Cops, security & the (thin blue) line that divides

There is a distinct yet convoluted relationship between a nation’s level of (neoliberal) development and the uniformity of its security forces. In the ‘first world’ there are those whom are clearly deputized to wield force, such as cops and soldiers, and those who exist on the margins as keepers of the peace but outside of the legal realm of lethal force–commercial security guards, private security, bouncers, etc.

As one who typically demonizes armed agents of the State, I find it interesting and often necessary to separate out the nuances of these labels.  For example, when I was a student in Jamaica, I was once chased down a mountain road by a pack of dogs.  After being nipped by several, I came upon a bar which was ‘guarded’ by a man who stood outside and provided a visual presence for would-be troublemakers.  This man was my savior.  He saw my panic, broke a long switch off a tree, and wacked the lead dog in the head, scaring away the pack.  Now while I am no fan of violence against animals, this man was well thanked.  Does his presence in a protector capacity, as the hurler of drunks and the citer of parking violations make him on par with a Kingston cop who in the same month murdered tens of poor citizens for ‘rioting’ and ‘looting’ during Hurricane Ivan? I think not.

As the insurrectionists say, ‘All Cops Are Bastards,’ and while this may be true, not all cop-like people are in fact cops.


In these venues of the global south, uniforms are the deciphering key in interpreting not only legitimacy, but also jurisdiction and purpose.  The man in Jamaica had no uniform, only a flashlight.   Everyone has their role. Police stop you for speeding, security guards watch armored cars, ATMs and shop lifters, and soldiers engage in foreign wars. It is all neat and tidy, and in one manner of speaking, this is the mark of ‘advanced Statehood,’ civilized society and other such idiotic idioms.  After all to be considered a privileged combatant via the Geneva Convention, one must have “a fixed distinctive sign recognizable at a distance,” in other words, be uniformed.

One of the first things many visitors to the “developing world” notice is the blurred nature of these lines. As I write today, I am in the fourth floor apartment of a nouveau riche building in Lima, Peru’s tourist friendly Miraflores neighborhood. The neighborhood has its own security forces, that patrol with great visibility in their blue-lighted pickup trucks and motorcycles. The signage and sloganeering reads, “seguridad ciudadana,” public safety.  The phrasing itself is interesting…check out a superficial treatment at:

miraflores security2

In Miraflores, these blue uniformed men (and likely women) are not cops but they do police. They are not soldiers but they do patrol. They are not granted the right to wield lethal force in the same manner in which the governed submit to the violence of the police, yet they act with an assumed legitimacy due to the uniformity with which they operate.

These distinctions become even more complicated with the manner in which police shifts are structured.  Often times, cops are scheduled in 24 hour shifts, as in they work for an entire day and then have an entire day off.  In this structure, cops can use their off days (referred to as “franco”), to remain in their authoritative uniform yet sell their services to whomever is willing to pay.  This means that on their days off, cops can earn extra money by moonlighting as security guards for restaurants, casinos, offices, etc.  They can police these establishments with no legal authority but in their uniform which grants them such legitimacy to the unknowing eye.  In this manner, one can never tell if a uniformed cop is acting for the interests of the city/State or of a private business;  if they have the legal “right” to use deadly force or not.

When you venture out into the more working class, night life areas, the security nexus becomes even more convoluted.

Last night as I sat on the beach of the Pacific Ocean at a spot known as the ‘horseshoe’ beach, I was greeted by a rough, largely toothless, but friendly looking man in his 30s wearing a black and reflective orange tactical vest with ‘seguridad’ printed on the back. securityWhen my friend and I sat down to have a drink on the beach side, we knew he would be involved. Before we could even settle into our perch, he came by for his part of the grey economy. He explained in rapid Spanish that he was here for our protection, to ensure that we were looked after from the dangers of the night, and in doing so, we were voluntarily obliged to pay him his 1 sole ($0.37). We only had a 5 sole coin ($1.83) and conveniently, he did not have change. So we paid him the 5 and went on with our conversation.

We sat beneath a billboard outlining the rules of the beach, the first one (of course) being that it is illegal to consume (not sell) alcohol. Never the less, when we felt the desire, with a single wave of the hand the security guard was by our side. We asked if beer was available and he warned us against the 12 sole ($4.40) beers sold inside of the adjacent clubs that reminded on of the plastic vodka-red bull shit holes in Atlantic City, NJ. He said that while we could get beers there for 12, he could bring us one for 7 ($2.57).

