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Annette Idler on Conflict and Cooperation

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Annette Idler has a fascinating new take on conflict and cooperation.


Sociologists such as myself look at violent conflict through a number of traditional lenses.


If civilian groups are fighting among themselves, we look for economic motives.


We look at class conflicts or fights over labor relations.


Or we look at peasants defending their land from expropriation.


Or we look at ethnic rivalry.


We might look at the warlords and their attempts to enrich themselves by seizing power.


When we look at violent crime, we look at poverty.


Or we look at a breakdown of social regulation due to destruction of the family, or rapid cultural change.


Or we look at a breakdown of the official state apparatus for maintaining law and order due to state weakness or extensive corruption.


Or we look at the simple existence of gangs. The more gangs, the more crime.


Usually we compare areas with no civil wars or no gangs with areas with civil wars or areas with lots of gangs.

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Annette Idler can do better than that.


She studies drug gang violence in Colombia.


Instead of just considering drug gang present versus drug gang absent, she asks a more sophisticated question. When Do Drug Gangs Cooperate With Each Other and When Do They Fight Each Other? She notes – correctly – that in many high-conflict situations, combatants can make temporary alliances in one location, even as they are fighting to the death in another. In the case of Colombia, she gives examples of rival gangs which can be collaborating to protect drug production in region X, while having an all-out war in region Y over the control of transshipment. It is not that particular gangs are always violent or always peaceful. They make strategic decisions about when to fight and when to play nice. Knowing about when criminal gangs decide to play nice with each other tells us something about when criminal gangs might decide to play nice with the rest of society.


Let me note, before we get to the details of what Idler found, that it is amazing that anyone could actually do a study like the study Idler did. She went to the most violent regions of Colombia – several particularly gang-infested sections of the Colombian border. Not only are these areas characterized by massive amounts of drug trafficking – but they are also characterized by gang warfare. There are multiple gangs working in these areas. They tend to settle their disputes with guns.


When most scholars go into violent areas, the first rule of survival is NEVER ask questions about criminal activity. People don’t know if you are an academic or a cop pretending to be an academic. Ask the wrong people too many questions about wrong people in general, and you get stony silence. Push your luck and people remove you from the scene.


(They are not likely to shoot you, although that could happen. More probably, someone steals your passport. Within the hour, a cop in the know just happens to ask you for your passport. Golly gee whiz, you don’t have your documents. You have to leave the country … NOW.)


This can be avoided by slowly building a support structure in your setting, becoming known to people and getting an extensive network of protectors. Even then, you have to use skill in knowing who to talk to. You have to choose your questions very wisely. Most researchers lack such skills. Idler has the skills.


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What did Idler find?


No matter how mean criminals want to be, they have to cooperate with someone. If they are selling drugs, they need someone to grow the raw materials. They need someone in a lab to process the drugs. They need someone to transport the drugs. They need someone to whom to sell the drugs. They need someone to keep hostile police or rival gangs from interfering with business. And they need someone to provide them with supplies, which includes not only weaponry, but also food for survival and the luxury goods that are the motivation for being in the trade in the first place. So, gangs are going to have to be nice to some people.


At the same time, there is the constant risk of treachery. There is money to be made by not paying suppliers, cheating customers, and eliminating competition. Gang members are right to be paranoid, because everyone they deal with has motivation to betray them, just as they have the motivation to betray other people.


Idler makes many arguments, but I will highlight three.


1. Gangs Are More Likely to Cooperate When There Are Few Substitutes for a Betrayed Partner. They are more likely to cooperate when they can find easy replacements for the victim of a screw job.


Idler notes that drug gangs are much more cooperative in areas where drugs are produced – notably the fields and the labs. They turn violent and vicious in areas where drugs are simply transported. Transshipment areas are ripe grounds for gang wars.


Fields are relatively fixed commodities. One can’t just grow coca anywhere. With the fields, you need skilled cultivators who know how to plant, nurture and harvest coca. Generally, you are going to want to work with the people who already live on the land you want cultivated. Because the cultivator-drug lord relationship is relatively enduring, a gang leader can not simply screw over his peasants. Likewise, he does not want to see cultivation disrupted by violent conflict between his gang and a rival. So, drug gangs do what they can in cultivating areas to keep the peace and get along with everyone.


The same applies with processing labs. Although in theory, one could build a shed anywhere, and fill it with whatever chemists one can find - in practice, skilled chemists are relatively scarce. Like software engineers or other techies, they tend to be concentrated in a small number of cities. Drug lords tend to nurture their chemists. They avoid making trouble and starting fights around cities with labs to avoid disrupting production and to avoid scaring off tech talent. Good chemists are hard to replace.


In contrast, anything goes in transshipment zones. Anyone can store and carry drugs. There are all sorts of people who want to work for the gangsters. Poverty zones have vast numbers of teenagers, slum dwellers who need money and starting gangster wannabes. This means that gangsters can screw over anyone they want to, because they can easily get replacements for the victims. Furthermore, because the gangsters perceive themselves as having nothing of value in transshipment cities, they feel can shoot the place up all they want.


