Criminal governance amid the COVID-19 pandemic: Explaining violence and goods provision as public health responses by organized crime groups in Mexico
Principal Investigators: Sandra Ley, Lucía Tiscornia, Tiago Augusto Da Silva Ventura
During the COVID-19 pandemic, organized criminal groups (OCG) in Mexico adopted various strategies of social control to adapt their interests with the pandemic’s health risks. Some adopted violent measures to enforce social distancing policies while others provided basic goods to ameliorate the economic consequences of the health crisis. What explains the variation in OCG governance strategies during the pandemic? To answer this question, we propose deploying an online survey combining two strategies to gather sensitive information: 1) respondents’ recruitment through Facebook Ads to access areas under OCG control, and 2) a list experiment to understand the extent and strategies of criminal control during the pandemic. Our research contributes to current knowledge about the manifestations of criminal governance regimes, providing insights to understand the effects of criminal governance on a wide range of behavioral outcomes.
What was our project about? The project focused on understanding what explains different strategies of criminal social control during the COVID 19 pandemic in Mexico, and what are some of the political consequences of those actions.
We hypothesized that violent enforcement of lockdowns would be prevalent in places where criminal groups compete for control. Conversely, we expected that non-violent strategies, such as the provision of goods, would be prevalent in places where competition is low. In addition, we hypothesized that criminal victimization as well as receiving social assistance from criminal groups would lead to low trust in state institutions. To test our hypotheses, we conducted an online survey with 3,000 respondents, which included two list experiments.
What did we learn? Our preliminary findings show that:
As the number of criminal organizations (our measure of competition) increases in a given municipality, so too does the prevalence of threats of bodily harm;
The number of criminal organizations does not seem to increase the use of physical violence;
As the number of criminal organizations increases, so does the use of non-violent strategies (the provision of loans, and the distribution of groceries).
These preliminary findings suggest that criminal control strategies may not be mutually exclusive. Under competition, criminal organizations deploy both violent and non-violent strategies. These results should be taken with caution, it is possible that our measure of competition does not adequately capture it, in other words, a higher number of organizations may not be indicative of violent competition.
With regards to trust, contrary to our expectations, we find no effect of criminal strategies on people’s trust in state institutions, except for trust on the current president: our findings suggest that when criminal organizations use coercive strategies, trust in the president is reduced; however, when distributive strategies are applied, trust in the president increases. We speculate that, inasmuch as violent and non-violent strategies impact residents’ feelings of safety, this could in turn impact their perceptions of the president. These findings should also be interpreted with caution: further research is necessary to unpack the logic of criminal governance strategies and their impact on attitudes towards democracy. What are some policy implications of our findings? These results are problematic in terms of policy. Criminal competition increases insecurity, but it also creates challenges for the provision of state services when criminal organizations use benevolent strategies: it could potentially act as a substitute for the state, but it also inadvertently bolsters trust in the president. Understanding the conditions under which groups choose to deploy violent or nonviolent strategies is the next step to identify adequate state interventions.
In late March, Lucía Tiscornia was interviewed about this research project by David Sasaki, Program Officer at the Hewlett Foundation. You can watch the full interview here.
EGAP thanks the Hewlett Foundation for its generous support of research in the Global South through this initiative.