Punitive Solidarity in Drug Wars: How Human Rights Campaigns Shape Prosocial Behavior and Criminal Justice Preferences

Public passivity and victim-blaming in the face of human rights violations have long represented important concerns among scholars, policymakers, and organizations seeking to reduce violence. Prior research substantiates these worries, as studies reveal that bystanders rarely display solidarity with victims of atrocities. This is troubling because implementing reforms that curb violence is challenging when citizens’ apathy and devaluation of victims discourage politicians from advancing this agenda, prompting instead the justification of state and criminal brutality.

What strategies can human rights organizations pursue to increase citizens’ willingness to assist the victims of severe and systematic injustice? Previous studies suggest that simply informing people about human rights abuses is not effective. Combining insights from political psychology, communication, and criminology in a political science framework, my book-length dissertation shifts the focus from information to the effects of personal narratives, which tend to be more persuasive and produce less counter-arguing.

I argue that perspective-getting—hearing about the experiences of stigmatized group members—triggers support for victims and mobilizes to end impunity. However, because listening to victims fosters compassion and greater identification with them, narratives also induce demands for punitive policies to harshly retaliate against perpetrators, ultimately shaping criminal justice preferences. This entails a conundrum rather than simply beget pleas for accountability, human rights campaigns undertaken in settings where a weak rule of law prevails can unintentionally elicit support for tough-on-crime and extralegal measures to punish both state and non-state perpetrators—tactics that may ultimately increase atrocities.

I test this argument in the context of Mexico’s War on Drugs, one of the most significant human rights crises of our time. I zoom in on victims of disappearance and draw on dozens of in-depth interviews, focus groups, survey data, and multiple experiments (total N = 10,000). Across empirical studies, I show how frames shape public opinion. My results have implications for peacemakers and organizations seeking to reduce criminal violence and prompt demands for accountability in conflict settings.

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