Defending your PhD thesis in… Spain

Jorrit Kamminga, one of our Researching Security Fellows, is sharing with us his experience of defending his PhD thesis in Spain. 

Thesis defence procedure in Spain

Photo Jorrit KammingaI defended my PhD thesis at the Department of Constitutional Law and Political Science of the University of Valencia, Spain in April 2014. Being a part-time student, I had combined work and study since I started the PhD programme in 2008. I followed the trajectory of getting the title doctor europeo (now doctor internacional under Spanish law). One of the requirements is having an international tribunal in addition to conducting part of the research at a different university outside of Spain and writing part of the thesis in a language other than Spanish. The international tribunal for my thesis defence was made up of a Spanish, Colombian and Dutch professor. The language was English.

Similar to my home country (the Netherlands), the thesis defence in Spain is a formality. In other words, when the tribunal is planned, you already know that you will pass and that your thesis is good enough to get the title – unless perhaps you have a complete blackout and fail to answer any question. However, different from the Netherlands, there were no additional ceremonial parts to the defence, such as special togas or silly hats.


I prepared myself reading bits and pieces from the thesis, especially those related to methodology and the theoretical model of the thesis. It was not necessary to carefully read the whole thesis again (about 500 pages) but I prepared a bullet point overview of how I was going to present it. Separately, I prepared a long document with (possible) questions and my answers to them. I think the latter helped although I do not recall answering questions exactly as I had prepared them.

On the day

After the introduction by the chair of the tribunal, I had 40 minutes to elaborate on the thesis. This is quite generous (e.g. compared to the Netherlands) and gave me enough time to explain the purpose of the research, revisit the objectives, explain the methodology, give my impressions of the field work, and provide a detailed overview of the (unexpected) results. It helped me to calm down and get into a flow.

After this exposé, the three members of the tribunal (before it was five in Spain) all took about ten to fifteen minutes to comment on my thesis and ask a large number of questions. This happened uninterruptedly and only after all three members had finished I was allowed to respond to their concerns and questions. By that time, I had about six pages of notes written down – some clearer than others.

The chair gave me ten minutes to answer to perhaps about 20 questions of the three professors combined. This was both a challenge and a relief. On the one hand, it is challenging to quickly make a decision as to which questions you will answer (quickly glancing through your notes), and see how you can group certain questions. On the other hand, it obviously gives you the chance to ignore some difficult questions and go for the easier ones. Nevertheless, it proved to be a challenge and given the time constraint, I forgot to answer a number of questions that I had a good answer for.

The rest of the thesis defence process is purely administrative. I had to wait outside for at least half an hour until the tribunal members had come to a joint decision and (more time consuming) had signed all necessary documents. I was then invited back into the room and they congratulated me on having become a doctor. In Spain, PhD students only get a PASS or FAIL (no mark), but after the thesis defence, the university can grant you cum laude if the tribunal members unanimously decide that you have deserved that title.

After defending the thesis

In retrospect, the thesis defence was quite a challenge and a huge adrenaline rush, despite the fact that it is basically a formality. It took me a while to relax afterwards. Drinking some nice Agua de Valencia with the professors on a terrace in the old town certainly helped to realise that after a research trajectory of more than five years, things had come to an end. The fact that there were a lot of family members in the room, in addition to the Dutch and Colombian consuls to Valencia, turned this into a very nice and special event for me.

New visions for violence reduction strategies in Mexico

by Natalia Cervantes (24 June 2014)

Rising levels of violence and crime can erase the benefits of economic growth and dramatically decrease well-being. But if we see high levels of violence as a specifically urban problem, with therefore specifically urban solutions, new ways of approaching the problem can be established. Our Researching Security Fellow Natalia Cervantes explains how her research in Mexico is developing this idea.

Violence has been analysed and written about incessantly. Let’s start by saying that almost any person living in a city of the Global South has had one form of victimization experience or an other – whether directly or indirectly. It may have even been in a ‘simple’ or everyday manifestation of violence: robberies, muggings or property damages. Violence crimes, and the fear of it, have indeed become the reality for millions living in developing countries, thus constraining their personal and family development. Violence is virtually everywhere. Violence has arguably become one of the most pressing issues affecting development. Violence and crime represent incalculable costs, both in economic and social terms. Specifically, violence discourages investment, diverts resources toward law enforcement, and away from health and social services. It also affects social cohesion and social capital; limits social mobility, and erodes good governance by wearing down citizens’ trust in the ability of the state to deal with its causes and consequences.  What is more, since the majority of the world’s population is now living in a highly urbanized world, violence has become more noticeable in urban areas. Urban violence is increasingly recognized not simply as a security issue but also as a phenomenon that has deep social and economic roots.

Latin America has witnessed a persistence rise in violence since the 1980s. This has had devastating consequences for both citizens and governments. It has been suggested by some analysts that there is a relationship between violence and the challenges that growth and urbanization of Latin America have posed over democratic governance; yet, this relationship is certainly neither direct nor automatic. It has been acknowledged that many cities – especially those that grow at a rapid pace – experience the convergence of risk factors – namely poverty, unequal distribution of resources, social exclusion, social and political conflict– that increase the probabilities of violence and crime to appear. The fact is that there is a pressing need to further understand the factors that shape urban violence and its repercussions for cities and overall development.

But how about coming up with an urban solution to an urban issue? There are a number of compelling reasons to focus on the ways in which the processes and relations of development planning underpin urban violence. For example, urban policies often follow an inertia that maintains and strengthens social exclusion and inequality. These policies, then, reinforce – rather than reverse – existing conditions of inequalities, poverty and social exclusion, which consequently may contribute to increasing levels of urban violence. Hence, it can be ventured that some urban development planning processes lead violence to persist given the politics and social implications they represent.

Generally, policy responses to urban violence aim at addressing the so called “multi-causality‟ that drives violence and crime. In doing so, going beyond repression and punishment becomes vital. Since urban violence has social, economic, spatial and institutional roots, a successful approach to reduce urban violence should include those four dimensions.  In a spatial approach to violence, the role of urban planning at local and community levels can become crucial in diminishing opportunities for crime and violence, given that, depending on the typology of violence, most crimes have environmental design and management components. The approach known as crime prevention through environmental design (CPTED) emphasises the spatial setting of crime and links crime prevention and reduction to municipal level interventions to improve community’s physical infrastructure. It focuses on a number of issues such as street layouts, building and site design, zoning and land-use, transportation system planning and infrastructure improvements, as well as lightning of streets and public spaces. Of course, this is aimed at reducing the opportunity of crime, and, hopefully, to improve cities’ built environment.

This may seem as well-intended, yet awfully innocent and small scale initiative, given the situations of extreme violence some countries experience (read Mexico), but what else can be done when everything that has been tried before seems to be failing? Now, we analyse the context of Mexico.

Why Mexico and why now?

Mexico is a good example of what an extreme case of urban violence implies. Violence has been a central trait of the social and political consolidation of the country. Yet, the levels of violence experienced from 2006 until today have posed new overwhelming challenges to both governments and citizens. The appearance of increasing levels of violence in the country corresponds to a conjunction of historical and current events. Historically, violence is a consequence of deeply rooted social, economic and political problems that have been present in the country for decades. Based on current events, violence is also a cause of new social, economic and political strategies. Apart from drug and organized crime-related violence, several forms and sources of violence have been present in Mexico.

Violence has come to largely redefine Mexico, including the country’s government, society and institutions. The situation appeared to have reached a peak in 2006, and a frontal fight against drug trafficking and organized crime was subsequently launched by the Mexican government. Yet, despite this effort, the government’s strategy did little to decrease the marketing of illegal drugs (Guerrero-Gutierrez, 2012). Violence has caused leakage of investment, loss of jobs, and the gestation of a phenomenon that poses a growing threat to national security.

Violence has also redefined the Mexican economy in many ways. It has been estimated for instance, that about 37.4 per cent of the companies in the country were victims of crime and violence in 2012. The rise of violence has been accompanied by the closure of many small businesses and increased unemployment. Violence has redefined how citizens relate to each other. Citizens change their activities and limit their interaction with the rest of society. Violence has also transformed the relation between citizens and institutions of the state; it has eroded citizens’ trust toward the government and its institutions. Violence has also increased corruption and institutional weakness and has hampered the rule of law.

Mexico is coming toward a turning point. The mounting significance of violence and insecurity has provoked the surge of a pressing need to scrutinize the causes, consequences, costs and over all, new strategies to reverse this situation. The traditional approach to urban violence has proven to be insufficient.  The frontal war against organised crime has only provoked violence to spread. Criminal justice and law enforcement have only worsened the problem and triggered a blood-spattered reaction from drug organisations. There has to be an incentive to stop joining drug traffickers, a feasible alternative for citizens to achieve decent living standards: something to look up to instead of violent ways. What if instead of continuing fighting violence with violence, we try to focus on developing better cities and eventually, better citizens?


Note that all other references can be accessed by clicking on the hyperlinks.

Guerrero-Gutierrez, E., 2012. Políticas de seguridad en México: analisis de cuatro sexenios, in: Atlas de La Seguridad Y Defensa de Mexico. Colectivo de Análisis de la Seguridad con Democracia A.C. (CASEDE), Mexico.

Elections a Dangerous Form of Security Discussion in El Salvador

Sunday’s calls for celebration in “esta gran fiesta democratica”[1] transformed, by evening, into tense stand-offs and a statement that “La Fuerza Armada esta lista para hacer democracia”. What had been projected to be a docile, comfortable second-round presidential election with the governing FMLN party easily obtaining the presidency by a 10-18% margin melted into a tense political dispute with opposing candidates separated by less than a percentage point. As of Tuesday, 11 March 2014, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) continued to aske the candidates to refrain from declaring victory and stated that results would be delayed until Thursday so that an analysis of the results from each polling station could be conducted.* Likely factors for this upset abound. What is certain is that the deep political polarisation of El Salvador has, since the end of its civil war in 1992, rarely been more evident or potentially more explosive.

According to the latest counts, Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) presidential candidate Salvador Sánchez Cerén achieved 50.12% of the vote in contrast to Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) presidential candidate Norman Quijano with 49.88%. Eager to position themselves in what is at best a murky contest, both candidates have declared victory during celebrations held in San Salvador during the evening of 9 March 2014. Quijano went further by declaring that his party would not allow fraud “al estilo chavista o maduro, como en Venezuela”,[2] challenged the reliability of the TSE, and put the armed forces on notice of a fight for democracy. There exists a rising risk of civil unrest in result as FMLN and ARENA supporters challenge election results and attempt to influence the TSE outcome.

Further complicating the situation is the level to which security plays a role in El Salvador’s political process. Quijano may have been the first to call on the military to defend the election victory of his party but both sides are guilty of politicising security operations during the last months of the election campaign; out-going FMLN president Mauricio Funes deployed soldiers to the streets as recently as this last week in an attempt to bolster security or win security votes as alleged by political opponents.[3] The temptation to turn to military solutions during political problems is an ever-present issue in El Salvador. For decades the country has seen the military at the centre of its political system – either as direct or indirect government actors. A key component of the 1992 peace accords was the de-politicisation of the military and the removal of its overt influence from government institutions and public security structures like the police. To place the military alongside police in establishing greater security in El Salvador has caused consternation over the last decade; to make a call such as Quijano did on Sunday, for the military to stand by for intervention, should ring alarm bells.

The implication of a call to arms is immediate and significant but also worrisome over the medium- and long-term is the lasting impact of security allegations which have been flung by both parties throughout the campaign. First, the subject of a national gang truce has been contentious, as well as misrepresented, throughout the course of the campaign. Although the initiative has been responsible for reducing reported homicide rates by almost 50% since March 2012,[4] opponents claimed with reason that the FMLN was responsible for negotiating with terrorists/criminals.[5] The public has remained distrustful of the gang truce and opinion polls reveal that few see the truce as reliably improving security.[6] The FMLN was further accused of using this initiative to their advantage by employing these same gang members to pressure the electorate into voting for them[7] although there has been little evidence of gang members exerting pressure for votes.[8] The truce continued to influence election discussions both inside and internationally despite both leading parties attempting to avoid the elephant as it related to their own policies as much as possible. Cerén promoted moderate positions generally but avoided direct endorsement or other confirmation of government support for the initiative. Quijano condemned the truce, promising a return to mano dura-style enforcement, but appeared to soften on the issue as the election progressed, discussing re-integration options for youth at risk.

Also of worry has been the role that the gangs themselves may play in the political process. Since the implementation of the truce, epidemic violence responsibilities have been illuminated. Many analysts were surprised by just how heavily gangs dominated homicide rates. It was also unanticipated that concessions granted to such a small number of gang leaders (approximately 30) could extract such drastic results, illustrating a much greater hierarchical structure than previously estimated.[9] The truce has thus also altered the political influence that gangs appear to wield. On several occasions in 2013, homicide rates rose drastically over short periods, most notably in June and July 2013 after the Security Minister and Chief of the National Civil Police (PNC) were changed and new Security Minister Ricardo Perdomo began to publically criticise the truce.[10] As such, contentions that gangs have become political actors or grown to exert political power in the country are not without some truth. Nevertheless, Douglas Farah’s concerns that government concessions to gangs strengthened their political power and increased their extortive influence on the political decision-making process are, at least for the moment, overblown.[11] What should be of concern is that the negative political spectacle to which the truce has been treated over the course of the campaign can only have contributed to what PNC director Pleites declared as the truce’s “technical end”.[12]

Second, the American media and outspoken members of the US political community also challenged the legitimacy of the past five years of FMLN government operations throughout the electoral campaign through highly publicised articles on their alleged links to transnational organised crime. Constant reporting of Salvador Sánchez Cerén’s guerrilla-commanding days during El Salvador’s 1979-1992 civil war coloured publicity in the United States and, as in the 2009 presidential elections, problematized the ability of the US to work with an FMLN-government. A former George W. Bush administration deputy security advisor, Elliott Abrams, was among the primary commentators who highlighted Cerén’s ideological origins as key to today’s international crime and trafficking problems in the country.[13] The US political community on the right has been using allegations of corruption and connections to organised crime in an attempt to influence Salvadorans living in the United States – almost 2 million of them – who sent home about $3 billion in remittances in 2013 and were granted the right to vote in national elections for the first time during this presidential election. As in the 2009 Presidential elections, there were questions raised by this group as to whether US-El Salvador relations would be able to continue if an FMLN government was elected.[14] The interest of the political right in the United States is guided primarily by historic links to the civil war but also see an FMLN government as a means through which organised crime will gain a greater foothold not only in that country but also increase associated gang violence in the United States.[15]

Setting aside the partisan nature with which transnational criminal organisations, including trafficking activities, have been treated in the United States, these organisations pose a serious threat to the country’s national security, its citizens and its government institutions. Abrams is certainly correct in identifying that illegal trafficking money is corrupting officials and institutions in the country and that this is a threat to both El Salvador and the region. El Salvador’s institutions have long been weakened by encroaching corruption via transnational criminal organisations as well as national groups who purchase power within the PNC and other security structures. Jose Luis Merino’s connections to the FMLN, Venezuela, and FARC, tarnish the shine of the “new approach to democracy” image that the party has attempted to construct.[16] However, these assertions are also hardly original in content, having been in circulation since the mid-2000s, and the US has yet to present support to back up these reports.

Third, whilst Merino has been a flashpoint character for the political right in El Salvador and in the United States, serious but less publicised allegations from Insight Crime and online newspaper El Faro revealed individuals close to out-going president Funes maintain ties to the Texis Cartel. Herbert Saca is known to have garnered links to organised crime for over a decade and been close to both ARENA and FMLN presidents, funnelling crime money to at least three different administrations.[17] Not to be outdone for current scandals, however, ARENA has also been struggled to emerge from corruption allegations which dogged it throughout the campaign. ARENA members, 7 former government officials including former Salvadoran President Francisco Flores Perez, were recommended to the Attorney General by the Legislative Assembly for prosecution on charges of grave corruption and the illegal appropriation of $70 million. Although some cited these activities as “trumped-up legal threats against ARENA officials” and evidence of untoward manipulation of government institutions[18] despite ample evidence to the contrary – many asked why it had taken so long for the legal processes to be initiated! What is in evidence is that corruption, like purported criminal links amongst government employees, only serves to heighten fears and broaden gaps in an already polarised electorate.

Security being an explosive subject at the best of times, El Salvador is likely to be visited by further allegations, threats and promises as each party seeks to gain the upper hand in this elections dispute. Prior to the voting period, and despite the politicalisation of security issues and the importance given the issue by campaigning parties, voters reported that they did not use crime as a deciding issue when casting their vote, believing that no party had “good ideas for how to address crime”.[19] What each party needs to keep in mind is that their use of the security issue during the election only likely to exacerbate the issues they are likely to have to address themselves in the months to come. As El Faro opines, unlike the all or nothing calls of the conflicting parties, “en el momento en el que más necesita El Salvador una visión de futuro, de estrategia a largo plazo” and that includes treating security issues with less politicisation and greater contemplation of all the citizens for which they hope to govern.

* In an earlier version of this article, the author mistakenly stated that a recount was being conducted. This has been corrected.

[1] Oscar Ortiz, Facebook Post (9 March 2014),

[2] Gloria Flores, Quijano: “La Fuerza Armada esta lista para hacer democracia” (9 March 2014),

[3] AP, Mas soldados en combate a la delincuencia en El Salvador (4 March 2014),

[4] Kari Mariska Pries, El Salvador: One Year Gang Truce (21 March 2012),

[5] ARENA ran television commercials during the early months of the campaign in 2013 which directly accused the FMLN of entering into pacts with criminals. For an American take: Roger F. Noriega, Is El Salvador the next Venezuela? (27 February 2014),

[6] IUDOP, Los salvadorenos y salvadorenas evaluan la situación del país al finales de 2013 y opinan sobre las elecciones presidenciales de 2014 (December 2013).

