Policy and Practice Lab - Notre Dame Violence and Transitional Justice
PI: Guillermo Trejo (political science)
We are a group of social scientists and international human rights lawyers who believe in the inalienable rights of victims of gross human rights violations to truth, justice, and reparations, and to live in a society that offers the social and institutional guarantees to prevent re-victimization. We believe in the states’ legal responsibility to fulfill these rights and in the moral obligation that societies and the international community have to assist and accompany the victims and their families in recovering their dignity and the opportunity to live a meaningful life.
We conduct cutting-edge research on the drivers and consequences of large-scale political and criminal violence and explore whether and how transitional justice mechanisms may contribute to contain violence and develop peaceful and just societies. We use this research to accompany human rights defenders and victims and their families in their quest for truth and justice. Our research and practice focus on Latin America, particularly in Mexico, Guatemala, El Salvador, Colombia, and Brazil.
We invite you to take a closer look at our team and our research and practice projects.
Director and Principal Investigator
Doctoral Research Associates
(University of Notre Dame)
Jean Mendieta, M.A. Peace Studies (Mexico)
Paula Cuellar, LLM (El Salvador)
External Research Affiliates
(University of Notre Dame)
María Elizondo Guajardo, LLM, Law School
Grounded in social science and international human rights law, our research seeks to contribute to a new understanding of the drivers of large-scale political and criminal violence and to broaden the frontiers of transitional justice to address the claims for truth and justice from victims of both political and criminal violence.
Although organized crime and large-scale criminal violence have not been part of the transitional justice practice, we seek to broaden the TJ toolkit. Extensive evidence from Latin America suggests that rogue state security agents and pro-government militias – many of them survivors from authoritarian regimes or from episodes of civil war – are intimately involved in the operation of organized criminal groups (OCGs) and in the production of large-scale criminal violence. These agents become involved in the production of large-scale violence when they defect the state to become the armed branch of OCGs; when they stay in government and provide informal protection for OCGs; or when they fight OCGs using iron-fist policies influenced by anti-insurgency practices commonly used in autocracies. Whether they defect or stay in government, these state specialists in violence are leading actors in Latin America’s criminal wars – militarized conflicts between states and OCGs and among OCGs, in which gross human rights violations are widespread.
Beyond a narrow focus of TJ on atrocities committed in dictatorship or in civil war, based on a new understanding of OCGs and of criminal wars, in which state agents are intimately involved in the production of large-scale violence and in gross human rights violations, we seek to open a new agenda of research and practice to understand the drivers of these new forms of violence and violation and how extraordinary mechanisms of justice may contribute to peace and justice.
In our research practice, we use cutting-edge observational and experimental quantitative methods to identify and explain patterns of large-scale political and criminal violence and victimization and rely on data science techniques to estimate and predict the occurrence of mass atrocities. We rely on best practices in qualitative methods, including ethnographic techniques, process-tracing, and archival research to gather testimonies of victims and perpetrators and to reconstruct the contexts of violence.
Our research is both theoretically driven and seeks to respond to the victims’ needs. Following best practices in TJ in our research and practice we strive to put victims – their needs and their dignity – at the center of our activities. The permanent dialogue between research, practice and service is a key feature of our lab.
Our research focuses on two broad areas: 1) the drivers of violence and gross human rights violations and 2) the use of extraordinary mechanisms of transitional justice to develop peaceful societies.
Drivers of Violence and Gross Human Rights Violations
We conduct research that seeks to explain the drivers of large-scale political and criminal violence and the causes of civilian victimization in contexts marked by criminal wars – armed conflicts between states and organized criminal groups (OCGs) and among OCGs, in which gross human rights violations and possibly crimes against humanity are committed. We document, map, and explain who did what to whom, why and how. In identifying the perpetrators of atrocities, their actions, and their motivations, we do not look into isolated individuals but investigate criminal networks often constituted by state security agents, criminal groups, and business firms. Our work traces the origins of these criminal structures into the past and explores the extent to which security agents charged with repressing political dissidents in previous contexts of autocracy or civil war take advantage of their granted political impunity to morph into the criminal underworld.
