Urban Sovereignty in the Age of Pandemics: Illicit Actors and the Crisis of Governance

By Graham Denyer Willis & Diane E. Davis 

This essay is part of Emergent Conversation 12, ILLICITIES: City-Making and Organized Crime

Protesters from the NGO ‘Rio De Paz’ dig symbolic graves as a sign of protest in Copacabana beach on June 11, 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Volunteers dug 100 shallow graves symbolizing the deaths of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the country. The act calls for transparency and an attitude change from the government to fight the pandemic. Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown much of the world into disarray, with cities and their residents often suffering disproportionately. The nature of urban density and fluidity helps promote contagion, particularly when masking and other health measures are not strictly imposed. Cities in the Global South suffer more acutely than in other regions, though, for three reasons: they host high degrees of poverty and inequality, their urban form has long been sharply bifurcated along class, political and spatial lines, and they rely on illicit practices and power configurations that challenge local authorities to monitor and manage the work and shelter conditions necessary for containing the virus. In short, conditions of the urban are not universal; they are distinctively spatialized in historic patterns of urbanization, and when criminal activities sustain alternative regimes of authority they reveal both spaces of flows and spaces of vulnerability that challenge formal governance efforts to monitor open-ness and closure.

Diverse reactions to COVID-19, including shutdowns, quarantines, contact-tracing, social distancing, remaining “open,” bring political responses to the forefront. As some scholars have long noted, cities are not just unequal and dense, they are sites of splintered governance especially in the Global South [1]. Multiple spheres and logics of governance, with their own claims to sovereignty, take center stage in responses to this pandemic. This is true even within a single city, which can be both locked down and open at the same time.

This essay examines the nature of governance in the context of global pandemics, and in particular the emergence of scalar and sovereignty tensions between state and non-state actors in cities of the Global South. To what extent does a health crisis with direct life and death consequences empower illicit actors in their sovereignty agendas? Under what conditions will they be successful? And what are the implications for democratic governance and the balance of power between licit and illicit governing authorities?

RIO DE JANEIRO, BRAZIL – MARCH 22: A view of Selaron Steps sealed off during a lockdown aimed at stopping the spread of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic on March 22, 2020 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Sundays would normally be a busy day, but is relatively quiet with additional precautions being taken amid the coronavirus (COVID-19). Rio de Janeiro´s state government imposed restrictions to public transport. Bus lines and trains are closed, ferries and subway are running at a limited capacity. According to the Ministry of Health, as of Sunday, March 22, Brazil had 1.546 confirmed cases of the coronavirus (COVID-19) and at least 25 recorded deaths. Photo by Wagner Meier/Getty Images.

Castells once described cities as distinctive nodal densities in a global “space of flows.”[2] Thus, cities are sites of flows. Scholarship on these spaces of flows often focus on capital, commodities, and openness typically associated with neoliberal globalization. These densities are of people, of money, of data, and of a global political economy that must flow in space even as it rests in densities. Similarly, this kind of flow must transcend national borders, superseding them in both economic and political terms, weakening state-centric politics and borders. Here, a claim to sovereignty emerges based on economic primacy, hinging on outsized capital, productivity, and influence beyond the nation state. Such a claim to authority requires openness, fluidity, and global connectivity.

These three characteristics, though, are also the basic conditions for apex viral diffusion, defining why and how illness may spread. The city in global context is both diffusion and density of people. In a moment when the urban is dramatically resurgent—epitomized in the global nature of land speculation, gentrification, and data as urbanization—the history and politics of territorial connectivities, or their lack thereof, become a precondition for the rapid transmission of Covid-19. Covid-19 is an urban illness in global terms, yet the ways it lands in urban space determines its impacts, not just in health terms but also with respect to the functioning and priorities of governing institutions that have been empowered through their capacity to regulate flows of people and goods through and in dense proximity.

