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Violent Democracies and their Emigrants

Violent Democracies and their Emigrants

In 2014 a group of Mexican migrants living in the United States remitted an estimated $250 thousand dollars to support one of numerous non-state vigilante groups that formed in their origin community to combat the Caballeros Templarios, ​a particularly violent drug trafficking organization that appeared in 2011 (Calderón 2014). Several return migrants who served as leaders of the many vigilante groups that emerged that year now hold national elected offices (Ochoa 2014). Overseas Filipino Workers (OFW) were key to Rodrigo Duterte’s presidential victory in May of 2016, and Duterte’s aggressive, yet controversial, crime-fighting approach continues to win him widespread support among this constituency (Quinsaat, forthcoming). Furthermore, the motorcycle club Saturdah evolved from a local club made up of Indonesian immigrants living in the Netherlands into a transnational gang whose members enjoy high-level political patronage within Indonesia and serve both in the police and military (Wilson 2015).

How do the myriad forms of violence occurring in sending democracies condition the particularities of government and state-to-emigrant outreach as well as emigrant support for, demands and expectations of, and interactions with, their origin state, government and political leaders? How do migrants’ interactions with citizens and institutions in their with violent origin democracies affect politics there indirectly?

The transnational perspective on migration holds that many emigrants continue to engage their origin countries culturally, socially, politically, and economically even as they become settled in their receiving countries (Levitt and Glick Schiller 2004; Faist 2008; Portes 1997), while many return migrants sustain similar ties with their former receiving countries even after they resettle back ‘home’ (​Krawatzek and Müller-Funk 2019​). Studies show that migrants’ transnational activities and resources influence democratization and democratic consolidation in sending countries; affect origin-country armed conflicts and post-conflict reconstruction; and contribute to globalizing domestic criminal networks. An underexplored question concerns the relationship between transnational migrants and the political violence that is intrinsic to many migrant-sending democracies.

Violent democracies are countries in which the legitimate means to accessing power is no longer violently contested (it is through competitive elections), yet a multitude of actors, including political parties, elected officials, and other state authorities; civil society groups and citizens; and criminal as well as legitimate profit seeking organizations, regularly use violence as a means of competing within established democratic institutional frameworks (Arias and Goldstein 2010; Auyero 2007). ​Between 2014 and 2017, the world’s violent democracies included Argentina, Bolivia, Colombia, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Kenya, Liberia, Malawi, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan, Philippines, South Africa, and Sierra Leone. These countries’ experiences with migration vary, yet about half are major migrant-sending countries with which emigrants maintain ongoing ties. India, Mexico, the Philippines, and Pakistan ranked among the worlds’ top ten migrant-sending states in 2017 (IOM 2018). Ten of the seventeen violent democracies listed fall in the top twenty remittance receiving countries of the world (Colombian, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Mexico, Nigeria, Pakistan and the Philippines) (World Bank 201​6). The fact that so many violent democracies are also migrant-sending countries suggests the need to better understand how the particular nature of politics in these countries shapes migrant  transnationalism and how transnational migrants interact with and influence violent democratic politics. 

This project bridges nascent research on violent democracies and ongoing research on migrant transnationalism to explore how international migrants and the human, financial, and social capital they transmit across borders interact with the violent processes and institutions that characterize democratic politics in their origin countries. It elucidates the ways in which transnational migrants’ interactions with the many forms of violence occurring in their origin countries fundamentally shape democratic accountability, representation, participation, responsiveness, and justice. Conversely it highlights how the violence that constitutes the practice of democracy in many sending countries, in turn, shapes the practice of migrant transnationalism itself.

I recently guest edited a Special Issue of the Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies, available here, with Dr. Ana Isabel López García (Konstanz University, Germany) focused on how emigrants respond to and influence political violence in Mexico. We are co-editing a book that builds on the Special Issue and explores its themesin global comparative perspective.

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