Episode 2 (July 2018): Yanilda María González and Participatory Security in Latin America


This is entreVistas, chats about Latin American politics, culture and history, featuring faculty, students and visitors at the Center of Latin American Studies at the University of Chicago.

Participatory security—in which local citizens play an active role in shaping security practices in their communities—is key to how governments address public safety today. In Latin America, the idea of community participation in crime prevention has become ubiquitous. But not all participatory security models are the same. This episode of entreVistas addresses three different institutional designs—in Buenos Aires, São Paulo, and Bogotá—that lead to different outcomes in terms of how the police and state provide security. CLAS MA Student Ámber Miranzo talks to Yanilda María González, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Service Administration, about the role of citizens in urban governance in Latin America. We are only able to feature part of this chat in this week’s episode. Please go to our website ( to hear the rest of this fascinating conversation. 

Ámber Miranzo: Professor González’s work is centered in state capacity and citizenship in Latin American democracies. She is currently writing her manuscript, Authoritarian Coercion by Democratic Means: The Paradox of Police Reform in Latin America. One of the focuses of your research is the police-community partnerships in Latin American democracies, where citizens are involved in what you call “participatory security.” What are these partnerships for?

Yanilda María González: What I call participatory security is one of various forms in which governments invite citizens to take an active role in shaping what local security is going to look like. And, what I found in my research is that can look like many different ways. First of all, ordinary citizens in communities and businesses can cooperate with police in all kinds of ways without any formal institution, but what participatory security means, as I’ve written about it, is that these are formal policies of the state. These are laws. The state dedicates resources to create these types of programs where they bring together local police and the communities that are part of the local jurisdiction to participate in identifying what are key problems in terms of security. What is it that makes them feel unsafe in their neighborhoods? What are particular crimes or priorities that they are especially worried about? And also creating a forum where usually every month they get together with the police to design solutions, or to think about solutions, make demands, and say “we now told you what the problems are, now can you do something about it?”

What I found through these participatory security meetings is that even though they are often very much focused on the police, they are really dealing with other issues that have to do with basic urban governance—lighting, traffic, public spaces, other community services that may deal with populations that are experiencing homelessness—, so all these are things that come up in these community forums between police and citizens that I call participatory security. What ends up happening is that you can’t just have the police as the only representative of the state in these forums and you end up having to call the local agency that is in charge of lighting, or trash pickup, or providing local housing, and other types of agencies like that.

In São Paulo, for example, which is one of the cities that I study, one of the key points of discussion is noise complaints. The local city agency that deals with noise complaints has to be at the table at these meetings as well. Just to give you a sense, it is a very diverse set of institutions. The things that people talk about from one neighborhood to another, even in the same city, can vary a great deal depending on that configuration of problems.

You have done research in Argentina, Brazil, and Colombia. Can you tell us more about the differences you have found in participatory security?

Sure. I started this research in Buenos Aires about twelve years ago. Well, I didn’t start my research twelve years ago, but I learned about the subject that I eventually ended up studying for my dissertation twelve years ago, when I was in Buenos Aires.

I found [participatory security] in a country like Argentina, which had been a dictatorship for so long and that still was dealing with authoritarian legacies, many of which had a lot to do with the police because of their involvement in repression under the dictatorship. I was in there in 2006 learning about what was going on with the 30th anniversary of the dictatorship and I found out that coincidentally—they’re not related—they were setting up these community participatory forums called foros de seguridad. They had already existed but they were really picking up steam in that year and what they did was try to bring community into what is traditionally considered to be the role of the police to identify local problems, to come up with solutions, and to work together with police to try to resolve these problems.

In a country that was still dealing with the legacies of dictatorship and that was actually dealing with the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the last dictatorship, I was surprised that they were undertaking this very democratic approach to policing—or what seemed to be a very democratic approach to policing—to try to really give citizens more agency in shaping what local securities would be like, and importantly, what the police was actually supposed to be doing.

In Buenos Aires province, the way that the foros work is that they’re very bottom-up in the sense that there’s small groups of community leaders that get together. They meet usually once a month, but can meet more than that, and they [are] seen as taking the lead in getting demands of ordinary citizens and saying, channeling up to the police or the minister of security, “in this very small space we still have a complexity of problems, such as robberies of this particular type, or we have populations of youth that have no recreational opportunities, or there is a lot of drug dealing going on,”and so [they would identify] any number of things.

Again, these are a small group of community leaders that are self-identified and they get to engage in this very strong oversight of the police where they can actually tell the minister of security, “here are the problems we identified, and here is what the police did, and they actually didn’t do what we identified, so we have a problem.” Or they can say, “they did everything that we asked for so we are satisfied,” and the minister of security would take the input of ordinary citizens, of these community leaders, in then shaping police promotions.

Some of my interviewees in the police complained that these foros actually got local commanders removed. They were able to say, “they are not addressing our needs so we need a new commander.” Not the high police commander, but the local community, precinct commander. They exercise a great deal of oversight over the police.

In São Paulo, it was a totally different set-up to these kinds of small group community leaders, with very clear set of demands, clear set of solutions, and a plan to work out those demands and then an accountability of the police later on. In São Paulo it was far more open and participatory, so anybody could come to these monthly meetings. They can talk directly by getting up in front of a microphone, the way I am right now ,and have the local police chief in front of them and saying, “we’re not satisfied with this, here is what we want you to do.” But even though it was more participatory, what I found is that they don’t have very much authority to hold police accountable in the way that the Buenos Aires foros did. It was a trade-off between making it more open and letting anybody who lives or works here come and share their views, but then there was not a real mechanism for them to say “here are the specific solutions we want, here is a plan to making it happen, and this is how we hold the police accountable.” So it has that kind of trade-off relative to the Buenos Aires model.