All of this underpins the paradoxes at play in early Covid-19 responses that work across national and urban politics. Recently, we have seen a wide range of responses to the crisis from governing authorities in Latin America, South Asia, and Africa. In Mexico, President Andrés Manuel López Obrador held back on imposing social distancing or quarantine measures, arguing that the poor would suffer most if they were not allowed to continue working, and also invoking fundamentalist religious references that gave the impression that all one needed was spiritual faith to survive the crisis. Since then, he has been under pressure to institute quarantine measures, and has slowly changed his position.

It appears that with quarantine measures in place and the global economy disrupted, Mexico is seeing fundamentally altered local economies of criminality and extortion.[3] These impacts appear to be challenging the rent-seeking capacities of longstanding mafia organizations in ways that could change the political calculations of both state and non-state armed actors in the ongoing battles to control Mexico’s urban and regional territories. In South Africa, a similar sign of transformed illicit relationships has emerged, as coronavirus mitigation efforts have brought rival gangs together in “slum” neighborhoods where they had long battled each other for dominion.[4]

In India, by contrast, President Modi followed the lead of countries in the Global North, imposing quarantine measures and strict restrictions on movement. He has used police to arrest and prosecute urban migrant workers who desperately seek to return to their rural homes to find subsistence to compensate for their lost incomes as the city closed down. Religious extremism has emerged in this context as well. Authorities and citizens alike used the isolation bans as an excuse to discipline and punish certain residents, both foreigners (Americans and Europeans living in India) and Muslims. This, in addition to stoking twilight mob-ilization. The latter actions grew from the Hindu-nationalist discourse by Modi after his election. Despite this fallout, and since, Modi extended the lockdown, and now is keen on a massive vaccination program that will nonetheless leave large swathes of the poor unprotected.

Brazil has taken yet a third pathway, with President Bolsonaro making light of the virus and its contagion, and flagrantly defying national and international health officials’ suggestions to respond with more drastic measures. This has been typified by more recent statements that the vaccine would make people “turn into alligators”[5].  “I want to have nothing to do with this,” he said. In response to his failure to act, however, other “governing” actors in some of Brazil’s major cities have stepped up, marshalling efforts to impose safety measures, including quarantine, in select neighborhoods where they hold coercive authority. The most prominent of these actors are local criminal organizations with a longstanding track-record of controlling well-defined physical spaces in the city. This response is not confined to Brazil. Mafia cartels, gangs, and criminal organizations in a variety of countries across the Global South have behaved similarly. Gangs in El Salvador are modeling the curfew behavior seen in Brazil; drug cartels in Mexico are offering aid packages to hard-hit communities; and in Afghanistan, “the Taliban has dispatched health teams to far-flung provinces to confront the coronavirus.”[6]

People wait to get donations of basic food supplies distributed by an NGO to people suffering during the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak at the Cidade de Deus (City of God) favela in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil on April 7, 2020. Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images.

All of this begs attention to a second kind of flow, what Neil Smith once described as the “space of vulnerability.”[7] The space of vulnerability is attached to and derived from any space of flows. The openness, fluidity, and the economic value of any space is not boundless. All must be secured and protected against real or perceived threats, thus requiring formats of closure. The political construction and maintenance of “openness” is only possible against terms of closure, securitization, delineations of who and what is in, and who and what is out. In contemporary times, such terms are increasingly proactive and data-driven, working through logics of mitigation, proactivity, and prediction. But they are also crude, as in devaluing of “alligator-making” vaccines, and the generalized absent care for life—failing water, sewerage, primary health provision—that depresses wages and labor. This “vulnerability” takes acute spatial and material form.

The space of vulnerability is punitive but nonetheless economically productive, say its proponents, powering its own modes of containment through privatized prisons, extractive and expulsing deportation centers, and forms of policing that derive profit through debts, fines, and bureaucratic costs. The densities and flows of the space of vulnerability encompass those who cannot or should not transcend borders: highly racialized or ethnicized urban communities, the subjects of policing, urban segregation, and imprisonment. In other words, the space of vulnerability works through a patterning like what Dominique Moran calls the “carceral space:” a spatial paradigm of human and material flows that constantly moves poor populations to and from specific urban spaces and prisons—and, increasingly, from cities to prisons to deportation sites to other cities.[8] The space of vulnerability is imbued in the making of offshoring and nearshoring, such that deportation to places like Guatemala allow companies to provide “competitively priced services but also a convenient time zone, what the industry calls value-neutral accents, and an unbeatable (simply unteachable) degree of cultural affinity with North American consumers[9].

