Activism in violent regions

esrc-logoProject title

Assessing the potential for civil organisations within regions affected by criminal violence to hold state institutions to the goals of human rights-based development


The support of the Economic and Social Research Council (UK) is gratefully acknowledged.

Project team

Trevor Stack, CISRUL Director, University of Aberdeen

Salvador Maldonado, El Colegio de Michoacán, Mexico

Edgar Guerra, CIDE Centro, Mexico

Pilar Domingo, Overseas Development Institute

Sasha Jesperson, St Mary’s University, London


Although scholars and analysts suspect that civil society has the potential to mitigate the effects of criminal violence, only a few have conducted substantial research on the topic, and they have focused mainly on national and international civil organizations. We propose to focus on civil organizations based in the affected regions themselves, which have seldom been studied, and never on the scale that we propose.

It is increasingly recognized that treating organised crime as a matter of security is insufficient and can even exacerbate the problem, and that organised crime must be addressed through holistic strategies that include development consistent with human rights, providing opportunities for a dignified economic, social and political life outside the sphere of criminal organisations. Indeed, a federal Commission for Security and Integral Development was established in one of the regions of our study in 2014, promising equitable and participative development, although only after a widespread vigilante movement had ousted local police it accused of serving organised crime.

Yet holistic strategies are notoriously difficult to execute when state institutions in the affected regions are, wholly or partially, captured by the same criminal organisations. In these contexts, criminal organisations can even use their hold over local (and state) government to frustrate the designs of national government, as well as of international agencies.

Researchers and policy-makers have come to suspect that civil society may have a role to play in these contexts, by monitoring the actions of state institutions (legislative, executive and judicial) and by pressuring those institutions to pursue human-rights development, thus helping to offset the hold of criminal organizations over those institutions. However, although there have been some studies of the role of national and international civil society in holding state institutions to account, the potential role of civil organizations within the regions themselves has been neglected.

The few studies, including those by project members, suggest that civil society organizations are themselves hemmed in by organised crime, and find it difficult to resist penetration by organised crime, much less to advance an agenda contrary to its interests. This helps to account, indeed, for the reluctance of researchers to conduct sustained fieldwork in these contexts.

Despite the forbidding panorama, the project will use comparative ethnography, following strict protocols designed to mitigate risk, to identify and explain positive examples of organisations which have played an effective role in holding state institutions to a human rights agenda, and specifically one designed to offset the noxious effects of organised crime activities.

Project outputs will include an academic monograph co-authored by Guerra (CIDE), Maldonado (El Colegio de Michoacán) and Stack (U Aberdeen), a conference volume edited by Stack, and a series of policy briefs for a range of stakeholders developed by Domingo (Overseas Development Institute) and Jesperson (U St Mary’s). The academic outputs will contribute not only to the growing literature on organised crime, but to broader concerns of political anthropology and sociology with the relation between state and non-state actors, including how best to use the term “civil”. The policy outputs will include recommendations geared primarily to development actors and to regionally-based civil organization.

Click for a full description of the project and accounts of how we propose to mitigate the risks including by careful data management.

Hay una versión más reciente en español aquí.

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