Viruses, Bacteria and Urban Warfare: Lessons for Urban Upgrading?

Viruses, Bacteria and Urban Warfare: Lessons for Urban Upgrading?
by Jota (jose) Samper 

This comparative memo explores susceptibility and resilience to attacks of armed actors in informal settlements from two distinct perspectives. (a) This memo explores a biological metaphor where favela-like environments are akin to bodies or bacteria susceptible to virus attacks. These attacks destroy bodies and bacteria, producing mutations that make future strands of the bacteria resistant to attacks by the same viruses. (b) This memo explores a military urban warfare strategy in which the environment of the informal settlements provides a sophisticated military advantage to asymmetrical contenders, as in the case of Al Quaeda vs. the United States or the Palestinian refugee camps vs. the Israel army. In these cases, destroying the intrinsic advantages of the informal built structures becomes an imperative to obtain military supremacy.

Informal settlements: A place of concentration of poverty and violence
Traditionally, governmental institutions address poverty and violence as two separate issues. Since the 1990s, in Latin America there has been a tacit understanding among government leaders, media, and elite residents that informal settlements are, (compared to the rest of the formal city), the contexts in which large concentrations of violent actors live and wage violence, and are where the largest concentrations of poverty exist. There is then a belief that both issues—the concentration of poverty and of violence— are somehow connected. Recently the connection between these two issues has created the illusion that both problems can be addressed by the same tools. Or, that intervening in one will produce the necessary leverage to eradicate the other.
Over the last two decades, national and international organizations are intending to use the physical  interventions in informal settlements (urban upgrading) as tools to control the problems of violence and concentration of poverty. The dual purpose of what is called “multi practice upgrading programs” in Latin America is the understanding that in some situations “development” (eradication of poverty) and conflict (eradication of illegal armed actors) are related issues. And solving one cannot be done without engaging with the other— similar to what Paul Collier called “Breaking the Conflict Trap.” Caroline Moser (2004) identifies a relationship between what she calls “perverse organizations” and their use of social capital in the neighborhoods where they operate. Not surprisingly, Eduardo Rojas (2010) finds that neighborhood upgrading programs are a “trend” in Latin America as tools for “protecting vulnerable groups (such as young people at risk) and decreasing urban violence.”
Three examples expose this new trend clearly. (1) The Medellin Urban Integrated Project (IUP) and the peace process with the paramilitary groups in Medellin Post 2003 (Samper, 2010) are part of the same package implemented by the city Mayor’s office. (2) The Rio de Janeiro Morar Carioca Project is connected with practices necessary to secure the city for the 2014 Olympics. (3) The urban regeneration Juarez, Mexico  project “Todos somos Juarez” is  happening at the same time as the national government’s war against the drug cartels in Juarez, Mexico.
·         In the case of Medellin, the urban transformation and the policies that supported the peace process with the paramilitary forces as part of this peace process, were projects that intersected in the same geographic space. At the same time that the sate built transportation networks and public buildings, such as libraries, schools and public gardens and plazas, a hoard of 2,500+ demobilized paramilitary members returned to these same neighborhoods. They then participated not only in the educational projects and economical benefits of the programs, they also were in some cases labor employed to be part of the crews that build the projects. The political apparatus used the (positive) publicity of its urban projects along with the reduced homicide rate as proof that these policies and projects had a directed relationship to the simultaneous reduction in violence.

Figure 1 Medellin Integral Urban Project and Demobilizations of Paramilitary groups in 2003 source: EDU and Alcaldia de Medellin

·         In Rio de Janeiro, the relationship of the projects with goals of security is a more tacit one, at least in terms of state public discourse. The state public officials do not openly assert that Morar Carioca will make the favelas safer. In practice, however, the reality is different.  Morar Carioca’ objective is to urbanize all favelas in Rio by the year 2020. Because the Olympics is coming to Rio in 2014, a phasing strategy of Morar Carioca has been designed to ensure that favelas geographically located inside of the security polygon of the 4 major centers of Olympic activity have priority for urbanization. This makes evident that even if the relationship between the urban project and security is not explicit, like it is in the case of Medellín, there is still a link between the transformation of the physical structure of the favelas and their security.