Attention to these two spaces is helpful for pulling apart the crisis of sovereignty. Many assume that “closure” is a question of governance and security at the scale of the nation-state. Indeed, resurgent populist nationalisms imply that this is the case. Yet because the space of flows transcends national borders, centering on the city, the securitization of countries at and through national borders is an insufficient response. Closing or tightening national borders does not deal with the actual spatial paradigm of the global political economy.

Rather, “openness” and “closure” butt-up against each other at a different scale, one more local and lived. Together they circumscribe a global condition made local, where elite families travel, return as vectors to doting private health care, and infect “the help” who depend on failing public health provision—and who die. Such was Rio’s first, and paradigmatic, case[10].

This is an urban question, with particular spatial correlates. These two kinds of flows exist and are reproduced in the city proper, assuming materialized, social and spatial patterns and reproduction. Within a single globally connected city, there is necessarily both a space of flows and a space of vulnerability, one global and “open,” the other highly local and punitive. Cities in the Global South, in particular, must disaggregate who benefits from the global economy, and who can be used and made vulnerable by it.

Aerial view showing the Pavao-Pavaozinho favela (R) and Copacabana neighbourhood in Rio de Janeiro state, Brazil, on May 22, 2020, during the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. – Overcrowded neighbourhoods and a big population within poverty levels are a big challenge Latin American countries are facing during this global pandemic. Brazil, the hardest-hit country in the region, has surpassed 20,000 deaths, according to figures released by Brazil’s Ministry of Health. Photo by MAURO PIMENTEL/AFP via Getty Images.

The question, in part, is how to make sense of this spatial distinction in empirical, “intra-urban” terms. Why might it matter and where? How can it be made knowable? What constitutes the “border” and its production and enforcement?

Like the city itself, these spatial differentiations are social; they are produced and reproduced in the everyday social construction of the city. Usually, differentiating between the space of flows and the space of vulnerability requires disaggregating social relations, asking who policing is for and how it happens, who has infrastructure, and who is the subject of symbolic violence that maintains spatial inequality. This is an evidently pressing question but one that is totally banal, requiring an epistemological approach to the messy interpellation of both kinds of spaces as they work through relations of labor, class, and space, cohering in wooly processes like the informal economy. And yet, understanding the problem can be effectively approached, initially at least, with a question: Who can be the subject of vulnerability and who cannot?

The space of vulnerability takes on particular governance qualities in cities of the Global South. Here, “vulnerability” is, in many ways, the pith of survival in the city. It undergirds informal urbanization on floodplains and steep hillsides, inequitable political relations in space, the absent provision of infrastructure and everyday violent policing. Such vulnerability pollinates with the illicit, by virtue of formation outside the law. Here, too, such conditions are the basis for particular kinds of community, identity, and organization.

Davis (2009) once called such logics the foundations of “new imagined communities,” serving as rallying points that can accrue to the point of service provision, security, and the consolidation of authority—governance or sovereignty—in space.[11] Their particular and insurgent claims to sovereignty rely on the historic and spatial patterning of collective vulnerability and incipient forms of organization as a result. And even though such governance is distinctive in space, it always exists in relation to other forms and scales of governance, both at urban and national scales. It takes shape in myriad everyday processes, whether through the “illicit networks” that circumscribe the ballot box, in the unexceptional circulation of “cloned cars,” or in the manifold ways that the “margins” are always central to political life. [12], [13] & [14] In this way, the extent to which modes of governance are discrete, and how they might relate to each other, is often as difficult to disentangle as is the “bright line” between the space of flows and the space of vulnerability.

