Working Papers

Silencing the Press in the Gray Zone of Criminality: Why the War on Drugs Turned Mexico into the World’s Most Dangerous Country for Journalists (with Guillermo Trejo). Invited to Revise and Resubmit.

This article examines the effects of the militarization of public security and the conflicts it triggers on a central democratic institution – press freedom. We focus on Mexico, which experienced multiple waves of assassination of local journalists after the federal government declared a War on Drugs against the country’s main cartels and deployed the military to the country’s most conflictive regions. We argue that violence against journalists is tied to the multiple localized turf wars and power struggles unleashed by the military intervention. In these conflicts, we theorize that subnational politicians and their security forces in collusion with drug lords use lethal violence to prevent local journalists from (or punish them for) publishing fine-grained information that may compromise their criminal and political survival and their quest for local control. We compiled the most comprehensive dataset available on lethal attacks on journalists from 1994 to 2019 to test our claims. Using a difference-in-differences design, we show that violence against local journalists substantially increased in militarized regions, where the military decapitated the cartels and fragmented the criminal underworld, triggering violent competition for de facto governance over territories, people, and illicit economies. Evidence from original focus groups and interviews with at-risk reporters suggests that governors, mayors, and their police forces possibly joined cartels in murdering journalists to mitigate the risks of unwanted information and to minimize the costs of de facto governance by silencing the press and society. Our study offers a sobering lesson of how the militarization of anti-crime policy can undermine local journalism, press freedom, and democracy.

Personal Narratives and Social Norms Can Foster Solidarity with Stigmatized Victims during Conflict

Given the importance of bystanders in conflict settings, public passivity in the face of human rights violations has long represented a major concern among scholars, policymakers, and organizations working to reduce violence. Yet in contexts of large-scale criminal violence, people often stigmatize victims because they perceive them to be involved with criminal groups. Human rights NGOs thus create counter-narratives to mobilize solidarity and advance peacebuilding. How can they do so? This study focuses on Mexico’s War on Drugs, which triggered one of the most significant contemporary humanitarian crises, leaving over 110,000 disappeared. After providing one of the first systematic analyses of citizens’ misperceptions about these victims (N = 1,800), I conduct a large-scale experiment (N = 2,524) and test the effectiveness of two persuasion strategies: hearing personal narratives and changing perceptions of social norms. Participants were randomly assigned to either a control group or to one of two audiovisual treatments: the testimony of the mother of a victim of disappearance or a message that reveals how common it is to help victims. The results indicate that both treatments reduced stigma and increased inclusionary behavior in the form of an anonymous letter supportive of the disappeared. The behavioral—but not the attitudinal—effects mostly survived but decayed during a follow-up survey conducted two weeks later, suggesting the need to repeat these messages. These findings stress how human rights campaigns can elicit solidarity among indifferent populations.

Reducing Citizen Support for State Violence against Undocumented Immigrants through Victims’ Testimonies and Information Campaigns (with Abby Córdova)

The world faces an unprecedented immigration humanitarian crisis, requiring leaders to abide by the law and protect undocumented immigrants’ rights. Yet, governments across the world have increasingly responded to the arrival of immigrants with militarization and repression, often with the support of local populations. For human rights organizations, one of the pressing challenges is to improve citizens’ attitudes toward undocumented immigrants, including promoting rejection of state violence, but how can they do so? We first document citizens’ support for anti-immigrant state violence and then experimentally test whether media campaigns combining real-life information messages with a perspective-getting approach—learning about immigrants’ personal experiences—can reduce citizen support for state violence and increase demands for justice. We conduct our study in Mexico, where similarly to many other countries authorities have turned to the militarization of borders and detention of hundreds of thousands of immigrants. Participants were randomly assigned to a control group or exposed to (1) a real-world information media campaign run by an international humanitarian organization intended to educate the public about the rule of law, (2) a testimony from an undocumented immigrant we interviewed during our fieldwork, victimized by Mexican security forces, or (3) a combination of the information and testimony treatments. We find that the testimony significantly reduced support for state violence, while the information message begat demands to hold perpetrators accountable. Media campaigns that combine immigrants’ personal narratives and information on the rule of law evoked powerful emotions conducive to public condemnation of state violence and demands for justice. 

Mobilizing Support for Transitional Justice in Societies with Long Histories of Impunity: Why Victims’ Voices Can Mitigate Partisan-Motivated Opposition to Accountability (with Guillermo Trejo)

How can deeply polarized societies confronting histories of mass atrocities mitigate partisan-motivated opposition to accountability? While scholars of transitional justice (TJ) suggest that broad support is necessary for effective accountability, it is unclear how societies achieve it. Using two original surveys, we assess attitudes toward accountability in Mexico at a time when a putative leftist president and victims’ organizations independently demand truth and justice for atrocities committed under right-wing governments in the Dirty War (1965-1985) and the War on Drugs (2006-2018). Although our observational results reveal that the president’s leftist followers are more likely to support – and right-wing citizens to oppose – TJ, we experimentally show that both sides reject allegations against their own parties. Amidst polarization, two additional experiments reveal that participation of autonomous victims’ organizations mitigates partisan-motivated opposition, because citizens see them as guarantors of unbiased TJ processes. Our findings highlight the crucial contribution of victims’ voices to democratic accountability.

Preemptive Multipartism and Democratic Transitions (with Aníbal Pérez-Liñán)

Students of authoritarian rule debate whether the presence of multiple parties in the legislature stabilizes dictatorships or promotes their demise. We show that authoritarian regimes face a quandary: allowing for multipartism reduces the risk of bottom-up revolt, but paves the way for protracted top-down democratization. Concessions to the opposition diminish the long-term benefits of authoritarian rule and empower regime soft-liners. We provide evidence from Latin America—a region with a broad range of authoritarian regimes—and test our theory using survival models, instrumental variable estimators, random forest ensembles, and two case studies. Our theory explains why rational autocrats accept multipartism, even though this concession may ultimately undermine the regime. It also accounts for democratic transitions that occur when the opposition is fragmented and in the absence of a stunning authoritarian defeat.