The advice below is designed to be adaptive and generic to be incorporated in security plans across different contexts.
Urban armed groups are defined as “…small, geographically isolated groups comprised of (mostly) young men in the urban popular zones…” who often engage in small scale crime – ex. extortion of local business, violence against those who are perceived as a threat, kidnapping, etc. – whilst also providing social services to the local population – for instance, they may offer medical assistance or the provision of education to residents –. The multifaceted nature of these organisations and their increasing levels of violence pose a series of risks not only for residents, but for organisations like XXX who seek to provide aid in communities affected by their activities. As our priority is to ensure the safety of our staff during the implementation of programmes, this guide is to serve as recommendations and steps to take when working directly or through partners in areas where urban armed groups are present. Mainly, how to operate in environments where gangs operate whilst ensuring the safety of staff.
- How to approach or work around them
Following XXX’s security strategy approaches, any situation where the organisation operates in a context with urban-armed groups, our approach should be one of acceptance. Mainly, we should focus on gaining the acceptance and respect of communities affected by this violence.
- Remember that some of these groups could be considered terrorist organisations and that direct communication with them could be considered as collaborationism or support, and depending on the country, a punishable crime. Therefore, contact with urban-armed groups will depend on the context, but when direct contact is not possible, we should explore liaising through the communities, partners or other third parties.
- Whoever meets with urban-armed groups needs to have a guarantee that will not become a victim before, during or after contact has been made.
- If you have to go for working purposes to a community where urban-armed groups are present, go accompanied by a community member or local partner. And in the case of having to wait for a liaison person to be allowed safe access, always do so in a neutral place.
- For example, in some places of Central America and the Caribbean, gas stations are considered neutral territory.
- Usually, urban-armed groups participate in drugs trafficking and as stated above in other criminal activities. It is important that we don’t become witnesses of their illegal transactions since that would put staff at risk. Therefore, planning of activities should be adapted to the times and locations agreed with the community members or local partners.
- XXX staff or that of XXX’s partners could have their residences in areas where urban-armed groups are present. Knowing who these persons are, can be very useful to channel information in both directions, so that we can plan our activities and we can better focus our acceptance and access strategies. In any case, we should keep in mind that receiving and passing information could potentially put staff in danger, something that has to be avoided.
- If necessary, prepare an actors mapping and stakeholder analysis so that we can have an idea of rivalries, alliances and other elements that can influence our security.
- We should keep in mind that urban-armed groups are very territorial and that different rival groups can be present in one working location; we should avoid being perceived as rivals / collaborators when we choose the place where we are going to implement our programmes.
- When preparing the acceptance strategy, keep in mind the acceptance continuum (targeted, rejected, tolerated, accepted) and if we cannot get the highest levels of acceptance, at least we should aim at being tolerated, as being rejected or directly targeted can put XXX’s staff and partners in danger. Usually, once urban-armed groups know XXX works for the community, they will tolerate our activities and staff, either if we work directly or through partners.
- Police, the military and other authorities are key actors to keep in mind, since depending on the context and circumstances, they could be very hostile to the urban-armed groups or they can even take the place of the gangs once defeated.
- When planning an intervention or activity in areas controlled by urban-armed groups, we should pay attention at what and how risks are shared with the implementing partners. Given the high presence of weapons and high levels of violence, partners must have the resources they need to safely plan their activities.
- Know the groups and how they operate. Specifically, know what behaviours to avoid and those to follow to ensure the safety of staff during operations in these communities
- In some areas of Central America, the use of white cars must be avoided, as this is the colour of vehicles used by the police. Keep in mind that certain access codes can change daily, and that for entering a gang-controlled territory by car, one day we could have to have the windows down, other day the blinkers on, etc. These codes are key for the own population and for organisations to be able to move without being perceived as a threat by urban armed groups.
- In the event of a shooting in the community, a brief interruption of operations is common. Importantly, team leaders and staff must consider if this was a one-off or a tendency in taking the decision to continue with their activities.
- When operating in environments involving gangs, working in schools is crucial as these are often recruiting grounds for these groups.
- Forming a relationship with community leaders is key. Be polite and pleasant to forge these relationships as they can provide access to the communities.
- Since levels of violence could vary depending on different dynamics (high trafficking season, offensive to control territory, police operations, etc.), in certain occasions it will just not be possible to work in areas controlled by urban-armed groups. XXX’s main concern will then be the security of staff living and having to pass by those areas.
- Avoid using mobile phones, GPS devices or taking photographs, as this could be considered by urban-armed groups as spying.
- Recommendations for staff
When operating in areas controlled by gangs, there are a series of recommendations for the staff that can help ensure their safety and that of the communities we work with:
- Welcome packs for new staff members should have recommendations on things like what to wear or what not to say particular to the context and operating environment.
- Staff and teams should keep up with the evolution of gang activities, liaising with the UN or other partners to obtain ‘intelligence’. Although we cannot forecast changes in the behaviour of these groups, being informed of their current patterns of activity is essential to design an up-to-date security management plan to ensure the safety of the staff.
- Following XXX’s policy, it is key to remember your safety is always the priority. For instance, if you find yourself being a victim of a robbery by a gang member, the priority should be your security rather than the potential material losses.
- Do not expose yourself on social media, as this may be used by members of these groups to target you.
- Do not be alarmed if you see an armed individual (or various individuals) observing the organisation’s activities. It is not uncommon that gangs send their members or family members to observe and inform on our activities. If we do things correctly, XXX has nothing to hide and this can be an opportunity to reinforce our acceptance.
- In case of an incident involving these groups…
Even if we take the precautions outlined above, there may be some instances where the organisation finds itself involved in an incident with these groups. In said cases, here are some steps to follow:
- Always report the incident
- These organisations are characterised by their demarcated hierarchical structure, where nothing is done without the authorisation from superiors. Thus, in the case of an incident, it must be considered whether we failed in communicating information or we are not being accepted by the community.
- Evaluate your risk assessment and consider whether current protocols and SMPs continue to ensure the safety of staff.
 Revisiting Haiti´s Gangs and Organised Violence by Athena R. Kolbe