In a global pandemic, though, these governance patterns have broken through, cutting through the everyday complexity and urban relationality to a different kind of visibility. Claims to authority, differing with respect to how the population should be defended from illness, have grated against each other, with the absence or delay of political action at urban and national scales spurring other iterations of governance to act.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil is a case in point. Amid lackadaisical, and possibly malign, national government intervention by Bolsonaro and slow clamp-downs by local government, illicit governance actors took it upon themselves to disaggregate the complexity and the threat of illness. In doing so, they delineated the space of flows from the space of vulnerability on their own, through a logic of who belongs and who constitutes a potential—internationally connected—“vector.”

On the 19th of March, 2020, a Rio de Janeiro news outlet reported that the “drug traffickers” of two centrally located city favelas had laid down a spatial prohibition:

By order of the local drug trafficking command, tourists are prohibited from entering two of Rio de Janeiro’s principal favelas, Rocinha and Vidigal, both on the south side of the city and with views over the sea. The prohibition is being carried out at the access points to the communities, with trafficking “sentries” impeding visitors. All of this is happening because of the fear of contamination of the new coronavirus.[15] 

Tourists have taken to visiting these favelas in their own predictable circuitry and flow, moving along main thoroughfares, stopping in predetermined spots and consuming essentialist tropes of “favela life.” But tourist vans and walking tours are also some of the most obvious international connections to “outsiders” that, at the time, were being cast as potential carriers bringing the illness from abroad. Some spaces in Rio and other cities came under “curfews” and demands from other “non-state” actors emerged soon after, although, again, all have not been punitive.[16]

To a great degree, the disciplinary actions imposed by favela or other local mafias on co-residents in their own territories can be seen as paralleling the market-led capital accumulation logics that explain why national leaders have closed down country borders.  In this era of neoliberalism, federal authorities define their mandate as that of protecting the long-term future of their national economies. Such a mandate generally requires an openness to global flows of people and goods but structured in ways that maximizes benefits for domestic firms and national GDP, despite the fact that to accrue these gains, domestic firms rely on unfettered international access to supply and demand chains.

In the context of an illicit governance regime at the scale of the favela or the “urban periphery,” the same logic is at work. Given that their authority rests on the capacity to control flows of people and goods, isolation will be very difficult to mandate and monitor without undue hardship on local populations. This will inevitably produce pushback from residents, who with all of the proximities and flows that sustain their livelihoods will find isolation or quarantine very difficult to accept.

In this sense, spatial actions undertaken by illicit, non-state actors to protect their markets will inevitably produce tensions, not merely with respect to any “social contract” with residents, but also with the larger accumulation logics that initially empowered these non-state actors. Whether at the scale of the nation or the favela, spaces can be closed off in order to protect existing economic activities; but such actions can undermine future prosperity if they disable flows of people and goods for too long. As such, efforts to territorially regulate “vulnerable spaces” are themselves highly vulnerable, subject to their own contradictions. And it is these contradictions that will destabilize both local sovereignty and entire governance systems, including a nested system that is built on tacit “sovereignty” agreements between licit and illicit/non-state actors.

The ways such closure policies create tensions within a networked governance system have also clearly manifested in the emerging conflicts between national, state, and local authorities over quarantine and control measures in the U.S. In American cities, citizens of certain class, immigrant, or racial status also are more likely to be suffering from both the health and the economic fallout of Covid-19.  Yet local authorities may not be willing or able to target only the most disadvantaged urban populations when they adopt a general public health mandate as a guide.  Likewise, efforts to revive the urban economy as a whole may fail to address the needs of the self-employed, small firms, or others whose work is more irregular. The conflicts between governing actors concerned with different scales of economic recovery can be seen as a struggle over whose economic needs should be buttressed first, and at what territorial scale, if action to preserve accumulation gains is most effective. Thus, the pandemic has created serious fissures in political systems. This is especially so when governance power is uneasily distributed across institutions that operate at national and state levels, and in which the city level sits precariously, despite the fact that cities are where the negative effects of the virus are experienced most dramatically. Far more than a health crisis, this is a governance crisis.

