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Latin America: Researching crime, violence and security


Researching Security is a LAB Partner organisation which has established a blog to share research interests and experience. RS members were interviewed by Felicitas Röhrig. Researching security, violence and organised crime is fraught with methodological and ethical concerns and presents common barriers across disciplinary fields. These issues become particularly pressing for early career researchers with little experience, few connections, and scarce resources. As such, a blog entitled Researching Security ( was established in 2011 by PhD students as a means through which to diffuse experiences in relation to criminal, (in)security and violence research. Not only is the platform provided useful to discuss common problems, competing methodologies and share concerns over ethics, the forum has also proved to be popular around the world – reaching a concentrated range of readers and commentators in Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Mexico, the UK and the US – but also as far as Indonesia and Syria. As in 2013, the blog has become partners with one of the leading UK Think Tanks on Latin American politics, the Latin American Bureau ( In June 2013, some of the blog members will speak on the Joint International Conference of the Peace and Security Studies and International Studies Association (PSS-ISA), presenting and discussing field research insights and techniques with a wider audience ( In anticipation of the conference, some blog members have talked about their thoughts, motivation and experiences in their field. The recent partnership with LAB and your invitation to speak on the PSS-ISA conference in Budapest show that there is considerable demand for the information you share on the Researching Security Blog. Can you tell me what gave you the idea to create it in the first place? Verena Brähler: Some of us got to know each other on the annual PILAS Conference at the University of Cambridge in 2011. We realised that there was a huge lack of information on how to research security, organised crime and violence. At the same time we were very motivated and eager to challenge outdated analytical frameworks on how to research these issues. That’s why we decided to create a platform for better exchange between PhD students around the world who work on similar issues. Our blog is this platform. The blog has been created in 2011. Now, after two years, how do you think it has benefited your research? Verena Brähler: Well, first of all it allowed us to share among ourselves advice on very specific issues, such as events, methodology or research ethics. We’re all at an early stage in out research career and it has been very helpful to exchange our ideas and experience among a group of like-minded researches with similar interests. Over time, we have, of course, also developed good friendships and been able to create a professional network that will surely continue well after our PhD degrees are completed. Susan Flaemig: For me, the blog is a great opportunity to network with other researchers that work on similar topics. I also use it as a platform to make my work known to people outside my university. Alexandra Colak: I heard from Verena about the blog and I joined because I thought it offered the opportunity to exchange ideas with other colleagues regarding the challenges of studying security. I remember I was very excited about the possibility of learning about other people’s work in this area and being part of an emerging community of young academics interested in security research. Through the blog I have learnt more about my colleagues work, learnt about relevant academic events and make more visible academic activities I have been involved with You all look at crime and security issues in Latin America from very different perspectives. Your research  ranges from looking at perceptions of inequality of security in Rio de Janeiro, to public punitiveness in Argentina, state-level security politics in El Salvador or concepts of economic security in Colombia. What motivates you to work on these topic? Susan Flaemig: Violence is one of the biggest problems in Central America. Although civil wars and dictatorship ended years ago, people are still suffering tremendously from violence. With my research I hope to add more knowledge on how to reduce insecurity. As an 18 year old I spent a year in Honduras; I could see a society falling apart because of violence, but I could not understand why. Studying this phenomenon seemed a good way to better understand it. Alejandra Otamendi: In a country with such an authoritarian legacy as Argentina has, the crime issue could be used by populist politicians and security forces to legitimize authoritarian practices. Thus, I am interested in understanding public demands on security in order to show that they are more security demands than punitive demands. Alexandra Colak: Current patterns of urbanization in the global south have been accompanied by the reproduction of multiple and chronic forms of violence that affect the most vulnerable communities and population groups. I am interested in contributing to a better understanding of the processes involved in the reproduction of violence in the cities and to finding better ways to deal with them. What are difficulties that you experience in the field of security research? Alejandra Otamendi: It is really hard to find reliable and complete data in general in Latin America, but in the crime field in particular because of weak institutionalization of security forces. In my case, I have analyzed many victimization surveys, but they only cover some cities and in some years. Verena Brähler: The problem of finding reliable and complete data like Alejandra said is certainly one of the biggest obstacles for our work. That is why I decided to collect my own data by conducting a survey with 300 