The third one that I studied was in Bogotá, where it was neither as participatory as the São Paulo nor did it have this kind of accountability mechanism of Buenos Aires province. It was actually just these set-ups, which they called frentes de seguridad, where you get together with the people on your block and across the street from the block—so it was a very small area in which you’re supposed to identity problems—and talk to a local police officer. It’s not even the commander. In those meetings, the neighbors and the local officers talk about what is going on and you’re supposed to depend on those conversations actually making their way up to the local commander, and there was really no way to make sure of that.

So you have three very different types of designs across these three cities, and certainly there are many other models, but you see there are trade-offs. In the frentes of Bogotá that means you can have one on every block, so you potentially have very broad territorial coverage and presence and potential citizen involvement, but they don’t really have access to the police leadership and they don’t have any way of holding anybody accountable.

Did you find the same resistances in São Paulo and Bogotá? What is the reaction of the police to people being involved in policing?

I think generally police…it’s hard to generalize because there are some police officers who would say to me, particularly in São Paulo, “look, we can actually use these to our benefit, these can serve good policing, and we can actually recruit regular citizens to help us get more resources.” You can have the president of the council, the CONSEGs [Portuguese acronym for Community Security Councils], write letters to the minister of security and say that we need more patrol cars in our community, we need more of this, we need more of that. What some police officers would say is that you can enlist them to help support the work of the police.

They like that aspect of it, but best-case scenario is that they see it as a way of supporting police work. Or you deal with it because it’s the law, and they have to comply. There were some that would not show up to the meetings even though they are required to by law. They sent low-ranking police officers that couldn’t possibly make decisions about any of the issues that citizens were coming to talk to them about. So those were their ways of showing resistance by presenting somebody who can’t actually respond to citizen demands. Overall, you have a lot of variation in how police respond.

In Buenos Aires, there was much more resistance because of this accountability mechanism, whereas in São Paulo there was still some sense that citizens can tell what problems they see but it’s the police’s decision [as to how to proceed] because they are the ones that know about policing. That is something you find across the board: police think they are the experts in policing, and “ordinary people can’t tell us how to do our jobs.”

The amount of resistance has to do with how much power you give people to tell police how to do their job. In Bogotá, it seemed [like] this kind of marginal thing that they can talk up and say, “look how participatory we are, we have 300 frentes,” and it sounds so impressive, [then you] realize they are just blocks, 300 blocks of people that are involved in these things. In some respects [the police] are able to use them to their benefit, but the more you give community members power or authority to hold police accountable, that is where you are going to encounter the most resistance. Which is why in Buenos Aires, the foros are kind of non-existent at this point.

Thinking about the institution of the police, how central is the police in Latin America as an institution and how do you conceive citizenship in relation to that?

I would say that in democracies, in any state…In my field of political science, we define the state very much in terms of a monopoly of violence, monopoly of legitimate force, which means that the only actors who have legitimacy in exercising the use of force, the use of violence, is the state. The people who have that authority within the state are the police. They are exercising a key function of the state, a defining feature of the state. Police are really central to what it means to have a state at all.

In democracies, the ability to do things like going to protests, or feeling comfortable in things like engaging in basic economic activity…of being able to feel like I can engage in political dissent or any other type of activity…requires you to feel safe doing so. For example, I am not going to open up a new business if I feel like this is a place where I am going to get robbed or extorted by gangs, or I might be more hesitant to do it. Whereas if I trust the police are doing their job and keeping us safe by keeping crime and violence down, then I will open up that business, or feel safe going to a protest, because I feel like I am not going to get beat up, or I am not going to be put in jail for dissenting, for expressing an opinion.

All these types of activities that are basic to political, social, cultural, and economic activities that comprise democratic citizenship, you need a basic level of security and safety so that you can engage in those activities. The police are essential to that. Police are not the only agency of the state, or even society, that is responsible for providing security. As I was mentioning, in the forums in São Paulo, there are all kinds of agencies and entities that were involved in what residents thought of as their security. The noise agency, the agency that cleans the streets, the agency that controls traffic—all these people are involved in creating secure communities.

And of course, there are all kinds of community organizations and development that are important for maintaining security. Police are essential to that but they’re not by any means the only agency that matters. There is research done in the U.S. showing that, with the very historic crime declines that have happened in the U.S. since the 1990s, community organizations actually played a big role. Having robust community organizations that were providing education or recreation for kids or support for vulnerable populations—all these community organizations also helped to reduce crime.

Police are one element of this configuration of actors of the state and society that can help communities be safe. In that sense, they are one actor that is charged with providing security and maintaining the state’s monopoly of violence, but again they’re not the only one. Another element of policing that is very important for shaping democratic citizenship is that they don’t engage in abuses against the population. When police are engaged in discriminatory stops or things like beatings or torture or extrajudicial killings, all these things also undermine citizen trust in the police. They undermine citizen trust in the state as a whole, they can help undermine citizen trust in one another. The police want the affirmative role of providing security, but if they have negative effects of their behavior in terms of engaging in abuses, they can also shape the nature of democratic citizenship in that way. What we find in places like Latin America and the U.S. is that those abuses are targeted towards populations that are the most vulnerable. It is against the poor, it’s against those who are experiencing homelessness, it is against people who are sexual or gender minorities or racial minorities. It’s black and brown communities. It’s immigrants and the poor that are so very often the targets of these abuses. So what you have is that the police are an important mediator of whether or not you even get to have access to other rights of citizenship.

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