We obliged.

So the security guard walked a few meters away and spoke to a tiny woman sitting in a lawn chair. She passed him a single large beer and two small juice glasses. The guard brought it over, opened the beer with the bottle opener affixed to his tactical vest (how convenient), and gave us our change…minus a 1 sole tip which he explained was implied in the transaction.

In this small 8 sole transaction,the guard got his 1, the women selling the beer got her 7, and the underground economy marched on.

A few minutes later, almost as if it was expected, a white and red National Police patrol came by. perucop1

Now as two white skinned, Americans in Lima at 3am I was not worried about incarceration for the open container, but curious as to how this would proceed. The police stopped and the security guard quickly approached. Though they were far enough away that I could not hear the conversation, I got the jist. The police asked about the two gringos having a beer, ignored the woman obviously selling the beer and providing glasses, but because we had paid for the good graces of the guard, we were left alone. Assumingly he told the police that we were cool, passed on a fraction of his 5 sole wage extraction, and the cops moved on to the next guard further down the beach.

In this manner, the soles go round and round. The alcohol-consuming patron pays the guard who buys beer from the vendor who is protected in her illegal vending by the police which were bribed by the guard’s fee paid by the drinkers. In one 8 sole transaction, three people are paid, two of which acting in the name of security and public order. Oh and the security guard, he is unarmed but carries a bright orange whistle to scare away potential criminals.

Now this particular security guard was certainly low on the hierarchy of legitimacy. He had no gun, no uniform outside of the vest, and no menacing truck with lights. In other neighborhoods like Miraflores, the security guards would be mistaken for cops by anyone unable to read the signage. Certainly the presence of non-police security forces is carried out in the name of tourism, happy consumers, and the recreation of the area’s image as one of tranquility and not petty crime. miraflores security

As you would expect, not everyone is happy with these arrangements.

I saw a great bit of this resentment in the streets and on the walls.  In the side streets around Plaza San Martin, right near the posh (former worker controlled) Hotel Bolivar, in the area contextualized to me as the center of Lima’s counter cultural scene, the walls displayed anarchist graffiti condemning the presence of private security.


A slogan reading ‘Private security out of our lives’ with a circle A made that statement clear.

Of course these graffiti writers are equally (if not more) opposed to the actual police, but the presence of the guards apparently warranted scorn.

So what does all this say about the constructed legitimacy of security and the governed’s acceptance of being policed? I return to my initial observation in that there is a patterned relationship between a country’s status as ‘developing’ and the presence of a variety of men with uniforms, flashing lights, bulletproof vests and some authority.

Men in beige colored shirts and dark brown bullet proof vests stand outside of banks with huge revolvers affixed to their sides. Like the beach guard, these men are not cops, but because they are guarding a bank and not a couple of beer drinking tourists, they are allowed guns. Other armed men sit in what can only be described as toll booth-looking sheds and guard apartments buildings and streets. They too are armed, and sit watching small TVs and providing the image of a secured and policed suburb in the center of a bustling city. I have seen the same throughout residential neighborhoods in South America. They are the Peruvian equivalent of the (unarmed) guards who control entry and exit to gated communities in the US.  Difference exists with seemingly no logic.

And let’s not fool ourselves, it’s the same in the US.  In my DC neighborhood, why is Best Buy and Target guarded by the police, and Marshals and Safeway guarded by private security?  Why are private security at banks allowed to be armed in a city where concealed guns are not a legal reality?

So what is the hierarchy in a place like Lima?  In the roughest manner possible, it can be shown in my limited experience to be something like this:

1.) beach security guard with whistle

2.) neighborhood level security guards with uniforms, trucks, but no guns

3.) bank, apartment and other commercial (deputized?) guards with guns and uniforms of sorts but without transports

4.) cops (i.e. policia nacional)

5.) soldiers

The fact that I am unable to diagram this with an accuracy or assuredness may say more about the state of affairs then the actual taxonomy itself.

Alas, I have the rest of the Summer to untangle this mess.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

  • Enter your email address to follow this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

%d bloggers like this: