"Building trust that allows researchers to gain access to information requires personal interaction, which would have been impossible for me without the funding provided by GIRTA."

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Travel Report: Carlos Ponce

Carlos Ponce, a PhD student in the School of Criminology, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further his research in El Salvador and Honduras.

January 07, 2019

Thanks to the Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA), I was able to go to Central America’s Northern Triangle in the Spring of 2018 to establish research partnerships with key stakeholders in the study of crime and violence. The United Nations has consistently identified this region of the isthmus as one of the most violent places on earth. Although it only holds 9% of the world’s population, it produces 33% of homicides. The number of Central Americans fleeing violence in their native countries has increased dramatically during the last few years, causing an immigration crisis of hemispheric significance.

The partnerships I established during my visit have evolved into concrete research projects that aim to provide insight for authorities to better understand and address issues related to high rates of violence and crime. It has been repeatedly established that American-born gangs, like MS-13 and 18th Street, are responsible for most acts of violence and criminal behaviour. These gangs made their way to Central America through massive deportations during the nineteen-nineties and early 2000s. The research projects that resulted from my visit to El Salvador and Honduras focus on improving the current understanding of these groups for both academics and practitioners.

Gangs in Central America differ from those generally studied in criminological research. They have transformed into more sophisticated and organized collectives. Studies have concluded that their criminal activities have become the main obstacle for economic and social development in the region. The impact of the gangs’ extortion of businesses, the corruption of public officials, and their partnerships with transnational drug trafficking organizations have made them powerful actors. The influence and control gangs have acquired in Central America is unprecedented, far stronger than anything achieved by their counterparts in the United States. Authorities have been unable to develop and implement strategies to stop their evolution. My joint research projects with key Central American stakeholders are aimed at identifying features that need to be targeted to stop the evolution of gangs.

During my visit to the isthmus, I established partnerships with actors from both public and private sectors. I was able to arrange meetings with various officials from the Office of the Attorney General of El Salvador, including the director of crime analysis and the attorney general himself. We explored various topics of common interest to potentially conduct joint research. My supervisor, as a result, is in the process of signing a formal agreement that will structure a permanent research partnership between the Office of the Attorney General and Simon Fraser University. Recently, the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) awarded my supervisor, Dr. Martin Bouchard, and I a Partnership Engagement Grant to further our relationship with the Office of the Attorney General, and fund research for my dissertation.

During my trip to Central America, I met with representatives from private enterprise associations and non-governmental organizations that provide aid to extorted businesses. For my dissertation, gaining access to victims of extortion is both a necessary and challenging task. While visiting the region, I was able to meet and build trust with key representatives from the private sector that have currently granted me to victims of extortion. Thanks to these relationships, my supervisor is also formalizing research partnerships with key stakeholders in the private sector. Additionally, we are anout to launch an extortion victimization survey in coordination with actors in the private sectors and officials from the Office of the Attorney General.    

My visit to the region also allowed me to establish a connection with an organization focused exclusively on investigating and prosecuting corruption. Specifically, I was able to arrange a series of meetings with officials from the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). The MACCIH is an office setup by the Organization of American States to prevent and fight corruption in Honduras. I met with the MACCIH’s top official and the head of crime analysis. We identified several topics of common interest to conduct research and other potential areas of collaboration. The MACCIH is currently waiting for a draft of a formal agreement to frame a permanent partnership with Simon Fraser University.

Without the GIRTA, I would not have been able to establish these partnerships and, consequently, to access the data needed to conduct the necessary research for my dissertation. Building trust that allows researchers to gain access to information requires personal interaction, which would have been impossible for me without the funding provided by GIRTA. Furthermore, thanks to the relationships I established, I am developing and executing joint-research projects with key stakeholders. Their involvement will enhance the impact and relevance of my dissertation’s results. This opens a window of opportunity infrequently available to crime researchers to contribute more directly by providing insight that helps alleviate a critical issue in one of the most dangerous regions of the world.