This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Ley, S. (2022). High-risk participation: Demanding peace and justice amid criminal violence. Journal of Peace Research, 59(6), 794-809.
In the context of criminal violence in Mexico:
- Involvement in social networks helps explain why individuals—both victims and non-victims of criminal violence—decide to protest the insecurity they face, despite the risks from both criminal groups and state security forces.
- For victims, social networks transform their fear and anger into “collective moral indignation” motivating their protest, whereas, for non-victims, social networks function to generate greater empathy and collective responsibility for victims.
- For both victims and non-victims, social networks help reshape perceptions of the risks and effectiveness of protest, making them more likely to take to the streets to demand security and accountability.
Key Insight for Informing Practice:
This study contributes to our understanding of how to demilitarize security—how to use nonviolent action amidst, and as a strategy for addressing, violence and insecurity—and also reminds us how important strong, unified communities and organizations are to an effective nonviolent response to violence (criminal or otherwise).
Citizens wishing to confront the criminal violence endemic in their communities face a special challenge: The same violence that may motivate them to protest (whether enacted by criminal groups or colluding state forces) may also inhibit their activism. Given this context of insecurity—both a motivation for and a risk entailed in protesting—why do some citizens nonetheless decide to protest in response to criminal violence? Sandra Ley examines this question in the context of widespread criminal violence in Mexico and highlights the importance of social networks to explaining why both victims and non-victims of criminal violence decide to protest the insecurity they face.
In 2006, the Mexican government escalated the “war on drugs.” The fighting involved drug cartels, private armies, and security forces and “resulted in over 70,000 deaths…, over 30,000 disappearances, and approximately 200,000 internal displacements” over the next several years, along with other human rights violations. In response, various waves of protest emerged at the national level (especially 2008-2011), including the emergence in 2011 of the Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity and Caravans for Peace. Other groups organized protests against crime and insecurity, too, beyond human rights organizations, including churches, victim groups, schools/colleges, neighborhood associations, journalists, and trades/professional associations. Activists have faced various risks—including targeted killings and other forms of repression—stemming from the fact that both criminal groups and colluding state officials feel threatened by this protest activity.
The puzzle here, then, is: What explains—when protest is so risky and may have little chance of success, given the collusion between criminal groups and the state—some individuals’ decision to protest?
The author proposes that social networks can help explain why some individuals choose to participate in protests, as involvement in social networks can transform both individuals’ emotions (like fear, which might otherwise inhibit them) and their “perceptions of the effectiveness and risks associated with collective action.” She puts forward two hypotheses: first, that participation in social networks makes it more likely that someone will participate in protest, and, second, that the effect of social networks on protest participation is greater among victims.
To test these hypotheses and explore how and why social networks may have the impact they do, the author draws on field research from 2011-2012, including original survey data, participant observation of 15 protests, and interviews with protest participants.
Her statistical analysis of survey data finds that victims are “2.1% more likely than non-victims to participate in protests against crime.” Additionally, she finds support for the hypothesis that involvement in social networks is associated with a greater chance of participation in protests, as those who “attended the meetings of at least one organization once or more per month” and those who “participated in at least one social activity once or more per week” are 3.8% and 1.9% more likely, respectively, to protest than those who did not engage in such activities. Second, her findings on whether social networks have a greater effect on protest participation among victims than among non-victims are less conclusive. Therefore, she argues that it is important to “understand why networks can be relevant to both groups.”
Turning to qualitative evidence for insight into the mechanisms behind these statistical relationships, she finds that sharing experiences with others through involvement in activist organizations is an important coping mechanism for victims. But it also serves to “transform feelings of anger and fear into collective indignation and empowerment.” Victims thereby start to move from despair and helplessness to collective action, increasing their feelings of efficacy and developing a collective identity and sense of community with fellow activists. By contrast, victims interviewed who were not involved in such organizations expressed the intense fear they felt, inhibiting them from joining protests. For non-victims, the principal impact of involvement in social networks is to “generate a sense of empathy and collective responsibility” towards victims, prodding them to see their fates as tied up together.
Social interactions also change perceptions about the risks and effectiveness of protest. Individuals reported a sense that they were better protected when they acted as a unified group. Furthermore, although interviewees were not naïve about the ability of protests to end insecurity, they did come to think that protests could force the government to confront issues it otherwise would not.
In short, involvement in social networks makes both victims and non-victims more likely to participate in protests against insecurity in Mexico. Given this critical role of social networks, the author underscores the importance of “develop[ing] a strong and vibrant civil society that connects citizens, helps them build a common identity, and potentially raises the cost of the use of violence for both organized crime and state forces,” while also facilitating the sort of trust and communication necessary for more immediate emergency response if and when individuals become targeted.
