(Hay una versión en español aquí.)

The project focused on societal responses because Mexico’s institutional responses had proved little effective, and even exacerbated crime and violence. We chose the state of Michoacán in part because in 2013 it was the scene of an extreme form of societal response: an uprising of armed civilian groups known as autodefensas (self-defence). The autodefensas effectively took security into their own hands, confronting the criminal organization which then monopolized criminal business in most of Michoacan, and which had captured much of local and state government.  Our cases of societal response included the autodefensa groups that persisted in some rural areas in 2017, but we also studied other societal responses and in other contexts, including urban ones. The responses we studied included local citizen security councils, artist collectives, church-linked initiatives and women’s groups.

This 3-year project was financed by the Economic and Social Research Council in agreement with the Mexican research council CONACyT, via the University of Aberdeen in collaboration with El Colegio de Michoacán, the Centro de Investigación y Docencia Económicas, and the Overseas Development Institute.

The Context

Michoacán is notorious for its high levels of crime-related violence alongside a range of institutional failings, including corruption and capture. The efforts of government and national and international NGOs to counter this violence have proven largely futile.


As Michoacán is a geographically and socially diverse state, our project compared societal responses in 6 localities, ranging from the most rural (Chinicuila, a cattle-ranching municipality with 5000 inhabitants) to the most urban (the state capital Morelia).

Societal Responses

Across these diverse localities, we studied 6 types of responses:

Main Research Questions

Security and Justice Working Group, Zamora, Michoacán
  • What kind of societal responses arise in the face of crime-related violence and corruption?
  • What headway do they make against violence and corruption, and related problems?

Our Team

The fieldwork was conducted by 7 Mexico- and UK-based ethnographic researchers (anthropologists and sociologists) with experience of research in risky contexts: Trevor Stack, Salvador Maldonado, Edgar Guerra, Denisse Román, Irene Álvarez, Ariadna Sánchez, and Iran Guerrero.

In developing a policy-relevant approach and analyzing the field material, we were assisted by an additional 2 researchers and policy analysts, a political scientist (Pilar Domingo) and a criminologist (Sasha Jesperson).

For the final four months of the project, we were joined by an additional postdoctoral researcher, Catherine Whittaker.


We conducted comparative ethnography across six localities of Michoacán to evaluate the effectiveness of the different societal responses. 


We began by approaching organizations in the localities. By combining techniques such as structured interviews as well as direct observation in meetings and other events, we sought to understand and compare their diverse initiatives.

Our comparative ethnographic approach enabled us to generate insights that are at once sensitive to local specifics and generalizable to other parts of the world affected by crime and violence.

Timeline and Outputs

The project ran from November 2016 to October 2019. In 2017, we carried out field work in seven localities of Michoacán. In 2018, we analyzed our findings and began to disseminate and prepare publications. In 2019, we completed the manuscripts of 3 academic books, and elaborated a series of policy- and strategy-relevant documents recommendations aimed at social organizations and government agencies

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