Understanding when repression will help or hurt a movement

When repression backfires, it can galvanize movements. But sometimes it does the opposite. What explains these different outcomes?
Police block the streets in Peru. (WNV / Michael Wilson-Becerril)

“We realized the importance of playing the activists at their own game.”

Manager of the Pishtaku mine

I remember when I first arrived in the district nearest to the Pishtaku mine. On my way there from a nearby province, I sat in the front of the colectivo minivan as it filled with passengers, and started chatting with the driver, ‘Jon.’ Jon was a young local of the district to which we were headed.

“I’m here to study how actors’ strategies help mining conflicts escalate or get resolved,” I answered, after Jon asked me what brought me to the area. He told me that mining has expanded dramatically, and the town’s main river has been toxic for years.

“Look up the video of a farmer whose cow’s skin is peeling after days of drinking river water descending from the mine,” he said. The farmer complained to the authorities, but “because of economic power,” Jon recalled, nothing was ever done about it.

Jon believes that is what happened to his town: the people there used to be organized, and they almost stopped the mine. But the company paid off local leaders, divided them, and started criminal proceedings against dozens of people. Many locals were tried, and some served sentences. “So now nobody complains,” Jon told me. “They can’t do anything like before. Everyone was either sold out to the mine or they were criminalized, and that is how it works. They stopped the movement however they could.”

There is widespread suspicion, though difficult to prove, that large corporations plan covert operations in order to infiltrate, coopt, and neutralize local resistance movements opposing natural resource extraction. In a recent investigation published in the Journal of Resistance Studies, I carefully detail one such example, theorizing how these acts challenge resisters to refine our approaches to repression and demonstrating how activist-scholars can use their privileged status to uncover these surreptitious forms of corporate violence.

Repression sometimes backfires: it swells the ranks of activists groups, activating support and galvanizing resistance. But it can also lead to isolation of social leaders, effectively demobilizing or neutralizing their resistance efforts. What factors explain these different outcomes?

To build theory that may help answer this puzzle, I demonstrate the analytical leverage of distinguishing between private and public repression, in terms of both its sources and targets. I draw on extensive ethnographic research conducted during 14 months in Peru, where a large number of mining conflicts have generated different patterns in the relationships between local, state, and company actors. I focus on several rounds of conflict associated with one particular mine, which is understudied but representative of medium-to-large mines in Peru.

To protect study participants, I’ve given the mine the pseudonym Pishtaku (a name which no mining firm would actually choose, because its meaning in Quechua refers to a demon who swallows up the earth from underneath). In its remote rural locality, the company faced fierce opposition from masses of farmers, who were willing to commit property damage to stop the mine. Mining company agents developed different strategies to quell its opposition, each with different effects on the organizing capacity and tactics of local movements.

Company managers began by relying on the state apparatus to punish their opponents, who were perceived as a more-or-less faceless collective. However, the project then shifted into a different strategy: surprisingly candid interviews with several of the company’s local operators revealed the creation of a complex system of private repression most accurately conveyed by the term “corporate counterinsurgency.” Access to these revelations are a direct result of my positionality as a white, non-Peruvian male, carrying University of California credentials and a solid pitch to “better understand corporate responses to conflict.” Thus, my interlocking privileges opened unexpected doors and fostered trust with company actors.

When they developed these underhanded means of coercion—comprising espionage, infiltration, defamation, blackmail, intimidation, and physical violence—and used these tactics to target private individuals rather than broader groups, they were most effective at demobilizing resistance, isolating leaders, sowing distrust and fear, and curtailing public opposition.

“Repression can backfire and galvanize resistance, but it can also discourage opposition, resulting in a chilling effect on activists.”

Various contacts in the company and other realms of the conflict (including residents at large, activists, and mine supporters) confirmed the salience of this understudied dynamic. Senior and junior company operators revealed that they were keen to infiltrate, record, and frame their opponents as corrupt, violent, adulterous, and more. Together, they detailed the creation of a semi-professional espionage and delegitimation apparatus, which included the formation of artificial groups meant to divide Pishtaku’s local opponents.

Previous studies have worked to clarify and qualify repression, and they present evidence that it can backfire and galvanize resistance, that it can discourage opposition, resulting in a chilling effect on activists. Sometimes both effects occur and offset each other.

However, the vast majority of studies on the matter assume that repression is conducted by states. In a period of corporate neoliberalism and privatization, state-centric perspectives fall short in their increasingly outdated understanding of repression. Moreover, this especially corresponds with the ground realities of conflicts over natural resource extraction, where—unlike struggles over foreign occupations, authoritarianism, and so on—the state is a secondary agent, often even exculpating itself from direct intervention.

In Peru, where the most common and the deadliest type of conflicts are about mining projects, companies increasingly rely on both public armed forces and their own private security. Peru’s post-war context is marked by a large, unregulated, and demobilized military apparatus, which exists alongside weak state capacity in the countryside. As such, research has found that the high demand from powerful extractive firms creates a lucrative market of private security contracts for current and former members of the state’s armed forces.

Furthermore, the study also zooms out to examine these tendencies in other cases in Peru and beyond. In Guatemala, a Peruvian former counterinsurgency colonel became the head of a Tahoe Resources private security detail, which is facing trial in Canada for allegedly opening fire against peaceful protesters at the mine. In Honduras, several Lenca indigenous leaders have been killed over the construction of the World Bank-backed Agua Zarca dam, whose owner is a former military intelligence officer. In the United States, the TigerSwan private military intelligence firm has worked with the FBI to infiltrate and stifle opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. In short, these trends are rising at an alarming rate.

These brief examples provide chilling insight into the number of people who are killed for defending the environment, an activity that has never been more important—nor any deadlier.

Protesters have much to gain from understanding when repression backfires. Privatized forms of repression might affect the power and tactics employed by resistance movements. If repression today differs from its traditional forms, then we must adapt the ways in which we understand and respond to it. Additionally, turning a lens on the agency of powerful and often inaccessible entities like mining companies will assist locals in demanding accountability and getting justice.

Read the full-length article on corporate counter-insurgency at the Pishtaku mine, and subscribe to the Journal of Resistance Studies or ask your affiliated academic institution to order a subscription.

This story was produced by Resistance Studies

Resistance Studies is a collaborative effort between academics and activists, or “professors of the street,” that promotes the analysis of and support for nonviolent direct action and civil disobedience around the world. This includes the Resistance Studies Initiative at UMass Amherst, scholars in the Resistance Studies Network and the interdisciplinary, peer-reviewed Journal of Resistance Studies. This initiative is managed and edited by Stellan Vinthagen, Craig Brown, Ben Case and Priyanka Borpujari.

Waging Nonviolence partners with other organizations and publishes their work.