Team of researchers: ND: Josephine Lechartre, Camilo Nieto-Matiz, Natán Skigin, Guillermo Trejo, Jacob Turner | Affiliates: Juan Albarracín, Abby Córdova, Sandra Ley, Lucía Toscornia
We focus on four areas:
Varieties of Violence. Document, map, estimate, and explain patterns of political and criminal violence, including murders and extrajudicial executions, forced disappearances, forced internal displacement, and torture in contexts of large-scale political and criminal violence. Particular attention paid to mass atrocities, including collective massacres and episodes of mass displacement and mass disappearance.
Criminal Structures. Rethink the rise and development of criminal networks that connect elected officials and state security and judicial agents with criminal groups and sometimes with business firms. Develop methodologies to measure the existence of these criminal structures.
Criminal Governance and Ecosystems of Local Violence. Explain how OCGs, often in collusion with state authorities, establish subnational criminal governance regimes to control local governments, populations, economies, and territories. Assess how OCGs use targeted lethal attacks against social, economic, and political leaders to develop local controls. Document, map, explain and predict the occurrence of these high-profile attacks and explore how they may contribute to establish different types of local criminal orders.
Legacies of Violence and Impunity. Explore whether and the extent to which state specialists in violence and their coercive practices, forged in autocracy or during civil war, survive the transition to democracy and peace agreements and morph into the criminal underworld. Uncover the long-term legacies from political violence into criminal violence.
Transitional Justice Mechanisms
Due to the massive scale of violence and the widespread impunity that prevail in contexts of large-scale political and criminal violence – rendering ordinary institutions of justice inoperative – our research explores the likely efficacy of extraordinary mechanisms of transitional justice (TJ) in addressing victims’ demands for justice and in developing peaceful societies. While the TJ toolkit has been deployed to address mass political violence committed against civilians in autocracy and civil war, we seek to push the frontiers of TJ to address the claims of victims of large-scale criminal violence. TJ mechanisms can be relevant in these criminal conflicts because state security agents are often involved in the production of large-scale criminal violence – when they defect to organized crime to constitute private militias to defend criminal turf or when they stay in power and either provide protection to OCGs or fight against OCGs using anti-insurgent strategies that often result in gross human rights violations. We evaluate whether the adoption of TJ mechanisms in new democracies and in post-conflict societies may insulate countries from outbreaks of criminal violence. We also assess how countries experiencing ongoing criminal wars and large-scale criminal violence have used new mechanisms of transitional justice to break state impunity, identify and dismantle state-criminal networks, and contribute to develop peaceful societies.
Team of researchers: ND: Josephine Lechartre, Camilo Nieto-Matiz, Guillermo Trejo | Affiliates: Juan Albarracín, Lucía Tiscornia
We focus on four areas:
Transitional Justice and Criminal Violence in New Democracies. Explore the individual and joint impact of truth commissions, human rights trials, and amnesties on the outbreak of large-scale criminal violence in new democracies. Analyze how TJ mechanisms can break the connection between past political impunity for gross human rights violations in autocracy with the production of large-scale criminal violence in democracy.
Transitional Justice and Criminal Violence in Post-conflict Societies. Explore the individual and joint impact of truth commissions, human rights trials and amnesties on the outbreak of large-scale criminal violence in the aftermath of civil war. Assess how TJ mechanisms can deter the morphing of state specialists in violence, paramilitary forces, and death squads into armed criminal actors in the post-conflict.
Transitional Justice in Contexts of Ongoing Large-Scale Criminal Violence. Explore how the adoption of extraordinary mechanisms of justice in the midst of criminal wars may contribute to satisfy victims’ demands and develop peaceful and just societies. Focus on experiences of truth-seeking in the midst of violence (e.g., REMHI in Guatemala) and judicial prosecution (e.g., the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala).
- Confronting Crime: Comparing Strategies of Militarized Policing vs. Strategies Based on Intelligence and Judicial Action. Assess the efficacy of iron-fist policies vs. the use of intelligence and judicial action in dismantling criminal networks and containing large-scale criminal violence.
Team of researcher: ND: Natán Skigin, Guillermo Trejo | Affiliates: Sandra Ley
Varieties of Violence. Develop inventory of all sources of quantitative data for a wide variety of types of violent events and forms of victimization. Collaborate with Mexican NGOs, think tanks, and universities in developing more accurate estimates of patterns of violence across time and space. Develop new conceptualization and metrics of mass atrocities for a number of gross human rights violations in the context of large-scale criminal wars.
Criminal Governance and Ecosystems of Local Violence. Data collection of micro-forms of targeted violence against local social, economic and political leaders and assessment of how OCGs use this violence to create subsystems of control and of subnational de facto governance.