The paradoxical and conflict-generating political responses now seen across nations, states, cities, and neighborhoods across the Global South starkly reveal the fragility of existing sovereignty arrangements. In this context, longstanding political ideologies, histories of state formation, and uses of force operate to mitigate or reinforce governance tensions. In Mexico (also a federal system), there appears to be growing disagreement between state governors and President López Obrador about the best course of action. Just as in the U.S., the rural versus urban composition of different states has produced tensions across these scales of power with respect to the urgency of the health crisis, and how to respond, making the uneven distribution of densities a key predictor of future conflict.

Residents of the Santa Marta favela, in Botafogo, in the South Zone of Rio, start on April 10, 2020 to work on cleaning the areas of the community on their own. The objective is to prevent the lack of sanitary conditions from facilitating the expansion of the Covid-19 region. volunteers start the process with personal protective equipment (PPE). The Botafogo neighborhood, where the Santa Marta slum is located, had 36 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus as of this Sunday, according to the State Health Secretariat Panel. In the municipality of Rio alone, 1068 cases were recorded, according to the same panel. Cases across the state totaled 1394 cases. Photo by Fabio Teixeira/NurPhoto via Getty Images.

In the age of pandemics, subsumed logics of governance have surfaced and their durability is far from certain. In this context, whither citizenship? As the days and months of quarantine, distancing, and isolation drag on, and as local, national, and global economies continue their downward trundle, we are beginning to see popular stirrings among individuals and collectivities who are pushing back against governing authorities when they see health-justified policy actions as undermining other aspirations like freedom and autonomy. Those engaging in such responses have their ideological underpinnings, to be sure. Yet for every right-wing group outraged that the government is overstepping its bounds, there are collectivities of the historically disenfranchised, the oppressed, and the marginalized who are clamoring for more protection of their health and their livelihoods. The reality is that citizens in the latter category are also more likely to be the subject of punitive policing actions disguised as health measures (but also evidenced other places in the world including Paris and Palestine). Yet this also means that these citizens may be more readily mobilized to question the sovereignty and governance arrangements that helped institutionalize their extreme vulnerabilities in the first place.

In light of these trends, we must ask about the future of citizenship in territories governed by illicit sovereignties. Will the relations between criminal leaders and residents endure through the pandemic? And if so, for good or bad? Will changes in the relationships between the rulers and the ruled alter the larger context of co-existing sovereignties in which licit and illicit governance regimes continue to operate on different spatial scales or unevenly across urban and national territories? These are the research questions we hope to pursue in the months ahead.

Graham Denyer Willis is Senior Lecturer in Development Studies and Latin American Studies in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge. He is concerned with the politics of life and death, and the ongoing making of political order. He asks these questions through an ethnographic analysis of violent policing, mass incarceration and the politics of letting disappear. His first book, The Killing Consensus: Police, Organized Crime and the Regulation of Life and Death in Urban Brazil (California, 2015) is an ethnographic interrogation of the practices of homicide detectives in São Paulo and the ongoing construction of whose life is worth investigating, including what such a condition makes way for. He has published or forthcoming work in Public Culture, Comparative Studies in Society and History,  Economy and Society, the Latin American Research Review, and the American Political Science Review, among other venues.  His second monograph Politics Gone Missing:  The Life and Death of Disappearance and Flight in Brazil, is currently under review. He serves as an Editor of the Journal of Latin American Studies.

