptualised

While comprehending the Latin American security environment from the US or regional perspective is crucial to interpreting the rationale behind these statements and inter-state dialogues, the interpretation may remain incomplete if the doctrinal underpinning the US’s message. The most relevant US military doctrinal term to understand is the concept of ungoverned areas.”

The prevailing definition can be found in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy 2007, which defines such zones specifically as: “A place where the state or the central government is unable or unwilling to extend control, effectively govern, or influence the local population, and where a provincial, local, tribal, or autonomous government does not fully or effectively govern, due to inadequate governance capacity, insufficient political will, gaps in legitimacy, the presence of conflict, or restrictive norms of behavior… “ungoverned areas” encompasses under-governed, misgoverned, contested, and exploitable areas as well as ungoverned areas.” Furthermore, US doctrine revolves around the establishment and/or enforcement of the rule of law.

According to the Handbook for Military Support to Rule of Law and Security Sector Reform the “The term “rule of law” (ROL) is found numerous times in major official strategy documents, including the National Security Strategy 2010, the National Military Strategy 2011, National Security Presidential Directive (NSPD)-44,3 and DOD Instruction 3000.05.‘’ Relying on a definition adopted by United Nations resolutions, US focus on the rule of law should be understood along eight pillars:

  1. The state monopolizes the use of force in the resolution of disputes.
  2. The state is bound by law and does not act arbitrarily.
  3. The state protects basic human rights.
  4. Individuals are secure in their persons and property.
  5. The law can be readily determined and is stable enough to allow individuals to plan their affairs.
  6. Individuals have meaningful access to an effective and impartial legal system.
  7. Individuals rely on the existence of legal institutions and the content of law in the conduct of their daily lives.
  8. Mechanisms are in place for the peaceful resolution of disputes.

Additionally, it is essential to note that the concept of ungoverned areas is closely linked to the concept of safe havens, which are conceptualised by the very same office as “where illicit actors can organize, plan, raise funds, communicate, recruit, train, and operate in relative security”.

Getting on the Same Page

The statements inclusive of ungoverned areas indicate their awareness of the limitations faced by local, regional and US authorities to counter organised crime. However, there may exist a disconnect between US policy and regional understandings of ungoverned areas; in the supposed absence of the state, what does US policy seek to achieve?

US discussions of ungoverned space draw parallels to a ‘wild west’ of sorts; lands untended to and ungoverned by the local state. This parallel imagery is troubling, perhaps reminiscent or hinting towards unilateral US action. However, this perception of US policy and intentions towards ungoverned areas is not necessarily consistent with US doctrine nor their diplomatic intentions. Of course, US strategy has supported acting against organised crime in aggressive, kinetic ways, launching coordinated operations to interdict drug trafficking in source, transit and destination countries. The aforementioned strategic documents and doctrines emphasise supporting the host countries in establishing the rule of law, thereby strengthening local and collaborative opportunities to suppress the threat of organised crime in uncontrolled areas.

It is equally important to note that these official statements are being made in a context of strategic competition. The US is undergoing doctrinal and strategic adjustments to better prepare itself to expand its geopolitical influence and protect allies against unlawful territorial claims. As a result, the current US government is signalling its desire for collaboration through neutralising irregular threats in support of the rule of law.

In sum, US doctrine – particularly related to ungoverned areas and their role in organised crime – aims to strengthen existing alliances and, in the future, potentially include additional countries as strategic partners. This alliance, of course, is likely to be founded on a shared commitment to expanding the reach of the rule of law whilst also serving US hemispheric and geopolitical objectives – the two may be mutually beneficial. Therefore, for Latin American policymakers it is imperative to understand US doctrine and strategic objectives to maximise joint-operations and optimise counternarcotics strategies in particularly difficult regions.

Carlos Barrera is a researcher in security and defence. He holds a Doctorate in War Studies from the Scottish Centre for War Studies at the University of Glasgow (United Kingdom). He is a Mexican Institute for Strategic Studies in National Security and Defence (IMEESDN) professor.

Special thanks to Manuel Carranza from The Citadel – Military College of South Carolina for his support for the publication of this article.

Main image Credit: Master Sgt. Kerri Spero SOTHCOM, https://www.southcom.mil/MEDIA/IMAGERY/igphoto/2001678474/

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of RUSI, Focused Conservation, or any other institution.

Carlos Alberto Barrera Franco

Carlos Alberto Barrera Franco

Mexican Institute for Strategic Studies in National Security and Defence

Carlos Barrera is a researcher on security and defence. He holds a Doctorate in War…

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