With its focus on protest as a civilian-based strategy for responding to criminal violence, this research holds valuable insights related to both violence mitigation and nonviolent mobilization. As such, it contributes to our understanding of how to demilitarize security—how to use nonviolent action amidst, and as a strategy for addressing, violence and insecurity. But, unlike most research in this area that looks at nonviolent resistance to political violence (enacted by state security forces or politically motivated rebel groups), this research explores the distinctiveness of nonviolent resistance to criminal violence. This focus prompts some reflections and questions. First, it forces us to consider the prominence of criminal violence in everyday experiences of insecurity for people around the world: For every one person killed in armed conflict, four are killed in homicides outside of armed conflict (as of 2018). A more holistic understanding of security, therefore, demands that we consider not only war prevention but also safety in the face of a broader set of threats to human well-being: political violence, to be sure, but also criminal and other forms of interpersonal violence, food and housing insecurity, environmental degradation and catastrophe, lack of access to health care, and so on.
Second, this focus on nonviolent mobilization in the face of criminal violence raises important questions about the forms of leverage available to activists in relation to organized criminal groups as opposed to state security forces or politically motivated rebel groups. As others have argued with regard to the influence wielded by civilian communities—particularly “peace territories”—in Colombia, armed groups’ sensitivity to public image and support is especially pronounced when they claim to be “fighting for the people”—so civilians can use this as a way to pressure an armed group by drawing out inconsistencies between that image and the reality of a group’s violence against civilians. Blurred lines between criminal organizations and politically motivated armed groups notwithstanding, countering the violence of criminal organizations who may not have a clear political or ideological agenda would seem to present more of a challenge without this leverage point available. That said, a nonviolent movement could target a similar leverage point for state actors who may be colluding with criminal groups, as they purport to be acting in the interest of “the people.”
More broadly, this study adds to the growing body of research about how important strong, unified communities and organizations are to an effective nonviolent response to violence (criminal or otherwise). While this research focuses on the influence of strong social connections on individuals’ willingness to join protests, other research explores how strong, cohesive communities and organizations also result in enhanced safety and greater resilience to violence (see here and here). Several examples come to mind where strong, well-organized communities around the world have mobilized in different ways to increase the security of their community members in the face of various kinds of violence (including but not limited to criminal violence):
- In South Sudan, communities have strengthened their security infrastructure through the formation of unarmed Women’s Protection Teams, as well as Youth Protection Teams and Male Gender Champions, to prevent and protect community members from sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), along with other forms of violence related to atrocity crimes.
- In Colombia, the mobilization of a large number of community members is a critical factor enabling peace territories to put pressure on armed actors to comply with their demands and desist from harming civilians.
- In Nepal, civil society-led ceasefire monitors, drawing on their local knowledge and connections with the conflict parties as well as with diverse segments of the broader society, helped sustain the ceasefire and lead the way to a broader peace agreement.
- In several countries in West Africa, Women’s Situation Rooms have prevented and responded to electoral and other violence by mobilizing broad-based coalitions of women and youth to advocate for peace, while also monitoring violence and mediating between stakeholders to respond to crises when they emerge.
- In the city of Chicago (U.S.), several initiatives—including community organizations like RAGE (the Resident Association of Greater Englewood) and Community Restorative Justice Hubs—are building and strengthening community to respond to and prevent violence, operating from the assumption that when people share a sense of belonging, look out for and feel accountable to one another, and have spaces to heal, they are less likely to harm one another.
Using these diverse examples as inspiration for our own distinct contexts, how can we cultivate strong, unified communities—and, more broadly, civil societies—that can become a force for not only immediate protection and violence prevention but also resilience, accountability, and ultimately political change that will transform the underlying causes of violence? [MW]
- How can we cultivate strong, unified communities—and, more broadly, civil societies—that can become a force for not only immediate protection and violence prevention but also resilience, accountability, and ultimately political change that will transform the underlying causes of violence?
Farooq, U., & Guy, C. (2012, June 5). The movement for peace and justice in Mexico. The Nation. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.thenation.com/article/archive/movement-peace-and-justice-mexico/
Ernst, F. (2022). On the front lines of the Hot Land: Mexico’s incessant conflict. International Crisis Group. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://facesofconflict.crisisgroup.org/on-the-front-lines-of-the-hot-land-mexicos-incessant-conflict/
Mattiace, T. (2022, October 19). Obstruction threatens probe into disappeared Mexico students. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/10/19/obstruction-threatens-probe-disappeared-mexico-students
HRW. Mexico: Extending military policing threatens rights. Human Rights Watch. Retrieved February 17, 2023, from https://www.hrw.org/news/2022/08/26/mexico-extending-military-policing-threatens-rights
Organizations: Movement for Peace with Justice and Dignity (Movimiento por la Paz con Justicia y Dignidad): https://mpjd.mx/
Keywords: criminal violence, insecurity, criminal organizations, Mexico, drug war, civil society, nonviolent movements, demilitarized security, human rights, security forces
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons