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Community, Authorities, and Support for Vigilantism: Experimental Evidence

An Erratum to this article was published on 06 June 2017

This article has been updated


Vigilante justice challenges the state’s monopoly over the use of violence and as such has come to the attention of a growing body of political scholars. However, still little is known about the circumstances that foster support for citizens circumventing the state to confront crime directly. I argue that citizens’ perceptions of a trusting community, on the one hand, and an untrustworthy law enforcement, on the other, jointly influence their support for this kind of behavior. I test these hypotheses using a lab-in-the-field experiment in Mexico, a case in which the expansion of vigilante organizations has posed a serious challenge to the state. I find that participants are more supportive of a vigilante action when those considering said action are described to be inserted within a trustworthy community. Furthermore, I find that this effect is moderated by the described trustworthiness of law enforcement. These results contribute to our understanding of the emergence of vigilantism, and how trust in authorities can moderate the normative expression of social capital.

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Fig. 1

*Source: 2012 AmericasBarometer by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP),

Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4

Change history

  • 06 June 2017

    An erratum to this article has been published.


  1. 1.

    The 2014 wave of the Americas Barometer was the first (out of 6 survey waves covering 10 years) in which “security” and “the economy” were tied as the most important problems.

  2. 2.

    In his classic study of political support Easton (1975) proposes a distinction between diffuse and specific support for the political system. The former refers to citizens’ endorsement of the political institutions of a government in the abstract. The latter refers to their support for the specific agents occupying those institutions. Analogously, some have argued for the importance of distinguishing between citizens’ attachment to anti-vigilantism norms (diffuse support) from their endorsement of this behavior in specific circumstances (Rojo-Mendoza, 2016). In this paper I focus on the latter rather than the former.

  3. 3.

    By security coproduction I reference actions aimed at helping the law fight or prevent crime (e.g. reporting crime, reporting suspicious activities, providing authorities with information and access to their neighborhood, and, sometimes, even participating in police-managed neighborhood watches).

  4. 4.

    The treatments were fictitious. After their participation, subjects were fully debriefed.

  5. 5.

    The treatments were designed to manipulate the capacity dimension of trust (T. R. Tyler, Goff, & MacCoun, 2015; Walterbusch, Gräuler, & Teuteberg, 2014). However, since I cannot empirically distinguish this from other mechanisms, I interpret the effects of the treatment as trust in general.

  6. 6.

    The final section of this paper describes the case of Los Cabos, a city in which citizens started self-defense organizations to confront looting in the aftermath of a storm (one year after the study).

  7. 7.

    Signs with statements like “Neighbors Organized! Thief, if we catch you we will not take you to the authorities, we will lynch you!” have been found in neighborhoods as distant as Xochimilco (Mexico City) and El Horno (Santa Fe, Argentina). See Appendix I.

  8. 8.

    In the following section I will provide more detail on the prevalence of these organizations in Mexico.

  9. 9.

    As an example of electoral secession, citizens of the town of Cherán (Mexico) declared their separation from the Mexican electoral system only weeks after starting their own vigilante movement (Magaña, 2012).

  10. 10.

    For a journalistic account of how the expansion of the so called self-defense groups brought a political challenge to the Mexican government, see Melgar (2013).

  11. 11.

    Beltrán and Cruz (2013) find that: (a) the proportion of citizens who support vigilantism in Mexico increased by 150% from 2004 to 2013; and (b) that the proportion of citizens who think vigilantism is not a crime increased by 300% during this same period.

  12. 12.

    To reach this conclusion I analyze all the data on support for vigilante justice collected by LAPOP (Appendix II.I). I find that citizens displayed a significantly higher support for vigilantism in 2014 than in any other year. Further, I find that this increase is substantively large when compared to changes in other attitudes measured in the same scale.

  13. 13.

    An analysis of the data provided by LAPOP shows that the LAC region registered a significant increase in the proportion of citizens participating in neighborhood anti-crime organizations. Further, an individual level analysis of this data shows a strong relation between support for vigilantism and citizens’ participation in anti-crime organizations even when other demographic and macro-level variables are accounted for (see online Appendix II.II).

  14. 14.

    Hine (1998) finds that citizens seeking to prevent crime by themselves have an incentive to increase the severity of their sanctions to the maximum in order to minimize the amount of resources they invest in policing. Thus, even if initially innocuous, citizens participating in anti-crime organizations face strong incentives to engage in lethal violence.

  15. 15.

    This vigilante group had presence in about 3,842 square miles (Martínez-Elorriaga, 2014) of territory and, for comparison, the size of Delaware is 2,489 square miles. See Malkin and Villegas’ (2014) in the New York Times for more on this case.

  16. 16.

    The conceptual study of trust has a long history and some authors have been particularly influential (e.g. Fukuyama, 1996; Morgan & Hunt, 1994). However, there is no universally accepted definition of trust (Rousseau, Sitkin, Burt, & Camerer, 1998). I define trust as citizens’ expectation that another actor will intervene with a sufficient level of competence to obtain a positive outcome. This definition borrows from a recent quantitative and qualitative meta-analysis of the last fifty years of conceptual work on the subject (Walterbusch et al. 2014).

  17. 17.

    Trust in the police has been found to be sensitive to perceptions of effectiveness, ethnic cleavages, and perceptions of procedural justice (Skogan, 1994; Sunshine & Tyler, 2003; T. R. Tyler, 2006). For simplicity, I attempted to generate changes in trust by manipulating cues about the effectiveness of the police. Yet, without a more granular design, the reader should be careful before identifying this mechanism as the one responsible for the effects.

  18. 18.

    Consistent with this idea, Godoy (2006) argues that, in contexts in which citizens’ access to justice is highly unequal (like Guatemala), citizens who see themselves as unlikely to be able to mobilize governmental resources become less likely to resort to authorities and more likely to engage in anti-criminal violence (such as lynching).

  19. 19.

    For a review of the research on psychology on trust and confidence in the police see Tyler, Goff, & MacCoun (2015).

  20. 20.

    For the full interview see: Translation is mine.

  21. 21.

    Translation is mine. For the original sign see Milenio’s piece (9-8-2014):

  22. 22.

    Armony (2004), for example, argues that a vibrant civic society can contribute to the collapse of democracy, the exclusion of minorities, and the deepening of society's fragmentation. Consistent with this idea, Berman (1997) and Satyanath Voigtlaender and Voth’s (2013), for example, find that social capital was associated with the electoral rise of the Nazi party in 1932, Graeff (2010) finds that familial trust is associated with corruption, and Acemoglu, Reed and Robinson (2013) find that, in contexts of low political competition, incumbents are able to capture social organizations to control civic society.

  23. 23.

    In contrast to Mendoza (2006), however, Godoy (2006) argues that the institutional mistrust relevant for the emergence of lynchings in Guatemala does not simply emerge from state incapacity, but from decades of state violence and because of the social and economic changes associated with neoliberalism and globalization.

  24. 24.

    More specifically our capacity to defend unbiased inferences depends on our capacity to argue that the assumptions of these strategies have not been violated (e.g. no variables have been omitted, no unbalances exist, or that the exclusion restriction assumption of the instrument has not been violated).

  25. 25.

    The Mexican government’s efforts to aggressively fight drug continues at the time of this writing.

  26. 26.

    Beltrán and Cruz’s (2013) study was designed specifically to measure national public opinion after this events.

  27. 27.

    In October 2014, the link between corruption and cartel-penetration became evident when the police of Iguala (Guerrero) colluded with the Guerreros Unidos Cartel to torture, execute and burn the bodies of 43 university students. For an academic treatment of corruption and cartel penetration see Morris (2013).

  28. 28.

    Hurricane Manuel hit Mexico from September 13th to September 20th. For more on the economic impact of the storm see Jakubowski, Krovvidi, Podlaha and Bowen (2013).

  29. 29.

    This, according to official sources reported by CNN Mexico (2013).

  30. 30.

    This, according to an official press release by Mexico’s Social Development Secretariat (SEDESOL 2013).

  31. 31.

    All the participants were Mexican citizens, and the great majority lived in Mexico City.

  32. 32.

    Standard deviations in brackets.

  33. 33.

    All scales were transformed from their original scales to 0-100 scales for comparability. Although the wording of the questions was identical, there are important differences in sampling, mode of application (face to face vs computer based) and setting (household vs laboratory). See Appendix VII for the full questionnaire.

  34. 34.

    Note that there are differences between my sample and LAPOP’s random sample of the population. Do these differences moderate the treatment effect? And if so, in what way? I find that most of the variables that distinguish my sample from a random sample do not moderate the ATE. In the cases in which they do, they seem to hide a stronger treatment interaction concentrated among the groups underrepresented in my sample (males, authoritarians, and citizens with low perceptions of corruption). See Online Appendix V.

  35. 35.

    The study was programed using Qualtrics.

  36. 36.

    Students were offered an alternative activity if they decided not to respond the study. However, all participants who turned out to the laboratory completed the study. In the debriefing stage participants were told that the articles were fabricated and that, in reality, there had not been reports of an attack on the population of Huamuxitlán.

  37. 37.

    To see the full prompts in Spanish and the relevant manipulated sections in English see Appendix III.

  38. 38.

    The prompts were created to realistically portray the media environment rather than the specific circumstances of the readers. Thus, the reader must be very careful before interpreting the results as a direct indication of the circumstances in which Mexican undergraduate students are more likely to engage in vigilantism.

  39. 39.

    That is, participants choose a number between 4 and 6. Standard errors in parentheses. After the study, participants were fully debriefed.

  40. 40.

    This sample was collected between January and February of 2014, two months after the end of my study.

  41. 41.

    For comparability, I recoded LAPOP’s original variables to run from 1 to 6. These ranges show 95% design-based confidence intervals.

  42. 42.

    I attempted to generate changes in trust by manipulating cues about the competence/effectiveness of the police. Yet, without a more granular design, it is impossible to confirm this to be the mechanism as the one responsible for the effects. Thus, I limit my interpretation of the treatments as reflective of general levels of trust in the community and the police.

  43. 43.

    Note that the Mexican government often deploys the army to areas affected by natural disasters (DNIII program). I decided to manipulate trust in the police (rather than the military): a) because in practice, the army (that must also administer shelters, administer vaccinations, and evacuate communities) tends to be spread thin and often delegates to local police forces, and b) trustworthiness of the army (typically very high in Latin America) proved to be hard to manipulate in pilot trials. To the extent that the participants assigned to the low police trust condition may have imagined the intervention of the army, the findings could be conservative.

  44. 44.

    The modifications across articles amounted only to very small differences across treatments. The average word count ranged between 361 and 368. And the average reading time ranged between 1.96(0.07) minutes and 1.82 (0.05) minutes across treatments.

  45. 45.

    Participants read one and only one version of the article. Each article was read by between 118 and 121 participants.

  46. 46.

    It is important to note that although random assignment provides a mechanism by which balance can emerge, small imbalances between treatments can still arise by chance alone. To test whether this was the case I compared the probability of being selected into treatment across conditions using a multinomial logistic regression model. With the exception of age, I found that balance was achieved in all the measured exogenous covariates. I found the results to be unchanged when I re-specified the models in Table 1 including age as a control (see online appendix VIII).

  47. 47.

    An OLS specification assumes that the dependent variable in continuous. However, it is possible to relax this assumption by specifying an Ordered Logistic Regression Model (O-logit). In Appendix IV I take this modeling approach. I find the results to remain unchanged across specifications. Four subjects who went through the treatment in less than 15 seconds or more than 15 minutes were deleted from the database.

  48. 48.

    Note that a score of 2 reflects “in disagreement” and a score of 3 reflects only “somewhat disagreement”.

  49. 49.

    I also asked citizens whether they thought “concerned citizens” should, (a) migrate outside the city, (b) actively report the situation to the government, or c) passively wait for government intervention. I found that the Community Trust Manipulation decreased citizens’ support for migration and increased their support for actively reporting the situation to the authorities. Further, I found the Police Trust Manipulation to decrease support for passively waiting for government intervention or for actively reporting the situation to the authorities. See Appendix VI for these results.

  50. 50.

    In Mexican media the term “organized criminals” is often used to refer to heavily armed delinquents. Thus, it is important to note that this study examines support for a particularly risky form of vigilantism. Citizens, however, may react differently when evaluating less risky forms of vigilantism. In conditions in which criminals are particularly dangerous, citizens may be careful not to confront them unless counting on significant back up. However, when criminals are unlikely to harm them, citizens may attempt to engage in a confrontation even without significant support.

  51. 51.

    As an additional exploration of the generalizability of my findings (also see footnote 34) I analyzed two variables collected by the Latin American Public Opinion Project in the region: citizens’ support for vigilantism in the abstract, and citizens’ likelihood to organize against crime. I find evidence that trust in neighbors and trust in the police significantly interact as predictors of anti-crime organization. However, I find no evidence that they do as predictors of citizens’ attachment to anti-vigilantism norms (see Online Appendix XIX). Further research is necessary to test the generalizability of my findings.

  52. 52.

    See Appendix VI on how the treatments affected citizens’ support for other types of political behavior.

  53. 53.

    The Federal Commission of Electricity (CFE) reported, for example, that 92% of the households lost power as a consequence of the storm (CFE, 2014). See Valdés-González (2014) for a damage report.

  54. 54.

    The president of the National Association of Departmental Stores and Supermarkets (ANTAD) denounced the severe losses of their affiliates in the area stating “…They took from flat-panel TVs to the meat refrigerators (in the supermarkets)” (Yáñez to Ugarte & Maldonado, 2014). Translation is mine.

  55. 55.

    Original pictures of the police officers engaging in looting can be found in the local news blog “Noticabos” The participation of the police in the looting was so blatant that a police commander was sent to prison for participating in acts of looting (bcsnoticias, 2014).

  56. 56.

    Citizens reacted with outrage and skepticism when the Mayor appeared in social networks to ask for money for the municipal shelter nearly a week after the tragedy (Vargas, 2014). The uproar associated with the Las Vegas rumor was so intense that a group of citizens asked for the Mayor’s resignation (Zúñiga-Pacheco, 2014).

  57. 57.

    The Army is consistently measured as the most trusted institution in Mexico. According to LAPOP, on a 1-7 trust scale, Mexicans assigned the army a score between 4.88 and 5.15 in 2014. This, in contrast to a 4.03 assigned to the local government, a 3.341 assigned to the executive, and a 3.33 assigned to the police.


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Thanks to Elizabeth J. Zechmeister and Cindy D. Kam for their comments during the development of the project. Thanks to Mitchel A. Seligson, Jonathan Hiskey, Michael Bess, Matthew Singer, Kaitlen Cassell and Mollie J. Cohen for valuable comments to previous versions of this paper. Thanks to Sofia Rivera Aragon, Rolando Diaz Loving, Isabel Reyes Lagunes, and the Department of Psychology of the National Autonomous University of Mexico for their participation in the project. Finally, thanks to Karla Castro Osorio, the University of the South and Luz Soto Mendez for their invaluable assistance during the field work. All remaining errors are, of course, my own.

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Correspondence to Daniel Zizumbo-Colunga.

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The original version of this article was revised: The conversion error in Figure 1 has been corrected.

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Zizumbo-Colunga, D. Community, Authorities, and Support for Vigilantism: Experimental Evidence. Polit Behav 39, 989–1015 (2017).

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  • Support for vigilante justice
  • Vigilante justice
  • Vigilante
  • Trust
  • Mexico
  • Latin America
  • Behavior
  • Lynching
  • Violence
  • Crime
  • Legitimacy
  • Police
  • Attitudes
  • Social capital
  • Interpersonal trust
  • Justice