[7] Jose R. Cardenas, No Ordinary Election in El Salvador (5 March 2014),

[8] IUDOP, Las salvadorenas y los salvadorenos frente a la segunda ronda de la elección presidencial de 2014 (February 2014),

[9] Geoffrey Ramsey, Are El Salvador’s ‘Maras’ Becoming Political Actors? (29 June 2012),

[10] After a spate of violence in July 2013 in which 103 individuals were killed during a single week, Perdomo changed his position with a press release offering the government’s renewed support for a sustainable and transparent process. J. Santos and C. Melendez, Seguridad anuncia incorporacion de tregua a estrategias de Gobierno (11 July 2013),; also Marguerite Cawley, El Salvador Gangs Using Truce to Strengthen Drug Ties: Official (19 July 2014),

[11] Douglas Farah, The Transformation of El Salvador’s Gangs into Political Actors (21 June 2012),

[12] Michael Lohmuller, El Salvador Gang Truce ‘Technically’ Finished: Police (4 March 2014),

[14] The right in the United States had everything to gain by running this campaign to influence a group that had already come out in favour of an FMLN government shortly after being granted suffrage in January 2013. The National Salvadoran Network in the Exterior (RENASE) published their declaration in the Salvadoran newspaper La Presna Grafica in March 2013.

[15] Cardenas (2014); Guevara (2014); Alan Gomez, Stopping drug cartels key issue in El Salvador election (8 March 2014),

[16] Tomas Guevara, U.S. Analyst: Salvadoran Gangs Seek Political Role (5 February 2014),

[17] Hector Silva, The Fixer and El Salvador’s Missed Opportunity (7 March 2014),

[18] Cardenas (2014).

[19] Tim, The second round at the polls (3 March 2014),

Interview with Jorrit Kamminga about his trip to Afghanistan as a NATO Transatlantic Opinion Leader

Jorrit Kamminga, one of the Researching Security network members, was invited by NATO to take part in the Transatlantic Opinion Leaders to Afghanistan (TOLA) tour in October 2013. In this interview, he talks about his experiences in Afghanistan and how it relates to his PhD research on counter-narcotics policies and alternative livelihoods in rural Colombia.

Jorrit, what was the purpose of your latest trip to Afghanistan?

Jorrit Kamminga: Every year NATO invites a small group of international thinktankers specialising on Afghanistan and the region to visit the country and participate in a packed programme of briefings from representatives of the international community, the Afghan government and the (foreign) military. This trip was especially important as it took place amidst the final stages of the security transition with the foreign military drawdown in full swing, the training of Afghan security forces moving from quantity to quality, and preparations for the presidential elections (April 2014) underway.

How do you evaluate the current security situation in the areas you have visited?

Jorrit Kamminga: With NATO I visited the southern province of Helmand. Heavy fighting took place there this past fighting season with the Afghan national security forces now everywhere in the lead. They are doing the fighting and suffering heavy casualties. However, the various Taliban insurgent groups have been unable to gain a single victory and are unable to achieve any of their strategic goals. Nonetheless, they will continue to try to destabilise the country and create a sense of insecurity in the run-up to the presidential elections.

P1060363What are the implications of what you have observed for the presidential elections in Afghanistan in April 2014?

Jorrit Kamminga: The preparations of the presidential elections have been ongoing for months now. It is an Afghan-led process and they have started much earlier than in 2009. That is progress. This means that the elections will probably go ahead as planned, despite the fact that the Taliban will try to kill a high profile target and will try to prevent the elections from taking place in some areas in the southern and eastern parts of the country. In any case, the West should again be prepared that the elections will not be completely free and fair. Fraud will again be part of it. What is important is that the outcome will be accepted by all major ethnic groups of the country.

Jorrit, your PhD research at the Universidad de Valencia was about counter-narcotics policies and alternative livelihoods in Colombia. How does your work as a NATO adviser in Afghanistan relate to your PhD research in Colombia? What differences and similarities did you observe?

Jorrit Kamminga: Both in Afghanistan and Colombia I am especially looking into counter-narcotics policies within the broader context of security and development. So there is not much difference as the illegal drug economies of both countries and their impact are huge. The only negative outcome of the trip with NATO to Afghanistan was that the international community really seems to have turned its back on the Afghan opium problem. Now that we are on the way out with our military forces, nobody seems to be taking the responsibility to seriously think about effective ways in which the international community can assist the Afghan government in the next ten years. It is all the more surprising giving the record levels of illicit poppy cultivation that were announced recently by the UN and the fact that the Taliban insurgency is deriving a large part of its income from this illicit industry.

