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About the Author

Kaitlyn Chriswell is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Government Department at Harvard University. She is interested in better understanding the dynamics of political violence, ranging from civil war, to armed nationalists and criminal organizations. Her fieldwork has taken her to Spain, Brazil, and Mexico.

Do Criminal Groups Make or Break Citizens?

Organized Contestation in Mexico

by | Apr 1, 2021

Sitting in a café, waiting for my next interviewee to arrive, I take a sip of my latte. I glance around, and everything seems as if normal. If not for the humming backdrop of conversations in Spanish, this café might have been in Cambridge. There are few hints of the insecurity I am here to study. This scene stands in stark contrast with the depiction provided by the US State Department. Its website is peppered with warnings to would-be travelers and with lists of states, cities and even roads in Mexico that should be avoided. Many of these are places I have visited myself over the course of my research, conducting interviews in myriad settings: sitting in offices, cafés and restaurants, walking through shopping malls and down narrow streets, and exploring plaza, parks and nature reserves.

My interviews indicate that both of these things are true—the conditions I am living in are normal for millions of people, and yet they are dangerous. On some days and in some places, the danger is readily apparent. Yet on others, the insecurity is merely a current that runs underneath the surface of everyday life.

Above: Two photos from a café where I worked and sometimes held interviews. I noticed that I was seated at a table near a book called, We are All Self-Defense Members/Groups.

How do citizens navigate these conditions? My dissertation project in the Government Department examines citizens’ reactions to the local presence of criminal organizations. When asked how the presence of criminal groups has affected their communities, most residents described a series key changes in local life: extortion, kidnapping, murders, staying inside at night and avoiding public places. They also frequently mention drug use and abuse, recruitment of local children to sell drugs and witnessing violence firsthand. As my interviews have taught me, the effects of organized crime go far beyond the homicide rate. They permeate everyday life, shaping citizens’ decisions about where and when to go to dinner, whether to meet up with friends or let their child play at the park, what form of transportation to take, and more.

Criminal groups impose many costs on these communities, yet even in the face of such distress, it would seem unlikely that citizens would contest the presence of criminal groups given the power dynamics of mostly unarmed citizens and armed criminal organizations. Yet my research shows citizens can and do take action. I aim to better understand when and where groups of citizens contest the local presence of organized crime, and whether they partner with the state or organize privately to do so.

From my first trip in summer 2017, I realized it was important to me to put citizens at the center of my project. While criminal groups have been present across parts of Latin America, including Mexico, for decades, their violence has escalated in recent years. Driven by this increasing violence, many studies focused on understanding fluctuations in the homicide rate and on the effects, both intended and unintended, of government policies. This research continues to be important, since criminal groups and states are two central actors. Yet I couldn’t shake the feeling that a third actor—citizens—was often missing from the equation.

Across Mexico, citizens have publicly protested, participated in roundtables with government and security forces, held street masses and formed self-defense groups. These are just some of the ways through which citizens choose either to engage the state or to rely on private means to deal with the local presence of organized crime—I call these citizen actions “organized contestation.” Speaking with ordinary people in various municipalities across Mexico, I was struck by how similar citizens’ concerns were, across municipalities and states. At the same time, I noticed that despite expressing similar concerns, communities reacted quite differently to these security conditions. My project examines a range of citizen responses, but I provide three examples below.

Above: Two photos of different areas in Mexico under State Department travel advisories.

In a small courtyard of a building in the town’s historic center, I listened as a church employee explained the steps the church had taken in recent years as violence grew. She told me that the church had opened “listening centers,” a concept I had never heard of before. These listening centers pair church employees with any resident or family who had suffered from, or even committed, a crime. Instead of reporting the incidents to the local authorities, many turned instead to the church to cope with the conditions of insecurity. I soon found myself invited to a street mass, which the church organized at the sites of recent violent events. There, I saw people of all ages gathered to, in the church’s words, “help the community heal.”

Not far away, another community affected by criminal violence had organized in a different way, forming self-defense groups. These self-defense groups set up regular patrols and established checkpoints at the entries and exits to the city to weed out known (or suspected) criminal group members. Their self-defined goal was to make their city safe once more, and many volunteers were motivated to take up arms by this vision of a more secure community for their families and businesses.

In a third community, I found neither church listening centers and street masses nor self-defense groups. Here, instead, citizens organized public protests, their routes often ending in the town square or in front of government buildings. Groups of citizens—journalists, students, families of victims, activists or others, depending on the day—carried signs and echoed chants demanding security from the government. These public protests were accompanied by another phenomenon: citizens had organized various direct lines of communication with politicians and government employees, The most surprising to me was a phone app linking groups of residents directly with the police officer assigned to their neighborhood. When I asked local representatives whether anyone actually used this app, I was surprised to hear that it was very popular and had been created at the request of citizens.

While these examples may seem disparate, in my project, I find a common thread linking citizens’ action. Criminal groups make or break citizens. In each municipality, faced with the presence of organized crime, groups of citizens organized to contest criminal group presence. In the first two municipalities, they contested privately, without engaging the state. Citizens organized among themselves, but their listening centers, street masses, and self-defense groups operated independently; the state was not even their intended audience. In the third municipality, in contrast, citizens channeled their demands through the state in both public protests and semi-public group chats. Where citizens organize privately, I contend that criminal group presence “breaks citizens.” Here, and in areas where citizens do not contest, criminal group presence increases the distance between citizens and the state. In contrast, where groups of citizens organize to make demands through the state, I call this “making citizens.” Better understanding when and how citizens contest the presence of criminal groups has important implications for how we understand citizenship in the medium- and long-term. I contend that where citizens turn toward the state to deal with insecurity, they are more likely to turn to the state on other salient issues as well. Over time, then, criminal group presence can build bonds of citizenship.

Above: A memorial to victims of violence, hanging at the gates of a government building.

While my project gathers evidence from Mexico, the implications of this research are potentially wide-reaching. Unfortunately, the data speak for themselves, as reported by The Washington Post:

Latin America is home to just 8 percent of the world’s population, but 33 percent of its homicides. In fact, just four countries in the region – Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and Venezuela – account for a quarter of all the murders on Earth. Of the 20 countries in the world with the highest murder rates, 17 are Latin America, as are 43 of the top 50 cities.

Yet these statistics can never fully capture the full impact criminal group presence has had on citizens. Insecurity has rippling effects from the individual, to the community, to the national, and even the regional level. Importantly, my research demonstrates that our concepts of victimization must adapt to these conditions of persistent insecurity. The broader population, even when not personally victimized, is greatly affected by the presence of criminal organizations.

Over the course of my research, I have had the privilege of listening to interviewees as they have recounted some of their most difficult life experiences. Since my study focuses on community-level dynamics, I do not ask about individual’s experiences, yet interviewees often share this information with me. Upon reflection, I’ve come to believe they share these stories because it is nearly impossible to separate the personal from the communal and the political. I have heard stories of kidnapping, extortion, addiction and loss of life. These stories are woven with fear, sadness and anger, but there is also resilience. While the process of writing a dissertation is a slow process fraught with roadblocks, their stories and willingness to share motivate me to complete this project in order to share what I have learned. I will remain grateful for all of their assistance, big and small: introducing me to new people, telling me where to find the best tacos, sharing their experiences, ensuring I get home safely and so much more.

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