By Daniel Esser
The media’s regular chronicling of human resilience in the aftermath of natural disasters and large-scale violent conflicts cover only part of story. As inspiring as tales of individual heroism, resistance and resilience can be, they provide little guidance for public policy aiming to strengthen social ties within damaged communities, in which safety nets need to be created to work both preventatively and post-victimization. Supported by a field research grant from the Social Science Research Council’s Drugs, Security and Democracy Program (DSD) and working jointly with a team of researchers based at the Universidad Autónoma de Ciudad Juárez, this writer recently spent four months on the U.S.-Mexico border to answer this question. Members of 320 randomly sampled households in Ciudad Juárez were interviewed about their knowledge of non-violent collective action during the past five years. Overall, the findings provide hope that Juárez’s social fabric has not suffered as badly as is widely claimed, but both Mexican and international policy-makers need to understand the nature of collective resilience before they can effectively support it. Juárez no longer tops the world’s ranking of most violent cities per capita, as it did in 2010 and 2011, although organized violence continues to wreak havoc, exemplified by 30-60 murders per month. Analysts agree that the downward trend is less the result of concerted government action and more a reflection of a reshuffling – likely temporary – of power structures within the transnational drug business. Strikingly, most survey respondents argued that neighborly help had not decreased during the violent times. Roughly a quarter even argued that residents’ willingness to help each other had in fact increased, mainly because people felt more united amid the terror. Many people reported knowledge of collective street monitoring, peaceful marches, protests and public vigils, with between 5 and 8 percent saying they have actively participated in them. For those residents, violence was not an abstract phenomenon; more than 30 percent reported personally knowing someone who had been murdered, and just under 20 percent had themselves been victims of violent crimes. Surprisingly, almost two-thirds said they had not lost trust in local politicians and that they would vote for candidates promising to combat violence.
These findings serve as reminders of the political dimension of resilience in the context of chronic violence, implying that there are important local collective dynamics that can be leveraged through responsive and accountable political representation. They also suggest that policymakers at all levels need to be mindful of the existence and potential of collective agency under extremely adverse conditions. The violence in border cities created an opportunity for forging a civic compact between entities of the state on the one hand and neighborhood residents on the other, to mend frail ties between the electorate and its representatives. This kind of deliberate state-building at the local level is precisely what Mexico needs in the aftermath of former President Calderón’s heavy-handed and, as many have claimed, detrimental strategy emphasizing federal-level and military-led programs and operations. President Peña Nieto and his cabinet appear likely to embrace a local approach to increasing security as it complements his commitment to improving social services especially in secondary cities. However, the most critical building block for effectively executing such a civic compact is a politically unbiased, data-driven selection of beneficiary communities and their needs. Akin to approaches to civic reconstruction in war-torn countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, communities should be in the driver’s seat in both project selection and monitoring. After all, state-building is as much about procedural inclusion and justice as it is about tangible outcomes.
Dr. Esser teaches international development at American University’s School of International Service. Click here for more information about this project.