précis Interview: Regina Bateson, assistant professor of political science, MIT

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  • Spring 2014

Regina Bateson, Assistant Professor of Political Science, MIT

May 1, 2014

précis: How did you become interested in civil war, crime, and Latin American politics?

RB: I first became interested in Latin America. I studied abroad in Argentina while in high school, had always taken Spanish, and in college I did an internship in Chile and worked for a professor researching the Salvadoran civil war. Then after college, I joined the Foreign Service. I was interested in going somewhere other than Latin America, like to French–speaking Africa or to Asia. But I knew Spanish very well, and a lot of people in Latin America apply for visas every year, so I got assigned to Guatemala. 

In some ways, Guatemala found me as much as I found Guatemala. I did some training in D.C. first, then worked in the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City. It was almost impossible not to become interested in how crime was reshaping daily life there. People around you are constantly victims of crimes, you're often witnessing crimes, and talk of crime is just a national pastime. I also had some pre–existing interests in civil wars and post–conflict reconstruction. So before I arrived, I went on Amazon and ordered every book I could find on the Guatemalan Civil War.

When I got there, I was really interested in traveling around the country and trying to understand what, if anything, the civil war had to do with the explosion of violent crime in post–war Guatemala. I was immediately perplexed when I found that the areas of the country that had been devastated by civil war were also the safest parts of the country today. My assumption was that there was a massive crime problem and that clearly the areas affected by war would be the most violent. I got really interested in this puzzle, and this is the puzzle that drove me to go to grad school. At the time, only a few people were writing about crime in Latin America. And for some reason, people weren't studying crime as it related to politics. So that's how I got interested in Latin America, crime, and civil wars.


précis: This spring, you've been teaching a course on qualitative methods. What do you view as the most important takeaways for students incorporating qualitative methods in their research?

RB: A large part of the class, and what I hope will be most valuable, is gaining actual experience. So the students in the class are doing projects in Cambridge or Boston—finding a research site, negotiating access to the site, visiting regularly, and doing participant observation, interviews, and focus groups. And as the semester has progressed, we've been doing workshop sessions where we all read and evaluate, in detail, students' interview transcripts and their participant observation exercises. My hope is that the practical component of the class will be very useful for students doing fieldwork in the future. 

There are always unexpected challenges when you're starting a qualitative research project. So my hope is that students get experience doing those things now—when their dissertation research is not on the line. It's funny that we send people out to do fieldwork, by themselves, without any guidance, when they're under a lot of pressure because they have only one year of funding. My hope is that with these initial forays in the field, students can learn from each other's projects, and students will get more comfortable doing types of qualitative fieldwork that might be out of their comfort zone, like getting some experience interviewing people who are strangers, dealing with respondents who are not being forthcoming, and figuring out which questions "work." So the one thing I hope they take away from the class is having some concrete preparation for fieldwork.


précis: Tell us a little bit about what you have in mind for the courses you'd like to teach next year and in the future.

RB: So far, I like the qualitative methods class a lot and I'm planning to teach it again next spring. In the fall, I plan to teach an introduction to Latin American politics class for the undergrads and to co–teach scope and methods for the graduate students with Rich Nielsen. In the future, in terms of graduate seminars, I've thought about teaching Latin American politics and offering seminars on collective action or on rule of law and politics. I'm also interested in teaching on civil war and conflict, although for the moment that's pretty well covered by the department.


précis: In your own work, you've combined in–depth case studies, quantitative analysis, surveys and fieldwork. How, in particular, has fieldwork informed your research?

RB: On methods in general, my approach is to be question driven. So I start with a research question I'm interested in, which usually does not fit neatly with a research design that would be completely ideal for the purposes of causal identification. There is often not a natural experiment available, and for a lot of questions I'm interested in, you can't do field experiments. Plus, there's often a heavy amount of endogeneity. My approach to choosing methods is to try to fit the methods to suit the question and to find the best data that's available, or can be gathered, and move forward from there. I feel that grad students are often paralyzed when they feel they have a perfect question, but don't have the perfect causal identification strategy. But my approach is to just take the best approach you can with the data that's available, and that can be surprisingly successful. I do always have my eyes open for random exogenous shocks that lend themselves to subjects I'm interested in, but I've also done a lot of work on topics where causal identification is messy.

