Civil Society Collaborations in Response to Crime & Violence in Mexico
PaCCS Communications Officer Kate McNeil sat down with the University of Aberdeen’s Professor Trevor Stack to discuss his work on civil society collaborations in response to crime and violence. This work has received funding from the AHRC. The following conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity and concision.
Kate McNeil: Thank you for taking the time to speak with me today. Would you mind getting started by telling be a bit about your research background, how you came to work on issues related to crime and civil society organisations, and what some of your work has involved?
Professor Trevor Stack: My background is in social anthropology, although I teach in Spanish and Latin American Studies here at the University of Aberdeen. Much of my early work was on the anthropology of citizenship, trying to understand what it means to people to be citizens in Mexico and the United States. During that research, I encountered the topics of violence, crime, and civil society, which together now form the focus of much of my work.
My work on citizenship and civil society in Mexico led me to conduct ethnographic fieldwork with a wide variety of civil and political organizations, and from 2007-2013 I began to encounter reports of criminal organisations increasingly infiltrating some of the same organisations I was studying. After concluding my research project on citizenship in 2013, I began to focus more closely on how violence and criminal organisations were becoming a major public and political issue in Mexico. That led to work in the state of Michoacan, which was characterized by high levels of violence and organised crime, and where we explored societal responses from organisations to these issues of crime. We are just about to publish a book, Citizens against Crime and Violence, which will be released in June, and which presents the findings of that team project.
Since 2019, I have also built on that work by putting together another team who are interested in how civil society organisations engage and collaborate with states and communities. That research team is interested in identifying types of civil society collaborations that exist at present, making recommendations to civil society organisations on how to collaborate more effectively with government and communities. In so doing, our team – which consists of academic researchers and civil society organisations – is also engaging in that process of collaboration. We are working to figure out how civil society can collaborate more effectively with other actors to address different kinds of non-war violence, particularly that exacerbated by organised crime. While my research is centred on Mexico, there are many other countries which are affected by similar problems, and there are signs that these kinds of violence exacerbated by organised crime are on the rise across many parts of the world. The current research team is international and is collaborating with a range of organisations around the world including the Global Initiative Against Transnational Organised Crime, as we work to conduct research which will have a wider applicability across contexts.
What advice would you give for other researchers seeking to collaborate with civil society groups?
Well, we are in the process of developing a guide for civil society organisations interested in collaborating with government and communities in response to the types of violence exacerbated by organised crime. There are so many possible lessons that it’s hard to pick out any one or two of them… With that said, one of the distinctions that I’ve been making recently is between collaborating to complement what state agencies are doing – such as Neighbourhood Watch groups which complement policing activities – and other types of collaborations to change or transform the work of government. In these contexts, and perhaps in many other places, government itself is part of the problems that we are trying to address. Governance is directly responsible for some of the many kinds of violence that we are interested in, and so many people make omissions regarding those kinds of violence. They may not respond effectively or may turn a blind eye to gender-based violence… and so it seems important to be that civil society organisations consider how to collaborate in ways that change and challenge what government itself does.
I also think that even when there are topics which may appear very different from each other… someone working on the intersections between organised crime and terrorism in Lebanon will have something to say to someone working on county lines in Britain, or someone working on cartels in Latin America. There are many overlaps between topics and contexts, and we as researchers have a great deal to say to each other and learn from each other in the broader field of organised crime research. I also lead a centre here at Aberdeen on citizenship and civil society. The centre focuses primarily on political contexts – as they are used out in the world by politicians, media commentators, and organisations, and we have researchers working in places like Iraq and Vietnam who often face similar challenges to those facing our team in Mexico. The topics themselves often connect in ways that you perhaps wouldn’t expect.
Finally, I would want to acknowledge the difficulty of both conducting research and working to generate impact within a context where the states are very high. The UK academic context pushes us to seek impact for our research, but in fieldwork we are often confronted by dilemmas about how to push for some positive impacts, without inadvertently creating some particularly negative ones. It’s important to be aware that there are wrong kinds of impact, and to be very cognisant of trying to avoid them, particularly in difficult contexts.
What’s next for your research?
Beyond my current project, I’m interested in going back toward more conventional academic research but geared to developing a more acute understanding of some of the complex challenges facing places where violence is exacerbated by organised crime. I want to conduct comparative research, drawing upon findings from different parts of Mexico and research from other contexts, to understand what we even mean by organised crime. That has been a major challenge to me personally – taking the time to reflect on the basic concepts in the context of complex, local cases, to gain the understanding that is often missing or difficult to obtain in a regional context because of the nature of organised crime activities. That detailed understanding is going to be essential to make any kind of headway against these very complex social, economic, and political problems.