Leslie Verteramo Chiu is a Postdoctoral Associate at Cornell’s Dyson School.
One of the most serious risks a researcher can face in an unknown environment is the risk of being a crime victim, especially of a violent crime. What follows are things to consider before and during fieldwork in a conflict zone, as drawn from my personal experience. My field research was conducted in northeastern Mexico in 2011 near Tampico, Tamaulipas. At that time this region was, and continues to be, in the middle of a turf war between two drug cartels. I (with Calum Turvey) wanted to investigate how drug cartel (narco) violence was perceived by small farmers, and how it was affecting their daily lives and production decisions (preliminary results here).
First you should be very careful when selecting your local partner. You should investigate if your local partner—the institution, its members, and/or directors—is perceived to be corrupt or connected to questionable activities. Our local partner was a producer association whose board members were all in good standing in their community.
You must also have a good understanding of the potential risks. The travel warnings and alerts of the U.S. Department of State should be the first source of information. But do not rely solely on official data and media articles. In Mexico, the media limit their coverage of relevant violent events, specifically if they are narco related. Only those events that are most dramatic and dreadful may get reported (e.g. casino arson in Monterrey, Ayotzinapa). Even if you may be familiar with the area of study, you should always seek the opinion of your local collaborators since they may be your best, if not only, source of trusted information on crime level. Knowing the degree of separation between your local contacts and crime victims can be used as a reference, particularly if your local contact is accompanying you throughout your field work, as was our case. If your local contacts or someone in their close inner circle have been victimized, it may raise more concerns than if the victims were acquaintances. Equally important is to know characteristics of victims. For instance, do certain groups seem more at risk? Were the victims involved with the narcos? Do foreigners face the same risks as locals?
You also need an understanding the type of crimes and the modus operandi of the criminals. In our region, for instance, kidnapping, carjacking, and extortion were the crimes the local population feared most. Although homicides were not rare, they occurred mostly between the drug cartel members. Extortions were very common, not only for high margin business owners, but also for farmers, cooperatives, and even government agencies. Since I was there for a short time I was mostly worried about kidnapping and carjacking, not extortion.
There is always a random component in being victimized, but this can be reduced by keeping a low profile. For instance, criminals in this region prefer to carjack SUVs, pickup trucks, and new cars. You should also avoid riding in cars with tinted glasses as you may get confused with a cartel member. We rode in an old small truck, which did not look suspicious since that type of vehicle is common in villages in this region. Related, like all field work, you should keep a low profile by dressing in a way similar to local people or as recommended by your local partner. If you are using enumerators, hire, as much as possible, local people that are familiar with the area and speak with the same accent. In our region, most of the narcos are not local. A non-local person in the research group would make our presence seem (more) suspicious. You should make sure that the people you interview know exactly why you are there. In our case, we worked for a university and were in no way related to the government. Always bring with you an official ID where your address is clearly stated. Do not carry your passport, or anything that you cannot afford to lose, but carry a copy of it. Unless you are perceived as a threat to the narcos, you should be safe to do your work. However, there have been cases in other parts of Mexico where survey workers from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) were kidnapped while conducting surveys but released after the narcos confirmed their identity.
Being unpredictable is also important, especially in rural areas. After the first day of field work, many people in those locations knew about our presence. Everyone knew that our group carried cash, which made us an easy victim for robbery. Although robbery was not a major concern, we tried to limit it by having a random itinerary. Each morning we would review our day’s plan with our local partner and, depending on the current information, would decide whether to alter it. Our local partner would get updated reports on the safety conditions of the villages from members of the association or its field engineers before we decided on our route.
You should always let a trusted person know about your daily activities. That person should have the cellular numbers of the research group members, as well as be ready to contact the right authorities in case of an emergency. In many places it is customary, if not obligatory, to let local authorities know if you are conducting research in their jurisdiction, particularly if you are a non-national. In my case, however, I did not let any authority know about my research or areas of visit. In Mexico, and particular in this region, letting the police know of your whereabouts could be counterproductive since the police can be associated with criminal activities.
Although I write from my experience in Mexico, these suggestions may be applicable to researchers planning field work in other countries or regions with high crime rates and insecurity.