Legacies of Violence and Impunity. Unveil the long-term connections between political violence in Mexico during the PRI’s authoritarian rule (1965-2000) and the large-scale criminal violence that broke out during the transition to democracy and in the post-authoritarian era (2000-present).
- Confronting Crime: Comparing Strategies of Militarized Policing vs. Strategies Based on Intelligence and Judicial Action. Compare Mexico’s strategy of confronting drug cartels through military action vs. Guatemala’s strategy under the CICIG of dismantling the cartels through intelligence and judicial action.
Team of researchers: ND: Josephine Lechartre, Camilo Nieto-Matiz, Guillermo Trejo
Varieties of Violence. Develop inventory of all sources of quantitative data for a wide variety of types of violent events and forms of victimization. We seek to collaborate with Guatemalan NGOs, think tanks, and universities in developing more accurate estimates of patterns of violence across time and space.
Criminal Structures. Use of in-depth information produced in the criminal prosecution and trials of members of criminal structures to identify network connections and explain modus operandi.
Transitional Justice in Contexts of Ongoing Large-Scale Criminal Violence. Provide in-depth evaluation of how the Interantional Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) dismantled multiple criminal networks, contributing to a major reduction in the country’s homicide rate.
Confronting Crime: Comparing Strategies of Militarized Policing vs. Strategies Based on Intelligence and Judicial Action. Compare Mexico’s strategy of confronting drug cartels through military action vs. Guatemala’s strategy under the CICIG of dismantling the cartels through intelligence and judicial action.
EL SALVADOR (under construction)
COLOMBIA (under construction)
BRAZIL (under construction)
Working in close collaboration with local human rights organizations, we use our scholarly research to assist victims of gross human rights violations and their families in their search for truth, justice, and reparations, and to promote socioeconomic and institutional reforms to prevent harm repetition. We have partnered with a number of international human rights lawyers to assist them in the defense of victims of human rights violations in contexts of civil wars and criminal wars, including the development of ad-hoc truth-seeking processes, providing contextual analysis as input in the criminal prosecution of perpetrators, and elaborating programs of reparations. We are also prepared to serve as expert witnesses in the elaboration of Amicus Curiae reports to support victims’ demands for institutional and legal reforms to prevent harm repetition for them and future generations.
Practitioners: Lorena Bazay, Jean Mendieta, Fabián Sánchez Matus, Guillermo Trejo
A truth-seeking process for Mexico. “Romper el Silencio: Hacia un Proceso de Verdad y Memoria en México” – we drafted this proposal for a national truth commission for Mexico together with the Instituto Mexicano de Derechos Humanos y Democracia (IMDHD) and a group of independent human rights defenders affiliated to the Plataforma Contra la Impunidad y la Corrupcion en México.
A transitional justice process for Mexico. “Propuesta Ciudadana para un Proceso de Verdad, Justicia y Reparación” – we are part of a team of multiple human rights organizations, academics and associations of victims that drafted an extensive proposal for a transitional justice process in Mexico. This proposal is part of an ongoing negotiation with the Mexican government. The truth commission component is drawn from “Romper el Silencio.”
Testimonies of families of victims of forced disappearance. Together with the Laboratorio de Justicia Estructural we are in the early stages of developing a truth-seeking process for victims of Mexico’s Dirty War (1965-1985)
GUATEMALA (Under construction)
EL SALVADOR (Under construction)
COLOMBIA (Under construction)
BRAZIL (Under construction)
The connection between research and practice that characterizes the V-TJLab was initially forged through a series of international conferences organized by our team and sponsored by the Kellogg Institute and Notre Dame International. Here is a list of past events and of future events that will continue to stimulate the academic-practice cooperation.
- A Truth Commission for Mexico? Fall 2014. Conference held at University of Notre Dame. [Kellogg Institute]
- Breaking State Impunity: Lessons from Latin America for Mexico. Fall 2016. Conference held at CIDE, Mexico City. [Kellogg Institute & CIDE]
- The Challenges of Transitional Justice in Mexico: Truth, Justice, and Peace. Fall 2018. Conference held at Westin Hotel, Mexico City. [Notre Dame International]
Kroc-Kellogg Peace, Conflict, Crime, and Violence Working Group
- Transitional Justice and Criminal Violence: The New Frontiers of Anti-Impunity Struggles. Fall 2020. Conference to be held at University of Notre Dame.