A Comparitive Analysis of Citizen Security: Bolivia and the United States

18 Feb

*As I did in my previous two posts about my experiences this summer, I will continue to use the pseudonym Joplin to describe the city in order to protect the identity of the people I mention.

I arrived in Cochabamba, Bolivia just over two weeks ago, and am enjoying getting myself acquainted with Bolivia.  Before departing, I read Rutgers anthropologist Daniel Goldstein’s book Outlawed, which looks at citizen security in Cochabamba southern neighborhoods.  These areas are made up of recent indigenous internal migrants.  This constant struggle to protect one’s family and possessions reminded me of my experiences working in Joplin last summer, a place where residents constantly fear for their safety because of gang violence.  Both Cochabamba and Joplin are places where race and class differences are strikingly obvious: Joplin has a murder rate almost twice Detroit’s, but is just two miles away from rich, white, leafy suburbs.  Cochabamba, and Bolivia as a whole, is incredibly unequal.  Recent indigenous migrants exist side-by-side with the city’s elite.  In both cities, citizens are forced to attempt to protect themselves without the prospect of significant state assistance, but continue to look toward the state for security.

The most striking similarity between Joplin and Cochabamba’s southern sections is the state’s inability or unwillingness to hold a monopoly on force.  While this is true on the surface, the state is not entirely absent in either case.  Instead, Goldstein uses the term “the phantom state” to describe that while the state doesn’t intervene directly, its laws and hypothetical presence shape the actions and expectations of residents.  If the state actually didn’t exist (as perhaps one could say about Mogadishu two years ago), residents would not have to think as hard about whether or not to take security into their own hands.  In Joplin at least, the state exists to a minimal degree, but residents still distrust the police to actually carry out their duties (for a city of between thirty and forty thousand, Joplin has only six officers on duty at a time).

Despite its constant negligence, it is still the state that residents appeal to for security.  In Cochabamba southern regions, residents are frustrated by laws that prevent police from holding criminals without sufficient evidence.  Many believe in a pact between the police and criminals where criminals, when caught, allow themselves to be taken in by the police, but are then released when they arrive at the station.  By the residents’ reckoning, it gives police officers something to do, it provides a steady stream of revenue to underpaid police officers, and it keeps criminals’ businesses alive.  In community meeting after community meeting in Joplin, I heard a desire for more police on the streets, more raids on suspected drug dens, and more powers to arrest suspected criminals.

The lack of a state to provide security for its citizens challenges our notion of what states are, and similarly, it problematizes human rights discourse.  For many residents of Cochabamba’s southern self-constructed neighborhoods, HR is a language spoken by foreigners that protects criminals rather than normal citizens.  While I never heard HR discourse directly challenged in Joplin, a disdain for suspects’ rights was commonplace.  In mainstream human rights discourse, there is a victim and a perpetrator, but when those lines are not clear cut, applying basic HR concepts becomes much more difficult.  In both Joplin and Bolivia, threats come from a mass of unorganized, faceless, and nameless young men.  Human rights discourse is supposed to protect such masses, but when they themselves are seen as the threat by a terrified populace, residents don’t want to listen to lectures on due process.  If human rights discourse is to succeed in places the like Joplin and Cochabamba, it needs to reinforce the right to receive security services from the state.

Lacking a state to protect them, how can citizens living in marginal spaces improve their communal security?  Organization, on three fronts, is crucial.  Firstly, residents must organize to press the state for the expansion of security services, and use their political power to punish officials that do not make the necessary changes.  Secondly, residents can establish neighborhood security organizations that promote greater cooperation and understanding among residents on efforts to improve citizen security.  Finally, neighborhoods must work across gender and age gaps to promote understanding.  Though in Joplin I repeatedly heard calls for expansive police powers, these statements were all coming from middle aged women.  Young men, for whatever reasons, were absent from the meetings, and had they been present, their demonization would have not provided a welcoming environment.  To tackle this problem, a series of workshops have been organized in Joplin that first talk about violence with separate groups of teenagers/twenty-somethings and middle aged residents, then bring them to together to continue the conversation.  Without a state to provide security, communities that are able to reach across internal divisions to promote a collective security effort will likely be safer.

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