P1060351P1060359What can we learn from your experiences about drug policy, organised crime and conflict more broadly?

Jorrit Kamminga: Despite the still popular political message that illicit drugs are bad and have to be confronted, countries such as Afghanistan and Colombia show that the repressive model of the war on drugs has not produced any sustainable results, and has had numerous negative side effects. In Afghanistan the ongoing conflict has produced an ever bigger war economy that not only maintains the Taliban insurgent groups but also feeds corruption and has created a huge group of local power holders, warlords, drug traffickers and other actors that are making a comfortable living of the illicit drug economy and prefer to keep things as they are. That has been one of the biggest impediments of stability and prosperity in Afghanistan in the past twelve years. For the international community, the priority has been clearly to fight the Taliban insurgency but to ignore one of their biggest sources of income. In many ways it has been the elephant in the room since we started to engage with Afghanistan in 2001.

Thank you very much for your time, Jorrit. One last question: what are your plans for the future?

Jorrit Kamminga: Now that my PhD dissertation is submitted, I am looking for ways to continue my research on Afghanistan, Colombia and counter-narcotic policies. I hope to find a post-doc research position that will allow me to build on my on-the-ground experience and on the findings of my PhD research.

Pictures from the field: Alternative livelihoods in rural Colombia

by Jorrit Kamminga (May 2013)

My PhD research analyses international support for alternative development and trade policies that aim to reduce the supply of illicit drugs. The central argument of the research is that Colombia can be considered a benchmark for the development of an effective international regime on cross-border support for alternative development strategies. This regime – the key academic contribution of the research – would be called an International Economic Security Regime (RISE, using the Spanish acronym of Régimen Internacional de Seguridad Económica). It combines international regime theory (Stephen Krasner et al.) with the theoretical concepts of ‘economic security’ and ‘shared responsibility’.

For my field research on alternative development in Colombia, I visited three regions: Tumaco, Meta and the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Here are a few photo impressions from my trip in May 2013.

For more field research pictures from other young scholars, please click on the links below:

New pictures from Susan Flaemig’s field research in El Salvador

Security politics in El Salvador

by Susan Flaemig (2011, 2012, 2013)

These pictures were taken during my research trips to El Salvador in 2011, 2012, and 2013. Obviously, for me as a young scholar it is very difficult to get images that speak of the tremendous violence that people suffer from or that would portray state responses to violence. The main obstacle for me was the risk to carry a camera on a public bus – buses are frequent targets of robbery and assaults. Luckily, on the day I experienced an intended robbery, I didn’t have my camera with me.

Please click on the photographs for more information!

Interview with Researchingsecurity

In an interview conducted by Felicitas Röhrig, Researchingsecurity members talk about their experiences of researching security, organised crime and violence in Latin America.

The interview was published on the website of our partner organisation, the Latin American Bureau.

Latin America: Researching crime, violence and security

Latin America: Researching crime, violence and security

Published on: Sun Jun 30, 2013
Author: Felicitas Röhrig
Source: Researching 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.

Please continue reading here.

Researchingsecurity at the ISA-PSS Conference in Budapest

Our blog members Susan Flämig, Juan Carlos RuizVerena Brähler and Maria Alejandra Otamendi jointly presented a panel on “Researching (In)security and Violence: Diffusion in Methodology” at the “Security Challenges in an Evolving World Conference” (International Studies Association & Peace Science Society) in Budapest on 27 June 2013.

After the presentations, the Researchingsecurity members engaged in a stimulating discussion with the audience on the topic of how to research security, organised crime and violence. We will post our conference presentations here soon.

For now we would like to thank Kari Mariska Pries for organising the panel and our discussant Edmund Pries from Wilfrid Laurier University for his valuable comments and insight.

Susan Flaemig, Juan Carlos Ruiz, Edmund Pries and Verena Brähler (from left to right)

Susan Flaemig, Juan Carlos Ruiz, Edmund Pries and Verena Brähler (from left to right)

PUBLICATION: Peace, Step by Step (Paz, Paso a Paso: Una Mirada a los Conflictos Colombianos desde los Estudios de Paz)

Several years ago some MA and PhD students at the Department of Peace Studies, University of Bradford got together with the idea of publishing a book about Colombia. The idea was to explore Colombia’s conflicts and to do that while also reflecting on the relevance of using a peace approach to understand those conflicts and to transform them.