Diane E. Davis is the Charles Dyer Norton Professor of Regional Development and Urbanism and former Chair of the Department of Urban Planning and Design at Harvard’s Graduate School of Design (GSD). She also is the director of the Mexican Cities Initiative at the GSD, and faculty chair of the committee on Mexico at the David Rockefeller Center for Latin American studies at Harvard.  Trained as a sociologist with an interest in cities in Latin America (BA in Geography, Northwestern University; Ph.D. in Sociology, UCLA) Davis’s research interests include the relations between urbanization and national development, urban governance, urban social movements, and informality, with a special emphasis on Mexico. Her current research focuses on police corruption and urban violence as well as spatial strategies to minimize risk and foster resilience in the face of these and other vulnerabilities. Books include: Cities and Sovereignty: Identity Conflicts in the Urban Realm (Indiana University Press, 2011); Discipline and Development: Middle Classes and Prosperity in East Asia and Latin America (Cambridge University Press, 2004); Irregular Armed Forces and their Role in Politics and State Formation (Cambridge University Press, 2003); and Urban Leviathan: Mexico City in the Twentieth Century (Temple University Press 1994; Spanish translation 1999).


[1] Graham, S., & Marvin, S. (2001). Splintering Urbanism: Networked Infrastructures, Technological Mobilities and the Urban Condition. Psychology Press.

[2] Castells, M. (2011). The Rise of the Network Society (Vol. 1). John Wiley & Sons.

[3] According to the global blog Insight Crime “[i]n February, it emerged that La Unión de Tepito, which controls much of the sale of counterfeit goods across Mexico City, was facing pushback from businesses who said they could not make extortion payments as they were no longer getting shipments of illegal merchandise from. See: https://www.insightcrime.org/news/brief/coronavirus-squeezing-mexico-criminal-groups/

[4] https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2020/04/12/unprecedented-truce-notorious-south-african-slums-gangs-join/

[5] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lBCXkVOEH-8

[6] https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/the_americas/coronavirus-taliban-ms-13-drug-cartels-gangs/2020/04/13/83aa07ac-79c2-11ea-a311-adb1344719a9_story.html

[7] Smith, N. (1996). “Spaces of Vulnerability: The Space of Flows and the Politics of Scale.” Critique of Anthropology 16(1): 63-77.

[8] Moran, D. (2015). Carceral Geography: Spaces and Practices of Incarceration. London: Ashgate Publishing, Ltd; Gill, N. (2016). Carceral Spaces: Mobility and Agency in Imprisonment and Migrant Detention. Routledge.

[9] O’Neill, K. L. (2012). “The Soul of Security: Christianity, Corporatism, and Control in Postwar Guatemala.” Social Text 30 (2 (111)):  21-42.

[10] https://www.msn.com/pt-br/noticias/brasil/1ª-v%C3%ADtima-fatal-de-coronav%C3%ADrus-no-rj-era-empregada-doméstica-de-patroa-infectada/ar-BB11q0kI

[11] Davis, D. E. (2009). “Non-State Armed Actors, New Imagined Communities, and Shifting Patterns of Sovereignty and Insecurity in the Modern World. Contemporary Security Policy 30(2): 221-245.

[12] Arias, E. D. (2009). Drugs and Democracy in Rio de Janeiro: Trafficking, Social Networks, and Public Security. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.

[13] Denyer Willis, G. D. (2017). City of Clones: Facsimiles and Governance in São Paulo, Brazil. Current Sociology 65(2): 235-247.

[14] Das, V., & Poole, D. (2004). “State and Its Margins: Comparative Ethnographies.” In Veena Das and Deborah Poole, eds., Anthropology in the Margins of the State. Pp. 3-33. Oxford, Santa Fe: James Currey/School of American Research Press.

[15] https://www.terra.com.br/noticias/coronavirus/coronavirus-trafico-proibe-turistas-em-favelas-do-rio,fe51c0a4cb56352a96bda95e0acd642amrqlvjve.html?fbclid=IwAR2gQoqF_yjPmOgeq3OWTtMsorLn72AGSvmeO5QwZ07M21JzsbGY-aIYwX4

[16] For example, in Southern Italy, elements of the mafia are focusing their attention on distributing food to families in the face of coronavirus-induced scarcities. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/10/mafia-distributes-food-to-italys-struggling-residents


About Jennifer Curtis

Jennifer Curtis is an Honorary Fellow in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh: http://www.sps.ed.ac.uk/staff/social_anthropology/curtis_jennifer.

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