Figure 2 Morar Carioca map of phasing of urbanization of favelas and Operacion Alemaon in 2010. Sources: Prefeitura de Rio de Janeiro

·         Todos Somos Juarez, is a presidential campaign that intervenes cosmetically in poor neighborhoods in Juarez at the same time that another presidential program is using military contra-insurgence tactics to dismantle the criminal organizations operating in the city. The areas of the projects (mainly playgrounds and parks) had become dumping ground for dead bodies’ from the bloody war that is still being waged. This backlash can be interpreted in two ways: that the interventions of the state had little impact on the scale of conflict, or on the other hand, that dead bodies in the parks is because these “perverse organizations” see these Todos Somos Juarez projects as attacks on their sovereignty.

Figure 3 Todos Somos Juarez publicity image and media images of the war on the drugs in the city of Juarez. source: AP Photo/Dario Lopez-Mills and

These three examples connect this trend of Latin American multi practice (urban upgrading) design as tools to re conquer spaces where the (Max) Weberian right of the state to control the means of repression is in frontal contestation. This memo focuses on this relationship between the urban space where the conflict happens and the armed actors who operate within it.
The informal settlements wars
From these three cases I can define two types of general conflicts. (1) One conflict is the traditional assumption that a “perverse organization” (its armies not their intellectual heads) located in a geographical position of the city are in constant confrontation with the state. This can be called an asymmetrical war. (2) The second kind of conflict is an internal one in which multiple perverse organizations fight each other for the control of territories, while maintaining some kind of contestation with the state forces. We can call this a symmetrical war.
One revealing operation that comes out of comparing these two types of wars is this: the incapacity of the state to claim sovereignty is the only constant. The actors whom the state is trying to control (eliminate) are actually constantly changing. This is something I have called the “continuum of violence” (Samper, 2010). This is defined by the fluctuation of different armed groups that enter and leave the conflict. These groups are responsible for perpetuating the violence. Further complicating the situation, these actors often switch sides (groups) of the conflicts. This fluctuation of a conflict group’s presence in a neighborhood, as well as changing conflict group affiliation, reveals a gap between the ideological political roots of the conflict and the people who actually fight in the conflict.
This implies that there is an environmental condition in the neighborhood that makes them prone to conflict and thus, the violence will reactivate once the group in power has been replaced by a new illegal actor.