Part of the reason I'm more question driven and empirically driven comes from my fieldwork. I've spent a lot of time in the field, like the internship I did in Chile when I was in college. For the internship, there was a Chilean government ministry working with micro–finance projects for agricultural improvement and production ventures in poor communities across Chile. The projects were failing in this one community, so my internship was to go to this rural community by myself and interview people to find out why the projects weren't working. That was my first real fieldwork experience. When I was in Guatemala, visa interviewing was a bit different, but you do get a lot of experience asking people uncomfortable questions. I also did a lot of traveling, talking to people in the Peace Corps, and people in the communities, to try and find out in an informal way what was going on in terms of crime there.

My dissertation involved a lot of fieldwork and interviewing and participant observation. The thing I think all those things contribute to is motivation. I feel most motivated to pursue a real research question when I see an actual connection to people's lives. And having questions informed from field experience makes subsequent academic work easier. If there's a good fit between your research passions and the things the people you're researching are passionate about, the research is going to be the most productive for everyone. You're going to get buy–in, they'll find it much more rewarding, and the ultimate project is going to be more relevant to them also. So, to me, that's the main way that fieldwork informs my work.


précis: How has your work evolved since arriving at MIT? What do you see as the unique opportunities for work on civil war, crime, and Latin American politics at the Institute?

RB: I'm thrilled to be at MIT's political science department. Whenever people from outside ask me how it's going, there's one word I always use, and that's "idyllic.& It's the best place in the country to be a junior faculty member, especially working on the topics I work on. I've been very impressed by the collegiality, the size of the department, investments in the graduate program, and in the courses. There's a lot of communication across subfields, between junior and senior faculty, and among junior faculty themselves—and that's unusual. I've really benefited from the cross–fertilization across subfields. People have very substantive interactions all the time, and that's very exciting. All the faculty members have lunch together on Thursdays, and people actually come! 

Also, there's a great community of Latin Americanists and those working on conflict studies. And I really appreciate resources at MIT outside of the department. The Center for International Studies has been very supportive in sponsoring visits by outside speakers and other events, along with the Security Studies Program. And then the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP) is also a great resource, because they've historically had a strong program in international development and violence in Latin American cities. In the past, I had worked with some of their grad students even before coming to MIT, and those are people I'd like to continue collaborating with in the future.


précis: Turning now to your substantive interests, what steps do you see Guatemala taking in attempting to bring its high level of violent crime under control? Are there any policy implications from your research that the Guatemalan government has been, or should be, adopting?

RB:I should start by saying that the Guatemalan government has made a lot of progress recently in addressing some of the problems related to violent crime in the country. For the last several years, there has been an entity called the Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) operating in Guatemala (in English, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala). It's a very interesting body—a collaboration between the UN, other international donors, and the Guatemalan government. But it's not a court. It doesn't have the ability to try anyone or punish them, but it functions like an independent investigative body. So they have professional investigators, many of whom are international employees who cycle through the country, investigating organized crime in Guatemala, including crime with links to the government. Investigators in Guatemala don't get a lot of institutional support, or security for their own personal safety, so crimes against them usually aren't investigated very thoroughly. In addition, investigation is very complicated, because if you're in the police or working for the prosecutor's office, you never know if your bosses are participating in the criminal activity you're investigating, and there are numerous cases of prosecutors killing prosecutors, and police killing police, because one person started investigating activities that would implicate someone else in their own organization. So it's very difficult to investigate high–level organized crime in Guatemala.

Which is where CICIG comes into the picture. The idea is to gather evidence and investigate the organized crime that the government isn't investigating. So CICIG investigates cases where there's a great deal of risk associated with investigations. It's had some significant victories in some cases, and they've also been involved in vetting high–level appointees in Guatemala, where previously there wasn't any high–level vetting. Beyond actually investigating cases, the important contribution of CICIG is to start a different conversation in Guatemala and to show links between the state and organized crime, and to show that it's possible to investigate organized crime. And that kind of cuts through some of the hopelessness about the situation of crime in Guatemala. It's changed the tenor of the debate a bit. 

The second significant change in Guatemala in the past several years involves a woman named Claudia Paz y Paz. She was appointed as Attorney General and has proved to be a crusading force. For years, the ministry had been dragging its feet on human rights cases lingering from the civil war era, there had been virtually no justice for victims of the genocide, and people who perpetrated those crimes remained active in public life. So there really had not been a measure of domestic justice from the civil war era. She surprised people once in office. She took decisive action to actually move forward in prosecuting quite a few human rights cases from the civil war era, responded to requests to extradite officials to try them abroad, moved forward in the cases against Ríos Montt (the former president and dictator), and has just taken very decisive action against organized crime in the country. If there were more people like her, and more institutions in place to help people like her, then I think there would be some real hope for reducing crime in the country. 

