Tag Archives: Joplin

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.

Negotiation vs. Justice: Strategies on Legally Combating Gang Violence and Mass Atrocities (Part II)

6 Oct

*This is the second post in a two part series that examines how we can conceptualize gang violence in the United States through the framework of civilian protection, mass atrocities, and political violence.  I will continue to call the city I worked in Joplin to protect the identity of the people I mention. 


Combating gang violence in Joplin is a widely discussed and contentious issue.  Everyone has an opinion and no one agrees.  Strategies range from police crackdowns to church outreach to mentoring programs, but none of these have a monopoly on gang response.  The same challenges exist in international justice.  There are many strategies for dealing with war criminals, each one with its own consequences.

In Joplin, the central strategic divide is justice versus mediation.  Those connected to the city government tend to favor the former, with the idea that the only way to stop gang violence is to “take the drug dealers off the streets”.  Strategies focused on locking up violent youths aren’t monolithic, but they repeatedly fall back on increasingly authoritarian strategies due to the inability to fully stop violence through arrests alone.  The mediation approaches mostly exist outside of government, and focus on using community centers and mentoring programs to reach drug dealers on a personal level.  As a community member told me, “A lot of these kids don’t want to deal drugs, but they don’t know how to get out.”  Despite the promising nature of mediation, it is yet to receive any real institutional support in Joplin, and so it is left to already over-burdened individuals who are working on other community projects.

The justice versus mediation divide also exists in the pursuit of international justice.  While the creation of the ICC has theoretically made the meting out of justice less flexible, reality is more complicated.  Without the ability to immediately bring war criminals to justice, these indictments have potentially adverse effects on achieving peace.  While Bashir has been able to partially avoid his ICC-imposed isolation, his indictment has affected power dynamics in negotiations on ending violence in Sudan.  This unequal balance of power means that leaders like Bashir have very little incentive to negotiate their way out of power if they know a jail cell awaits them.  An indictment pushes war criminals’ backs up against a wall, leaving them nothing to lose.  This arrangement is not conducive to peace.  However, we have to also consider that relative impunity has long-term negative consequences too.  Still, it is questionable to what extent the ICC and other judicial bodies are effective in deterring potential war criminals.  Therefore, we need to examine each case individually, and determine whether the potential of increased violence in the short-term is worth long-term justice.

A central problem with the ICC and police crackdowns on gang violence is that they fail to fully recognize the organic political power of war criminals or gangs.  It is easy to indict Joseph Kony, who has very few friends and isn’t embedded in a political process, but an individual like Bashir holds an immense of power.  He has the ability to kill thousands or keep Sudan peaceful.  Gangs often have the same proportional power.  They are community institutions, and they cannot simply be crushed in order to return to a previous imagined status quo.  Advocates of justice must recognize that no matter how unsavory, war criminals and gangs can provide valuable partners in conflict resolution and transformation.  In the New York Times, Paul Thomas Chamberlin writes, “As Nelson Mandela, Gerry Adams and Menachem Begin have shown, yesterday’s “terrorists” have a tendency to turn into tomorrow’s peacemakers. We should be careful not to let our fears of terrorists continue to blind us to opportunities when diplomatic openings present themselves.”  We must resist the impulse that crimes, no matter the political context, must be dealt with completely standardized justice mechanisms.

Dealing with gangs as political actors is not an untested idea.  In El Salvador, a Catholic bishop was able to broker a truce and initiate a peace process between two of San Salvador’s most dangerous gangs.  Gangs do not solely exist to terrorize citizens, but also because of poverty, access to guns, etc.   If these conditions can be reversed and gang members are provided with a way to productively re-integrate into society, a lasting peace that no police crackdown can provide is possible.  This approach can even be used in response to terrorism.  Every group, no matter how brutal, has fissures and objectives that can be exploited through negotiation.  Even the LRA, a group widely condemned as solely a terrorist organization without a political agenda, is vulnerable to attempts to convince child soldiers to desert.

During my last few weeks in Joplin, I met Jason (not his real name), a self-described community activist and founder of Men in the Community (not a real name either), a group of Joplin men, most of whom are former drug dealers who have turned their lives around.  While Men in the Community does various mentoring and nonviolent peacekeeping work, Jason also maintains contact with numerous gang members throughout the city.  While he tries to talk kids out of joining or staying in gangs, he is also able to glean the most recent and accurate information on crimes, making him an invaluable resource in the community.  An initiative from the mayor’s office, the Community Taskforce, is supposed to perform the same role, but it is largely ineffective.   This impotency is due to the Taskforce’s direct connection with the police and city government, which is generally more interested in making arrests than negotiating with gangs.  This destroys all credibility in the eyes of gang members.  Jason, on the other hand, is careful to avoid associating himself with authority, thereby maintaining his unique information-gathering abilities.

This is a model that can be applied to combating political violence and mass atrocities.  Attempts at informal negotiations with unattached mediators should always be the first response to violence.  Negotiations give the chance to de-escalate the situation, improving trust and communication among opposing sides.  The use of the ICC or other judicial processes may still be necessary, but negotiations provide a constructive route to conflict resolution.