So how does the peace get kept in transshipment cities?


2. Gangs Cooperate With People With Whom They Share Values. They Are More Likely To Turn Violent Around People With Discordant Values.


Our stereotype of gangsters is that they are unidimensional bad guys who only care about money and power. In fact, gangsters are human beings. Businessmen are human being; politicians are human beings; taxi drivers are human beings; gangsters are human beings. Gangsters have tastes in music. Gangsters have religious sensibilities. Some are atheist. Some are pious. They can be pious even when ordering executions. Gangsters have political opinions. Some gangsters are liberal. Some gangsters are conservative. Some gangsters see themselves as revolutionaries. Some gangsters see themselves as soldiers and maintainers of a rough-hewn order.


This means that gangsters can be gotten to with moral appeals They will loosen up and trust someone who shares their fundamental values. They will tighten up and be suspicious of people “from the other side”. Idler provides fascinating ethnographic evidence of drug lords relaxing and becoming cooperative with members of civil society who genuinely share their world view and are seen by the drug lord as being “good people”.


Colombia is divided between leftists who are revolutionary and paramilitaries. Revolutionaries see themselves as protecting peasants and victims of capitalist dispossession. They are sympathetic to the needs of indigenous communities. Paramilitaries favor economic growth and progress.  Paramilitaries have traditional religious and family values. They think Indians are fine as long as they don’t interfere with frontier development; otherwise Indians are a problem.


Both the revolutionaries and the paramilitaries are major players in the drug business. Drug profits finance both operations. The two groups may be fighting in territories not associated with the drug trade, and doing business collaboratively in cities where there is business to be done.


Idler documents how in transshipment towns that are peaceful, revolutionary gang leaders become pacified by outreaches from peasant activists or organizers of progressive movements. Paramilitary gang leaders become pacified by outreaches from people with connections to the big movers and shakers in Colombian politics and business. The drug lords have genuine respect for these community members who stand for the same principles the drug lords believe in themselves. They refrain from betraying the people they respect. They refrain from activities that might put those people in danger.


3. Community Outreach to Gangsters Is Essential to Producing Non-Violence. Engaged Gangsters Can Be Talked into Truces and Deals. Ostracized Gangsters Act Without Social Regulation.  In the cities where there was peace, community members were actively working with the gangsters. These were not situations like Hollywood crime movies, where citizens are just backdrops and where the world consisted purely of cops and crooks. In a cops and robbers world, gangsters turn nasty. In the cities that were actually peaceful, there were citizens working with the gangsters setting boundaries. Deals were done concerning what activities of normal people would be protected and what gang activities would be free from interference.


In one particularly dramatic case, there was a “master diplomat” who had serious credibility with both left wing and right wing drug gangs. He was a former peasant activist with impressive progressive social movement bona fides. Because of his great skill, he had been absorbed into mainstream Colombian politics. He now had excellent connections to the richest business interests in the country. He was trusted by both leftist and conservative drug lords. The diplomat was able to maintain peace in his city for an extended period of time. Unfortunately, he was murdered by a third party. In the diplomacy vacuum that was left by his death, distrust between the two gangs grew. The formerly peaceful city now had major gang wars and a homicide rate that was sky high.

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What does all this imply?


Idler is NOT saying decommission your police and eliminate all law enforcement. Weak ineffective policing is associated with high crime everywhere.


She IS however saying


A. Conflict becomes reduced when people depend on particular other people who cannot be replaced. When people are disposable, exploitation rules. When exploitation rules, vengeance follows. Mutual dependency is the bedrock of lasting peace.


B. Conflict becomes reduced when people find common values they can share. Note that not everyone would talk to a gangster looking for common values. But where such people exist, they can be the basis of at least a short-term peace.


C. Diplomacy and dialogue matter. We talk about ending conflicts by bringing combatants to “a table”. When violence is particularly protracted and savage, there may be no table to bring combatants to. But it is still possible to talk to combatants, even if combatants are not necessarily talking directly to each other. If common values can be found, working arrangements can be made.


Someday, peace will come to Colombia.


Someday, peace may come to the rest of the world too.

For More Information


Annette Idler’s argument can be found in her article in the 2020 World Politics “Logic of Illicit Flows in Armed Conflict: Explaining Variation in Violent Nonstate Group Interactions in Colombia”.


Readers who want to know more about the history of violence in Colombia are referred to Nazih Richiani’s 2002 Systems of Violence: Political Economy of War and Peace in Colombia. Despite the revolutionary actors having changed their names, and there being a peace settlement that rose and fell, the Colombia described in Richiani’s historical work looks remarkably similar to the Colombia of today. It is a fantastic read.


For a more contemporary story that is just as good, see Jasmin Hristov’s Blood and Capital: Paramilitarization of Colombia.

For the classic statement of how mutual dependency produces peace and cooperation, look up the concept of “organic solidarity” on the search engine of your choice. The concept originally appeared in Emile Durkheim’s Division of Labor in Society if you feel like reading a nineteenth century classic.

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