I propose viewing the cities of Medellín’s and Rio de Janeiro violent history as a continuum of violence. In Juarez, I do not yet see these two types of wars (asymetrical and symmetrical). Moser (2004)[1] concludes that in the Medellín case it is the direct relationship of crime as a political action and the fact that security is not run by the state, but instead by the private sphere, which fuels the conflict. She builds on the work of Gutierrez and Jaramillo (2004)[2] to explain the continuous presence of armed political groupings in Medellín, Colombia, over the past 20 years. Gutierrez and Jaramillo argue that “[w]hile social exclusion is a strong indirect catalyst of urban violence; it is the conjuncture of the politicization of crime and the privatization of security that is the predominant causal factor.”[3]
Gutierrez and Jaramillo conclude that with continuous intervention from the municipal and national government authorities to broker peace accords “with all their positive aspects, the peace accords have only reshuffled the security personnel that proliferate in the city.”[4]  This implies that there is a reaction between the two types of wars (symmetrical and asymmetrical) and how one influences the other.
Ralph Rozema (2007)[5] supported this idea of “reshuffled” private security forces in the city. He writes that when the paramilitary group Bloque Cacique Nutibara (BCN)[6] expelled the other paramilitary group Bloque Metro from Medellín, the BCN incorporated some of the Bloque Metro fighters into its own group. This reshuffling of security personal as the only way of the individual fighters’ (and their family’s) economical subsistence is also reinforced by Suarez et al 2002.[7] They explained that from 1999 to 2002, “what marks this period is the political decision of the guerrilla to urbanize the war and the transfer of the actions of the autodefensas [right wing paramilitaries] to the city. The guerrilla groups use the different militia groups, and the autodefensas used the neighborhood gangs.” Angarita (2002)[8] confirms that “by 2000, the paramilitary groups had absorbed or/and control of most of the larger armed illegal gangs and had important battles with different armed factions of the insurgency [guerrilla].”
Medellín has been the site of these factions’ fighting with each other for control over territory since the 1990s. Francisco Gutiérrez and Ana María Jaramillo, made a “reconfiguration of the city’s security map” by means of what I am calling a continuum that ranges from gangs and hit killers (sicarios), through left-wing militia to right-wing paramilitary.” And I would add today that the interaction of the state with the paramilitary had permitted the proliferation of Combos (the new armed actor in Medellín, small drug trafficking and extortion gangs).
There is a lack of political, economic, and social structure in specific neighborhoods of Medellín and Rio de Janeiro; informal areas that come from a tradition of informal settlements that have not been reached by the political social and cultural infrastructure of the city.[9] It is this predominant spatial scale that permits the necessary isolation for the proliferation of a multiplicity of armed violent groups.
In Rio as in Medellin, this phenomenon of reshuffling illegal armed actors (drug lords and militias) has been occurring as far back as the 1970’s, according to some authors (Zaluar and Conceição , 2007) and going back for more than 2 decades (Fernandes, 2010).
In Rio de Janeiro this process follows a similar path to the one explained in Medellin. Here it is between the different factions of drug lords and their right wing counterpart the militias. The changing percentages of favelas controlled by drug lords versus militia are evidence of this reshuffling that reveals the control of perverse organizations is not hegemonic. This also exposes how vulnerable this type of environment (informal settlements, favelas) are to appropriations by non state repressive actors.
What I also want to emphasize is that the environmental conditions of the favela, as a place where violent acts happen, is not only dialectical, as in “the imaginary of fear” that Felipe Botelho Corrêa explores. Rather, I argue there should exist some lurking variables that explain why these physical spaces are taken by a multiplicity of groups within and outside its borders. This is because if the actors who perpetuate the acts of violence are not only from within the environment of the favela (or specific district), then this should imply that the environment (social and spatial) is susceptible to be manipulated by externalities. This is in contradiction to the traditional popular belief (exploited in the media) that the conditions that produce these manifestations of violence are seeded inside the favela. If this assertion is true, the important question is: Why are the favelas so susceptible to repressive manipulation by some actors and so resilient to resist others?

This question opens two interconnected comparative venues: (1) One is the biological metaphor of the favela-like environment as an organism that is susceptible to some kind of virus attack (illegal armed actors), but is also extremely resilient to others (state repressive institutions). Exploring its “biological” structure can provide some responses to those conditions of immune deficiency and efficiency. (2) The second venue is the military metaphor. Here the favela environment is reduced to a battlefield where physical spaces and inherent tactics of each army reveal conditions of positive and negative resilience.

A.      Viruses and Bacterias

Lets indulge in the biologic metaphor in which the favela-like environment is an organism, like  a bacteria, that is attacked by a virus. In a classic genetic 1943 study by Luria SE, and M Delbruck, "[m]utations of bacteria from virus sensitivity to virus resistance”  provides a preliminary understanding of the mechanisms that produce resilience in organisms after being attacked. They write:
When a pure bacterial culture is attacked by a bacterial virus, the culture will clear after a few hours due to destruction of the sensitive cells by the virus. However, after further incubation for a few hours, or sometimes days, the culture will often become turbid again, due to the growth of a bacterial variant which is resistant to the action of the virus. This variant can be isolated and freed from the virus and will in many cases retain its resistance to the action of the virus even if sub-cultured through many generations in the absence of the virus. While the sensitive strain adsorbed the virus readily, the resistant variant will generally not show any affinity to it.

