Jessica Zarkin studies the effects of violence on citizens’ perceptions and behavior in Latin America. A comparative politics PhD student in Government, Zarkin is trying to understand the connection between state institutions and citizens. Her focus is on security.
“I chose Cornell because the government department has really good professors who study Latin America. Specifically, the department has two professors, Ken Roberts and Gustavo Flores-Macías. Gustavo does a lot of work in Mexico, which is my primary area of interest,” Zarkin explains.
Gustavo A. Flores-Macías, Government, conducts research on political violence and its effects on democracy, citizens, and state institutions. This was the perfect fit for Zarkin. “My dissertation is going to be about understanding the relationship between the police and the military, between police and citizens, and between the military and citizens,” says Zarkin.
The Roper Center for Public Opinion Research’s Kohut Fellowship—A Perfect Research Match
When Zarkin realized the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at Cornell had surveys that specifically focused on people’s opinions on the military doing police work in Latin America, she competed for the center’s Andrew Kohut Graduate Fellowship. “The Roper Center has one of the biggest repositories in public opinion data, especially on Latin America, which is something that you don’t usually find in data centers in the U.S. They have a lot of amazing data on Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s from almost every single country in the region,” says Zarkin—who, before coming to Cornell had worked as a data analyst for two years following her undergraduate studies in Mexico.
“The Roper Center has one of the biggest repositories in public opinion data, especially on Latin America, which is something that you don’t usually find in data centers in the U.S.”
Zarkin was a Roper Center Kohut Fellow in the summer of 2018. “They ask you to spend the entire summer in Ithaca, which is amazing. In three years, I had never spent a summer here. They find students who want to work with the data that the Roper center has,” explains Zarkin.
The Andrew Kohut Fellowship Program offers students a $4,000 stipend to conduct an original public opinion research project, using data from the Roper Center during their summer on campus. The center is a non-profit, non-partisan public opinion data archive at Cornell.
Police, Military, Citizens
Zarkin used data that was collected by the United States Information Agency (USIA) from the Roper Center to study public opinion on militarizing security in Mexico and Guatemala in the 1990s. Some of the surveys done in Latin America during the 1980s and 1990s centered on violence, drug use, and the military interference in police work.
On January 2017, the president of Guatemala announced that he would be withdrawing the military from doing police work in the country. Many international organizations applauded his attempt at demilitarization. A lot of citizens, however, were unhappy with the decision.
“The citizens claimed that withdrawing the military was a terrible decision because only soldiers were capable of protecting them and the police could not be trusted. This opens up an interesting question, which is, why do the citizens want the military to protect them in the first place?” says Zarkin.
Zarkin explores how supportive the citizens of Guatemala and Mexico are of the military intervening in police work and domestic security. “Just as a brief context, what is happening in the U.S. is that the police are becoming more like the military, police militarization. What happens in Latin America is that they are making the military do police work instead. If you come to Mexico right now, you would see the military walking around with assault weapons— doing police work such as checking cars,” says Zarkin.
A Few Public Opinion Research Findings
Zarkin’s research has revealed that over 60 percent of Latin American citizens approve of the military doing police work. In Guatemala, support is inversely related to exposure to state violence during the Guatemalan Civil War. Citizens who were exposed to violence during the civil war are least likely to support the military taking over police work. In Mexico, approval is correlated with people’s perceptions of how effective the military is in combating crime. It also correlates with low levels of trust in state institutions.
“I’m from Mexico, and I knew about the military doing police work here. But one thing I didn’t expect was that this is happening in 13 countries in Latin America. So Mexico is not an exception,” says Zarkin.
Through her research, Zarkin finds that people in Latin America are willing to work productively with the police if the proper institutional channels are provided. “What I find surprising is that people want the military to do most of the police work. But at the same time, they are willing to do the work themselves, if security corporations are willing to supply the proper channels for citizens to participate in domestic security.”
The Challenges of Graduate Fieldwork
“Comparative politics research involves having to work in the field to collect qualitative data from interviews or surveys and immersing yourself in the culture of the countries that you are studying,” says Zarkin. Currently, Zarkin is doing fieldwork in Mexico, focusing on several themes: whether soldiers want to do police work; how the police perceive military interference; and what happens when countries like Mexico successfully reform their police corporations and open up the channels for citizens to co-participate in security with the police.
Zarkin explains that the PhD process builds up your resiliency, because it is a process of getting rejections from grants, publications, and conferences. Getting interviews in the field requires a similar resiliency as well as getting access to security corporations is a difficult process. “I’m starting to interview the police and the military. They are not agencies that are open to providing information. This means that you have to do a lot of work beforehand in order to be able to talk to them, because most of these security agencies don’t want to talk to people. They are reluctant to share any information initially. Especially as a woman, it’s even harder,” says Zarkin.
“I mostly spend my time in the library which is what most graduate students do,” says Zarkin. She plans to continue in this research area, whether she pursues a career in public policy or stays in academia. When Zarkin isn’t working, however, she enjoys going to yoga classes in the morning. She also enjoys photography, gardening, and spending time with her two dogs.