Between Two Fires: Civilian Resistance during Internal Armed Conflict in Peru
Zech, Steven T.
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Research on internal armed conflict focuses on violence perpetrated by insurgent groups and state security forces, often ignoring other armed civilian actors. However, militias, paramilitary groups, and civilian self-defense forces represent important third parties in most armed conflicts including Mexico, Nigeria, Iraq, and elsewhere. Peruvian civilian self-defense forces played a crucial role in defeating the insurgent threat challenging the state during the 1980s and 1990s. Why did some communities organize self-defense while others facing similar situations did not? I argue that how communities address the tension between their ideas about violence and their own use of violence is key to understanding violent action. Community narratives interpret events and define inter-group relations: narratives that legitimize violence makes violence more likely. The form this resistance takes—whether large-scale mobilization or disorganized individual acts—depends on a community’s institutional capacity to generate and sustain collective action. I test my argument against realist and rationalist arguments that emphasize power, threat, and opportunism. I use a mixed-methods approach that combines a quantitative analysis of regional violence with historical and contemporary community case studies in the Ayacucho region of Peru. I draw from hundreds of testimonies in the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission archives, as well as nearly two hundred personal interviews with self-defense force members, community leaders, military officials, and civilians. I also accompanied contemporary self-defense forces on patrol in remote mountain and jungle communities to evaluate hypothesized social processes from my argument. This research has important theoretical and policy implications. I demonstrate the power of community narratives and the causal role of ideas and identities. Understanding the processes driving violent action will provide policymakers with additional tools to manage or prevent it. Armed civilians play a crucial role during most armed conflicts. Peruvian civilian self-defense forces varied in their origins, behavior, levels of support they received from the military, and their post-conflict trajectory. The Peruvian case provides a unique opportunity for policymakers to learn from successes and failures when civilians organize to combat security threats.
- Political science