Less promising, however, is the current president, Pérez Molina. He's a military man, served during the civil war, and he was on the ground in some of the same municipalities where acts of genocide took place. His party, Partido Patriota, is most associated with the policy of "iron–fisted policing." At the time he won, I was there with Guatemalans, and the way all the reporters referred to him on election night was as "El General." It was very striking in this country where the government has always been dominated by the military and with decades of abuses committed by the military. 

But there is this long succession of presidents who have involved the military more and more in policing, and this is very concerning in a number ways. There has been this real re–militarization of Latin America that's going on right now^—especially in Central America and Mexico—with the war on drugs. And the approach seems to be to increase the military's involvement or to make police more like militaries, and it remains to be seen what the consequences of this will be. It could have real consequences for the balance of power between military and civilian authorities. And it was only in the 1990's and 2000's that civilian leadership started to get some control over some of these militaries and I think the pendulum is shifting back a bit toward more resources to militaries rather than civilian entities. We'll see how it plays out, but it doesn't seem very encouraging for the quality of democracy in the region.


précis: In light of these countervailing trends, what do you see as the biggest obstacle to further improving the policing situation?

RB: In Guatemala and the rest of Central America, there have been a ton of efforts to improve policing and there have been a lot of assumptions that high homicide rates are because of the poor quality of policing. People don't trust the police, cases aren't properly investigated, there's very little prosecution, and so there's been an assumption for a long time that if you could just improve the quality of policing and the quality of investigation, this would be a way of improving those institutions and lead to better policing practices that would drive down crime rates. But something really surprising to me in my research was that it's not just a matter of resources, or more training, or more courses in crime scene investigation, or higher pay, or increasing numbers, but in addition to those programs and that type of support, you also need to have political will. This is the phrase people used over and over again with me in interviews. It's a question of political will.

But some have suggested that at very high levels, the Guatemalan government doesn't want the police to be effective. With heads of police being prosecuted and with documented cases of their involvement in narco–trafficking and extrajudicial executions, and a very wide range of organized crime, it's not entirely far–fetched that those in charge do not want Guatemala's police to be very effective. And the second reason political actors may not want effective police is because the less effective the domestic police are, the better the case for involving the military in local policing. Civilians come to see the military as a solution to problems of policing and security. But it's not really clear how policing by soldiers can strengthen the civilian justice system. Some people speculate that this is just creating a parallel, military–run justice system and undermining solutions people have fought very hard to create for a long time.


précis: What are you working on now and what's next?

RB: So right now I'm working on a whole bunch of projects. First, I'm working on turning my dissertation into a book on social order after civil wars. While I have a lot of material from Guatemala, at this point I'm also hoping to include El Salvador and Nicaragua and look more broadly at how wartime institutions and norms about security and the use of violence affect the strategies that people choose to provide security after a war ends. People normally think that civil wars are associated with cultures of violence and post–war disorder. But even in areas with high crime rates, people don't passively sit back and submit to random violence, but normally take some measures to provide for their own security even in the absence of state–provided security. So in this way, civil wars can also contribute to order in the post–civil war period. Those are some of the themes I'm looking at.

I'm also working on a separate article about the political logic of vigilantism, looking at how norms and past practices have been used for punishing crime and how pre–existing institutions shape the types of systems of vigilantism that emerge in different settings. In this project, I'm trying to apply the framework I developed in Guatemala to other contexts like Mexico, where groups are fighting narco–trafficking. Vigilantism is often presented as a community's natural response to crime, as if the crime caused it to happen. My argument would be that it's not so obvious, especially when punishment is done in a public way, and when the types of violence used are often very intimate. So I'm trying to show with this article that when you look at acts of vigilantism, and understand how people are constructing threats, there's a reason why a particular triggering event is interpreted the way it is and causes the type of vigilante responses we observe. The type of punishment people choose is typically not random. They're drawing on types of punishment that are often acceptable, drawing on some kind of script or template. And they also draw on existing leadership structures in the community. In Guatemala, for example, these structures are in large part related to the civil war, and this influences the type of vigilantism people use. So I'm hoping to take those insights from Guatemala and apply them a bit more broadly and show that vigilantism is political and should be of broader interest to political science.