Undergoverned Spaces: Strong States, Poor Control

Foreign Intrigue is pleased to announce that we have added a new member to our writing team.

John Bertetto, previously a guest contributor to Fi, is coming aboard as a permanent writer. John specializes in criminal street gangs, social network analysis, and asymmetric threat mitigation. He writes on counterinsurgency applications in local law enforcement and has published in several periodicals, to include Small Wars Journal, Law Officer Magazine, and Police Magazine. Given recent attention paid to lack of security in places of conflict in recent years, John’s work is of particular importance when juxtaposed with urban population centers such as Mogadishu, Baghdad, Eastern Afghanistan, and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) of Pakistan. His work on problem sets related to these topics in Chicago is well-regarded by subject matter experts and often cited by others in the security community.

Below is John’s first article as a permanent member of the writing team. We’re happy to welcome him to Foreign Intrigue.

Masai Mwinzi
Eric Jones
Co-Founders and Managing Editors
Foreign Intrigue

Much has been written about the concept of ungoverned spaces: what they are; where they exist; implications for national security, terrorism, and criminal activity; and how they may be dealt with. While these are all important questions, the answer to the latter all depend upon the answer of the first: “What is an Ungoverened Space?” How this is defined has clear and profound implication on where they exist and how they are dealt with, both tactically and strategically.

Perhaps the clearest definition comes from the RAND Corporation, who defined “ungoverned territories” in their RAND Project Air Force report as

‘(A)reas in which a state faces significant challenges in establishing control. They can be failed or failing states, poorly controlled land or maritime borders, or areas within otherwise viable states to which the central government’s authority does not extend” (Rand Corporation 2006).

Many similar definitions have been offered, ranging across both ends of the spectrum RAND attempts to cover; they are territories in which no central government exists (failed states or states engaged in civil/tribal war), they are spaces within a state where the government does not maintain a strong presence or control.

This spectrum, however, is far too broad. It asserts that strong governments with internal territories where state authority is challenged are equivalent to failed states where armed groups engage in open conflict for control and no centralized government exists to oppose them. While operationally we may approach these two scenarios differently, the two definition model of governed/ungoverned forces leaders and scholars to deftly examine and treat these situations differently. From the perspective of the researcher, strategist, and policy writer, the work toward understanding and resolving conflict and increasing territory stability by providing leaders proper recommendations depends on proper framing of the problem. What is required is a third category of space governance: undergoverened spaces.

An undergoverened space is an area where government services (such as utilities, streets and sanitation, social, health, and public safety) are underrepresented, and where the criminal element does not desire to exert direct control over the population.

The Englewood neighborhood of Chicago provides an excellent example of an undergoverned space. The City of Chicago is not only governed, but strongly governed. It has many affluent neighborhoods which are well maintained by the city, it has a vibrant and economically rich downtown region, it has modern infrastructure and public utilities and safety systems. Furthermore, its political power within the State of Illinois is strong. To it’s robust municipal governance it is supported by strong, well defined state and national governance; the city receives aid from both of these government structures in terms of both financial support and legal support (state and federal crime task forces; state and federal prosecutorial support). Yet within this wealth of governance neighborhoods like Englewood exist, where street gangs commit frequent acts of violence, public utilities go unrepaired or are not provided, infrastructure literally crumbles, and health care and education suffer. Most strikingly, though, Englewood suffers these problems in ways other neighborhoods within Chicago do not. This is the crux of the issue: How do territories with strong government and strong government representation in some areas have such weak government control in others?

It is because these areas suffer from undergovernance. For whatever reason – lack of political will, lack of regard, or lack of resources – the functions of government do not reach these areas in a significant way so as to alleviate their poor condition.

Recognizing the difference between undergoverned spaces and ungoverned spaces has profound implication on how we both understand and approach these areas. Most simply put, it is the difference between supporting a government and building a government. If military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan have taught us only a few things, then this should be one of them.

Before concluding, two final notes.

First, it is entirely possible that an area be fully governed but that government is illegitimate or criminal. Returning to the example of Englewood in Chicago, the street gangs within are not attempting to establish control over the area and it’s residents in any way outside of their turning a blind eye to their criminal activities. There is no desire for – or even accidental – usurping of functions of government. Rather, the conflict between gangs remains primarily driven by competing criminal enterprises. The local population, for the most part, is instead part of the physical landscape, much the same way buildings are. Gangs operate around them but do not engage them unless they make a concerted effort to stand in the gang’s way. When this happens, the gangs deal with the individual and move on. The result of this undergovernance by both the state and the malefactors in an area is a local population largely ignored and forced to fend for itslf.

Second, no declarative statements regarding poor governing is made here. To the degree which poor planning, inattentiveness, corruption, or any other form of poor governing plays a part in creating undergovernance remains a point for discussion. While poor governing demonstrably exists within strong government control (governed spaces), it remains open for debate if undergovernance is always caused by poor governing. Given the existence of the state – and therefore the act of governing – within the complex environment, it is difficult to assert that all undergovernance can be avoided had governing only been better.

John Bertetto
Foreign Intrigue


The thoughts, opinions, and strategies described here are the original work of the author and are not intended to represent or speak on behalf of the Chicago Police Department, its policies, or its strategies.

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John Bertetto

John Bertetto

John A. Bertetto is a sworn member of the Chicago Police Department. His current areas of study and work include criminal street gangs, social network analysis, and asymmetric threat mitigation. He is the author of Counter-Gang Strategy: Adapted COIN in Policing Criminal Street Gangs, Countering Criminal Street Gangs: Lessons from the Counterinsurgent Battlespace, Designing Law Enforcement: Adaptive Strategies for the Complex Environment, and Toward a Police Ethos: Defining Our Values as a Call to Action. Officer Bertetto’s most recent research article “Reducing Gang Violence through Network Influence Based Targeting of Social Programs” has been accepted to the Industry & Government Track of the 2014 Knowledge Discovery and Data Mining (KDD) annual conference, a conference with a 20% acceptance rate. Officer Bertetto has worked street patrol, organized crime, and research and development assignments. His applied research projects have led to collaborative partnerships with students and faculty at USMA West Point, George Mason University, and the University of Maryland. He is one of the primary designers and the law enforcement SME behind the GANG social network analysis software, which has been featured in Popular Science, Governing, and on MIT’s technology blog, as well as profiled on ABC and BBC news. Officer Bertetto holds a Master of Science degree from Western Illinois University and a Master of Business Administration degree from St. Xavier University.