The book has chapters by Adam Baird (on youth and participation in Medellin), Jairo Bedoya (on rackets in Medellin), Paul Chambers (on peace studies in Colombia), Mauricio García (on peace movements in Colombia), Elizabeth Kerr (on Colombian internally displaced communities), Silvia Mantilla (on Colombian conflict and globalization), Alexandra Colak (peace approaches to studying security) and Fernand Serrano (on the participation of lesbian and gay organizations in peace building in Colombia). 

Congratulations to all the editors and contributors of the new book, especially our blog member Alexandra Colak!

The book was dedicated it to the memory of Elizabeth Kerr.

Paz, paso a paso

PUBLICATION: Silence in the City’s Security Agenda / Silencios en la Agenda de Seguridad de la Ciudad

This article by Alexandra Abello Colak was published by the Observatory of Human Security of Medellin (Observatorio de Seguridad Humana de Medellin, Colombia) on 11 April 2013.

The article analyses the security discourse in Medellin, Colombian second city, and the focus of current security responses there. It argues that this city recently named the world’s most innovative city[1], still suffers from chronic insecurity problems mainly affecting the poorest communities and that it also faces a key challenge: The reformulation of its security agenda. The article argues that the invisibilization of the kind of security problems affecting residents in poor urban communities has led to problematic silences in the current security agenda. These hinder the city’s capacity to bring to an end the reproduction of violences that is still underway despite reductions in levels of homicides rates. The article calls for recognition of the voice and the security experiences of the most vulnerable communities in the city. It also highlights the work of the Observatory of Human Security of Medellin, which is in the process of developing research methodologies to study security with urban communities that are vulnerable to chronic levels of violence since 2009.

Silencios en la Agenda de Seguridad de la Ciudad

En el último informe de riesgo emitido por la Defensoría del Pueblo el pasado 6 de Marzo, esta institución alertaba sobre la grave situación de riesgo en la que se encuentran habitantes de las comunas Villa Hermosa (8), La Candelaria (10), San Javier (13) y Belén (16) y de los corregimientos de San Antonio de Prado y Altavista de la ciudad de Medellín. La Defensoría  estimaba  que alrededor de 95.000 personas que viven en barrios de estas comunas y corregimientos están en riesgo de ser víctimas de amenazas, intimidaciones, extorsiones, restricciones al libre movimiento por los barrios, reclutamiento, enfrentamientos armados, desplazamientos forzados y violencia y explotación sexual por parte de grupos armados ilegales, a través de los cuales estructuras criminales como la Oficina de Envigado y los Urabeños se disputan el control territorial de estas áreas de la ciudad.

Además de los 18,500 niños, adolescentes y jóvenes hombres entre los 10 y los 19 años que se calcula están en riesgo de ser reclutados y usados por estos grupos armados ilegales, la Defensoría identificaba a niñas, adolescentes y mujeres de estas comunidades y a líderes sociales y comunitarios, activistas de derechos humanos, población desplazada, comerciantes, transportadores y personas que realizan trabajo social en estas comunidades, como grupos que están en especial condición de vulnerabilidad frente a estas amenazas.

Este preocupante panorama de vulneración de derechos y las diversas formas a través de las cuales se ejerce violencia y se genera inseguridad en la ciudad,  no se ven reflejados en las cifras de homicidios, ni de los llamados delitos de alto impacto, que son los que frecuentemente concentran la atención y los esfuerzos de las autoridades locales y nacionales, tal y como quedó demostrado el pasado 2 de Abril en el balance hecho por el Presidente Santos de la intervención que se llevó a cabo en la ciudad para mejorar la situación de seguridad.

El balance presentado por el Presidente en la comuna 13, precisamente una de las más afectadas por las amenazas contra líderes y residentes que se niegan a colaborar con los grupos armados, por la vinculación de niños y jóvenes a estos grupos, por el desplazamiento forzado, por amenazas a jóvenes miembros de agrupaciones artísticas y procesos juveniles y por enfrentamientos entre combos; reconocía que la intervención del Estado no sólo había concentrado la acción de la Policía en el combate a los homicidios, al hurto común, hurto al comercio, hurto de automotores, a la microextorsión y al microtráfico, sino que buscaba primordialmente frenar el aumento en el número de los homicidios que se registró en Medellín en los primeros meses del año. A partir de reducciones porcentuales en el número de homicidios, hurtos y extorsiones y el número de capturas que realizó la Policía (1,292 en dos semanas), las autoridades daban un parte de tranquilidad a la ciudad.