Let’s follow the logic of the process of obtaining resistance to later compare it with some similar processes in informal settlements. (A) A foreign organism attacks the bacteria. (B) The bacteria is destroyed almost in its entirety, but given special conditions, the bacteria will mutate in such a way that it will become resistant to future attacks by the virus. This is the logic in vaccines and in general in the field of immunology. I found that this narrative of the sequence of how a organism transforms from sensitive to resistant had resonance with the foundational narrative of the neighborhood “El Triunfo” by co-founder Farconely Torres Usuga, in the city of Medellin (Samper and Marko, 2010). This story narrates the process of invasion of the community of a terrain in the hills of the city of Medellin and the subsequent efforts of eviction from the state and other formal actors. Farconely explains that
the neighborhood was started by and old man friend of ours. We were tired of paying for rent… he (the old man) invited us to come with him to the top of this hill where he had got a piece of land for him... So we started collecting sticks and materials and began building our new homes…the owners denounced us [meaning the police came]. First, they knocked down our houses, then, the second time, they burned them down with flag and everything.[10] I sat to the side of the burning flag, watching my house and everything I had burning, and I began to cry. Because I knew they were never going to leave us alone. Later when more people had settled, we were already 12 families and we decided to get everyone together… and we all got on a bus and went down [downtown] to the government building to protest. We stood all of us with our kids outside the building… And so finally, they said yes, that we could live in our houses, and that nothing would happen to them. So they (the governor) gave us a paper that said they would stop knocking down our houses and burning them. So we got back on the bus and when we got home, everyone started singing “We have triumphed!” And every one was shouting “we have triumphed!” so we decided that since we had triumphed, we would call the neighborhood The Triumph (El Triunfo).

In this resilience story we can follow each stage identified by Luria’s and Delbruck’s genetic study from sensibility to resistance. The community for this case acts as the bacteria and the owners and the state act as virus in the sense that they are attacking the community. The neighborhood is destroyed in two occasions: first to pieces and second to ashes. The first time, the neighborhood is rebuilt out of the pieces of the destruction and the virus attacks again not leaving any material for reconstruction (burning). The community seem to have learned about the process of eviction and found the “loophole” of the burning of the flag (symbol) which empowers the community to challenge the state in claiming ownership.  This final attack on the community, instead of destroying completely (sensitivity), actually provides the legitimizing grounds for immunized (resistance) of this community against further eviction from the state or owners.
Luria SE, and M Delbruck further conclude that “the resistant bacteria arise by mutations of sensitive cells independently of the action of virus.” Basically this means that intrinsic changes in the structure of the body attacked (mutations of the bacteria) happen at the scale of the bacteria and are independent of the structure of the virus. Secondly, they conclude that “the mutation rate can be determined experimentally”. That for a number of attacks you can eventually at least experimentally determine a probable mutation rate.
This is how I interpret these results in the contexts of informal settlements against the evictions of formal actors (state, police, military force). In the processes of urbanization of informal settlements’, the constant fights between the formal actors who possess the means of repressive power against encroachments’ of informal communities produce, just by sheer numbers of interactions (attacks), mutations in the way such communities behave in relationship to these formal attacks. Thus, the new generation of informal settlements and the communities in them produce “mutations” changes in the way they protect themselves, which in turn, makes them resilient to the same kind of interventions by the state. The case of the neighborhood El Triunfo is probably one the few successful instances in a long process of evictions in the city of Medellin. The “mutations” or changes that produced this resilience are the result of this multiplicity of failed cases. They are not then necessarily the result of changes in the structure of the state (as many ways is seen from the narratives of the state actors and the media who quote them). I admit that there are many limits to this comparison, that this is not generalizable evidence. But the biological metaphor provides light on the mechanisms inside the conflicts between informal settlements and the formal state. It also sheds light on how these informal communities survive and evolve in this asymmetrical conflict.