people in six different neighbourhoods in Rio de Janeiro. However, this is expensive and takes a lot of time and is not always rewarded accordingly. Susan Flaemig: Spending time in El Salvador, I heard a lot of rumours about organised crime: politician X has friends among that drug cartel, businessman Y has bribed a police officer to keep his money laundering going etc. However, as a researcher it is difficult to write about these things because it is almost impossible to get evidence. And if you do have evidence, using it may endanger others. Speaking of danger, your research often involves finding yourself in quite delicate and even dangerous situations, not only for yourself but often also the people providing you with the information. How do you deal with such situations? Verena Brähler: Like you said, field research can be very dangerous but there a lot of ethical and security measures one can adapt to minimise the risks. For instance, when I was doing field research in Rio’s favelas and interviewing drug traffickers or other criminals, I always let someone on the outside know where I was going, whom I was meeting and at what time I would be back. I would recommend to young researchers that they are always honest about their research topic and don’t have any hidden agenda. No matter if you are talking to a police officer or a drug trafficker, you should always be respectful with everyone and be committed to the truth. Jorrit Kamminga: I will conduct field research in some quite dangerous areas in Colombia. The risks are mitigated by having the government and local staff arrange most of the meetings and part of my agenda when on the ground. In addition, I ask the local contacts a lot of questions about where to go, where to stay, and especially what not to do when in those areas. Susan: Like Jorrit said, I also found it useful to collect as much information as possible about interview partners and the interview site prior to the conversation. This knowledge helped me to weigh the risks. Preparation is important. For instance, I wanted to talk to prisoners and prison guards. I knew I would feel safer if I found someone to accompany me, so I invested some effort to find appropriate gatekeepers. It also made it easier to get access to prisons. What was the most dangerous experience you had while doing research? Alexandra Colak: I attended a meeting between two opposing gangs with the intention of observing the process. They had been invited by the local community police officers to establish a truce given that their violent confrontations had produced many victims and a humanitarian crisis in the community. The atmosphere was very tense. The absence of a key member of one of the gangs had caused serious anger on the other side and threats were being made. The community police officers trying to deescalate the tension decided to turn the gang members’ attention to my presence instead. They asked the men in the room to explain to me their expectations regarding the truce and I unexpectedly ended having to play a central role in this meeting which I had not prepared for. The meeting ended with an agreement to keep the ceasefire and meet a week later. I did not attend the next meeting but on that occasion the meeting ended with the murder of one of the gang leaders and an armed confrontation which made me realised how dangerous the situation had been. Susan Flaemig: The most difficult situations were the ones when it was actually difficult to evaluate the risk. I was trying to get some information about links between the private sector, the state, and organised crime. I was in touch with people who possessed this kind of information. However, one of my contacts had received death threats because he was believed to have leaked or was about to leak confidential information. I did not know the situation well enough to evaluate whether meeting with that person, let alone using his or her information, would entail any risk for me. Eventually, I met with the person, but did not get any detailed information. Verena Brähler: On one occasion in Rio I was caught in a shootout between drug traffickers and the military police in a favela in the North Zone. I remember I was very confused and didn’t know what to do but luckily two of my research participants that were with me and helped me. It was all over very quickly but I remember that on my way home I started having serious doubts about my research project and whether it was worth it to take these kinds of risks. Your research equips you with very specialist knowledge in the field. What are you planning to work after completing your PhDs? Alejandra Otamendi: I have already submitted my thesis and I am waiting for the viva. Nowadays, I have assumed a position at the National Security Ministry of Argentina and I still teach at University and publish related papers. Verena Brähler: I would love to work for Europol or federal crime agencies in Brazil, Germany or in the UK. It’s a very competitive field but maybe I’m lucky? Jorrit Kamminga: I am trying to see whether there are post-doc possibilities in terms of a relatively small, concrete research proposal that I have in mind. However, I would not again take on such a long academic research commitment as the PhD trajectory. And the research I will be conducting in the future will probably not be related directly to the topic I am currently working on. Susan Flaemig: It would be great to work as a researcher and/or consultant in the field of security sector reforms at a research institute or university. Another dream of mine is to promote peace research in Latin America. Alexandra Colak: I would like to focus on applied research on urban security. I would like to be able to undertake research that can be useful for policy making in this area whether it is being done at a research institute, a University research centre or a civil society organization.

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