Pese a la importancia que representan disminuciones en el número de muertes violentas y de hurtos en la ciudad, genera un gran desconcierto el silencio dentro del discurso oficial sobre  la compleja situación de inseguridad y los graves riesgos de vulneración de derechos a los que están expuestos todavía y de manera cotidiana muchos habitantes de Medellín. Dada la evolución de los factores de inseguridad en la ciudad y de los mecanismos de violencia usados por actores armados, las reducciones en las cifras de homicidios y delitos al patrimonio económico esconden formas de inseguridad crónicas y procesos de reproducción de violencia que siguen ocurriendo en la ciudad.

La invisibilizacion de la experiencia de inseguridad de los habitantes de las comunidades más vulnerables, no sólo conlleva a la imposibilidad de articular estrategias de seguridad que sean efectivas a corto, mediano y largo plazo, sino que además plantean un gran interrogante sobre la forma en que se articula la agenda de seguridad en la ciudad, sobre su pertinencia y sobre la exclusión de ciertos sectores de la población en procesos que son cruciales para la ciudad.

La agenda de seguridad que guía la acción de diferentes actores institucionales en la búsqueda de soluciones a los problemas que afectan la ciudad y que se traduce en políticas, programas, leyes, intervenciones focalizadas, etc., no es sólo un asunto técnico de competencia de la Policía y de expertos en materia de seguridad urbana. La agenda de seguridad, como otras agendas de política pública, toma forma a partir de procesos de interacción, negociación y concertación entre diversos actores (representantes de diferentes instituciones estatales, gremios económicos, medios de comunicación, organizaciones civiles y comunitarias, iniciativas ciudadanas, etc.).  En otras palabras, las agendas de seguridad reflejan la efectividad de la representación y la capacidad de incidencia de diferentes actores, sectores sociales, grupos poblacionales y comunidades de la ciudad.

La invisibilizacion de la realidad compleja que viven residentes de algunas comunidades en el discurso y la agenda de seguridad, hace necesario cuestionarse sobre los retos que todavía existen en materia de inclusión e integración de sectores importantes de la población a la ciudad innovadora, también sobre la ausencia de mecanismos de participación de estos sectores en la formulación de la agenda de seguridad, que vayan más allá de las labores de inteligencia como informantes y delatores a las que se les invita a participar.

Un reto fundamental para que la ciudad logre la desactivación de los factores y procesos que en las últimas décadas han permitido la reproducción de múltiples violencias, es la revisión de la agenda de seguridad que sirve de hoja de ruta para la acción estatal y la de otros actores sociales. La construcción de una agenda pasa por la identificación de problemas y la elaboración de diagnósticos, por la identificación de estrategias adecuadas, pero sobre todo por la definición de qué significa construir barrios, comunidades y ciudades seguras. En ese proceso permanecen ausentes las voces de las comunidades más vulnerables, es especial la voz de sus jóvenes, que son frecuentemente objeto de intervenciones de seguridad.

Consolidar una agenda que reconozca los aciertos del Estado y de la sociedad civil organizada en los territorios que ha demostrado alta capacidad de resiliencia en medio de la violencia, pero que también reconozca los grandes retos que existen todavía, que se encamine a garantizar la seguridad de los habitantes de Medellín en todas sus dimensiones y que se pregunte no sólo cómo capturar a miembros de grupos armados ilegales, sino cómo transformar el contexto social, político, económico e institucional que les permite tener tanta incidencia y capacidad de mutación; es probablemente uno de los retos más importantes para la ciudad.

La investigación y la producción de conocimiento sobre seguridad juegan un rol importante en el proceso de articulación de la agenda de seguridad de la ciudad. El análisis y la recolección de datos sobre ciertos fenómenos de inseguridad pueden ayudar a visibilizarlos y a comprenderlos, pero también pueden inesperadamente excluir otros del debate público. En este sentido el Observatorio de Seguridad Humana de Medellín busca contribuir al debate desarrollando formas de investigación sobre seguridad con las comunidades que están más expuestas a la inseguridad y a la violencia urbana. A través de diferentes actividades de interacción para la recolección y análisis de información con varios grupos poblaciones, busca tener una mayor comprensión no sólo de los problemas que afectan la seguridad de jóvenes, mujeres, niños y niñas, desplazados y población LGBT que viven en las laderas de Medellín, sino también del impacto de las políticas públicas sobre esas problemáticas y de las iniciativas ciudadanas que se articulan en estos contextos como respuesta a la inseguridad. La posibilidad de visibilizar estas realidades es una oportunidad para ayudar a repensar la agenda de seguridad de la ciudad.

Alexandra Abello Colak is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Peace Studies at University of Bradford (UK) and an Academic Consultant to Observatory of Human Security of Medellin (Colombia)