B.      Urban Warfare

The second comparison is less metaphorical because the space of the favela-like environment is actually seen from all armed actors as a battlefield where a constant war is being waged. And consequently urban warfare theory is actually applied to these environments, specifically the point of view of the formal state armed forces. The “Operacion Orión” in 2002 in Medellin, Colombia and the Alemão Operation in 2010 are examples of full war operations that clearly explains this state use of military strategy to take over territories.
But there are other types of wars happening at the scale of the favela-like environment. In Medellin, Rio and Juarez, the different factions of drug lords fight for areas of control. Territories change factions constantly. Another kind of external actor appears. In the case of Medellin, Milicias populares (Urban left wing guerrillas) and the paramilitaries are military non state groups that fight the state at the national scale and apply to an urban environment, their own military combat strategy they use in rural areas.  In Rio de Janeiro, the militias (state dissident groups, not to be confused with the left wing milicias populares of Medellin), combat the drug lords using a combination of state-learned tactics and techniques used by their drug lord rivals. This is because some of these militia members are actually trained military and police personnel as well as also using drug lord techniques of extortion.
Here I explore two different theoretical positions on urban warfare to understand the logic of urban conflict in the favela-like environment, both from the point of view of the state and the illegal armed groups. First is the position of Eyal Weizman (2007) in his "Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation" which explores Israel’s military position against the urbanization of the Gaza strip by Palestinians. In this case, I loosely attached the qualification of “informal settlement” to the cities and refugee camps which Palestinians inhabit. What in the favelas is rhetorical “the favelados as criminals,” in the Israel –Palestinian conflict is politica; and military doctrine. As Weizman explores in his critique of the state of Israel tactic in the hands Ariel Sharon:
Sharon began to view the conflict with Palestinian guerrillas in the Gaza strip as an urban problem that must be addressed by the transformation of Palestinian cities and refugee camps, which he named the ‘habitat of this terror’.[11]

In Sharon’s habitat of terror statement it is implied that the urban form is an active participant in the conflict. Thus, it is a rival that needs to be eliminated. The formalization of the destruction of the Palestian city is what Weizman called the “Matrix”. The matrix is a circulatory grid cut in the similar way that Haussmann cut the historic fabric of the city of Paris, which permits the undisturbed flows of troops and tanks through the Palestinian cities. Changing the urban form of Palestinian cities from the physical informality to the rational geometric form of the state of Israel provides them the military advantage.
To understand why the dissection of Palestinian cities is so important, it is necessary to put this idea in conversation with U.S. urban warfare strategies. Major Robert E. Everson in his Standing at the gates of the city: operational level actions and urban warfare place argue that urban warfare is a more complex endeavor than traditional warfare and warns about technologically advanced army deficiencies as the United States confronted on urban fields. He writes:
Tactical urban combat creates a battlefield in which most engagements are fought to the bitter end. Units making contact collide with the enemy in close quarters and opponents can easily become decisively engaged. One or both sides quickly loses its ability to maneuver. Operational planning for urban warfare has to consider that combat units have a high probability of being used only once before major reorganization or reconstitution must occur. The U.S. Army is not prepared to conduct offensive operational and tactical level operations in urban terrain during a conventional war. More importantly, the (US) army is not prepared to pay the price for this type of combat.[12]

Furthermore, urban environments provide symmetry to unbalanced technological opponents, as Everson explains in terms of how  a “low-technology, foot-mobile army can establish symmetry with a high-technology, mobile army by selecting a large city as the battleground.” Former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld's infamous memo on the future of Iraqi operations place some light onto the asymmetry of war. When referring to “The War on Terror”, he explains,  “[t]he cost-benefit ratio is against us! Our cost is billions against the terrorists' costs of millions.” This, in a way, explains many of the unsuccessful policing and military operations in Medellin and in Rio de Janeiro. It also explains the predicament of states against their apparently non-symmetrical adversaries and helps explain the success of non-state armed actors in removing or absorbing other non-state armed actors in the battlefield of the favela-like environment.

Robert R. Tomes provides in his “Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare” a double perspective of this new typology of war. He proposes that added to the traditional tactical operations of the new war field, a secondary and mediated war should be fought. This concept is what he calls the “cognitive terrain”:

the counterinsurgent must possess the training, capability, and will to fight on cognitive terrain. Toward this end he (counterinsurgency) must develop and deploy psychological operations units, propaganda operations, and social service units that foster the impression that the government is addressing underlying socio-economic problems. Additionally, the insurgent must be exposed as preventing the government from solving these problems.[13]

We can place Weizman’s “matrix,” (the modification of the environment where the enemy exists to provide military advantage to the “state”) alongside Tomes’s contra insurgent “cognitive war” (where social service units that foster the impression that the government is addressing underlying socio-economic problems) in the environment of today’s multi practice urban upgrading with an emphasis on physical transformation and social services provided by the until them absent state.

When we do this, we have to come to the realization that what the governments in Medellin and Rio de Janeiro (and less successfully Juarez) are accomplishing with their urban upgrading projects is two-fold. These governments are as much attacking the problem of poverty and inequality as they are providing larger leverage for state armies in the urban warfare battlefield (favelas). They do this by eliminating the physical and social conditions that give advantage to those armed groups that are fighting.

Everson, Robert E. 1995. Standing at the gates of the city: operational level actions and urban warfare. Fort Leavenworth, Kan: School of Advanced Military Studies, U.S. Army Command and General Staff College.

Fernandes, Edesio. Centro Ciudades de la Gente: Pela legalizacao das favelas cariocas.

Luria SE, and M Delbruck. 1943. "Mutations of Bacteria from Virus Sensitivity to Virus Resistance". Genetics. 28 (6): 491-511.

Mendel, Yonatan, and Eyal Weizman. 2007. "Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation". The London Review of Books. 29 (15): 13.

Robert R Tomes.  2004. Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare. Parameters 34, no. 1, (April 1): 16-28. (accessed March 4, 2011).

Rojas, Eduardo. 2010. Building cities neighborhood upgrading and urban quality of life. [Washington, D.C.]: Inter-American Development Bank.

Rubio, Mauricio. 1997. "Perverse Social Capital: Some Evidence from Colombia". Journal of Economic Issues. 31 (3).

Rumsfeld, Donald. 2005. Global War on Terrorism. Rumsfeld's war-on-terror memo. May 20.

Samper, Jose, and Tamera Marko. Medellin mi Hogar / My home Medellin: 15 El Triunfo.

ZALUAR, A.; CONCEIÇÃO, I. S. Favelas sob o controle das milícias no Rio de Janeiro: que paz?. São Paulo em Perspectiva, São Paulo, Fundação Seade, v. 21, n. 2, p. 89-101, jul./dez. 2007. Disponível em: <>; <>.

Rumsfeld', Donald. 2005. Global War on Terrorism. Rumsfeld's war-on-terror memo. May 20.

[1] Moser, Caroline O N. 2004. "Editor's Introduction: Urban violence and insecurity: An introductory roadmap". Environment and Urbanization. 16 (2): 3.
[2] Gutierrez Sanin, Francisco, and Ana Maria Jaramillo. 2004. "Crime, (counter-)insurgency and the privatization of security -- The case of Medellin, Colombia". Environment and Urbanization. 16 (2): 17.
[3] Ibid. 6
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ralph Rozema, “Medellin in Fractured Cities: Social Exclusion, Urban Violence and Contested Spaces in Latin America.” In Kees Koonings, Dirk Kruijt, eds., Zed Books, 2007:58.
[6] The Cacique Nutivara Bloc (in Spanish, Bloque Cacique Nutibara, or BCN) was a Colombian paramilitary bloc founded by Diego Murillo Bejarano, affiliated with the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitary umbrella group.
[7] Suárez Rodríguez, Clara; Giraldo Giraldo, Carlos; García García, Héctor; López López, María; Cardona Acevedo, Marleny; Corcho Mejía, Carolina; Posada Rendón, Carlos. “Medellín entre la muerte y la vida. Escenarios de homicidios, 1990-2002.” En publicacion: Estudios Políticos, No. 26. Instituto de Estudios Políticos: Colombia. Enero - Junio. 2005 01215167.
[8] Pablo Angarita. 2002 “Conflictos violentos en Medellín: reflexiones”. Las Ciudades entre fuegos y exclusiones. Memorias del Seminario.
[9]Is interesting understand that in Medellin this barrios had been reach by basic infrastructure of water energy and sewer that is different to many other cities in Colombia and Latino America
[10] At this time in Medellin, there was an unspoken understanding between the state armed forces and the communities (a loop hole in the constitution) were any homes with a Colombian flag raised would not get torn down when the army or police was sent to “clear out” the settlements.
[11] Weizman, Eyal. 2006. "The Architecture of Ariel Sharon". Third Text. 20 (3-4): 334.
[12] Page 5
[13] Robert R Tomes.  2004. Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare. Parameters 34, no. 1, (April 1): 16-28. (accessed March 4, 2011).