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Night Watchers and Terrorists

By Edward E. Escalante, Angelo State University, Norris-Vincent College of Business, Texas, United States.


A massive movement of Night Watchers or vigilantes’ patrols emerged among the most impoverished indigenous communities in the Andes at the end of the twentieth century to combat terrorism. Northern peasant patrols based their organization on democratic mechanisms while the southern patrols built a hierarchical structure. How does the variation of external threats shape the variation of governance structures and collective responses within extralegal groups? To organize the provision of security and defense against terrorism, these Night Watchers required mechanisms to control opportunistic behavior and prevent internal predation. This article develops an organizational theory of defense. The time horizon explains why the Night Watchers produced arrangements in vertical or horizontal forms. Peasant vigilantes depended on hierarchical mechanisms to enforce their agreements if and only if they confront a short time horizon and existential threat. Comparative analysis of the northern and southern Peruvian communities provides empirical support for the theory.

1. Introduction

Peru suffered at the hands of the most violent faction of the communist revolution in the western hemisphere: the Shining Path. The Shining Path perpetrated numerous acts of terrorism during the 1980s and 1990s in its attempt to overthrow the Peruvian government. Surprisingly, however, one of the most effective responses to these violent actions came from the Peruvian peasantry. Despite their lack of experience, their financial limitations, and the fact that their actions were illegal, thousands of peasants organized themselves into vigilante groups to fight back against the Shining Path. While the organizational structures of criminal and violent groups have been increasingly documented (Gambetta 1996; Wintrobe 1990, 1998; Leeson and Skarbek 2010; Skarbek 2011, 2012, 2014), the causes of differences in their internal structures are still unclear.1

The massive self-defense movement of rural communities in Peru, the violence produced by the Shining Path and increasing crime, and the government's response to this coordinated violence offer an illuminating context in which to investigate such causes of differences. For this reason, my study explores the internal structures of the patrols formed by the Peruvian peasants to enforce agreements, provide order, and combat terrorism. I refer to the villagers who organized into these patrols as “Night Watchers.” In addition, I describe these patrols as “extralegal,” not “criminal,” because although they emerged outside of the legal system, they were not driven by profit and did not engage in systematic criminal activity.2

The Night Watcher patrols exhibited two distinct internal structures, and my objective in this article is to compare and explain both these structures themselves and how the patrols that adopted them responded to violence. The Night Watcher patrols in the North were structured horizontally: decisions concerning governance and security were made democratically. Most agreements for governance and security were made collectively, and their enforcement was assigned to independent committees within the community. Villagers delegated security to patrol units that worked in shifts to protect the community. Despite having no previous experience in providing security, these units gradually became capable of responding to organized criminal actions, primarily assault and robbery (Fig. 1).

Fig 1. Timeline of crime and terrorism in Peru, 1976–93.

In contrast, the Night Watcher patrols in the South were structured vertically: the leader of a patrol held autocratic authority over the community and the patrol units under his command. The adoption of this vertical structure was a response to control opportunistic behavior on the part of villagers that expanded because of terrorist acts. As patrol leaders became increasingly unable to trust actions taken at lower levels and by individual villagers or groups devoted to communal tasks, they asserted increasing authority over their patrols and traditional institutions, extending their control into all aspects of community life.

Examining the different organizational structures of the Night Watcher patrols benefits the study of civil reactions and counterterrorism in three ways. First, despite not appealing to the government for enforcement of agreements to provide security, the villagers organized thousands of patrols. Across Peru, 5786 patrol units3 included a total of 400,360 members (Degregori et al., 1996, 24), although most of these patrols operated in Ayacucho and neighboring regions.4 Second, in the face of the pervasive threat of opportunistic behavior, the Night Watchers created mechanisms that facilitated cooperation and coordination. Third, even though some patrols were structured horizontally and some were structured vertically, all of the Night Watcher patrols were institutional responses to violent threats and achieved a high degree of success. Although this study does not focus on the effectiveness and growth of these patrols, it is worth noting that the Peruvian government eventually abandoned its animosity toward the Night Watchers, praised their actions, and supported their expansion by incorporating them via legislation (Senate Bill 0741 1992).

Previous research into the economics of crime5 has focused on the relevance of governance institutions within criminal organizations (Leeson, 2007a, 2007c; Leeson and Skarbek, 2010). According to Leeson and Rogers (2012), differences in contestability across criminal industries shape the organizations of producers in those industries. In more contestable criminal industries, producers use hierarchy to enforce collusion and preserve their returns. In less contestable criminal industries, hierarchy becomes costly, and producers instead organize horizontally. For example, while the low production cost of private protection prompted the Sicilian Mafia to organize hierarchically (Gambetta, 1996; Diego, 2009), the high startup costs for Caribbean pirates led them to organize democratically (Leeson, 2007a). Other research has examined internal governance in organized crime (A. Anderson, 1995; Reuter, 1983; Gambetta, 1996), street gangs (Levitt and Venkatesh, 2000), and prison gangs (Leeson and Skarbek, 2010; Skarbek, 2011; 2016).

This article extends the literature by focusing on the horizontal structure adopted by the Night Watcher patrols in the North of Peru and the vertical structure adopted by the Night Watcher patrols in the South of Peru on the basis of their different time horizons. First, it shows how, despite their constraints, the Night Watcher patrols adopted different structures to confront life-threatening problems. The robustness of these structures is evidenced by how effective the patrols were in combatting criminal groups, despite the initial opposition of the army. Second, this article explains why the Night Watchers prevailed despite outside attempts to discourage their organization. In offering these contributions, this study answers the following questions: How do external incentives shape governance structures and collective responses to violence? How sensitive are collective organizations to changes in external incentives? How do organizations structured vertically and horizontally prevent opportunistic behavior and minimize the costs of defining and enforcing rights and obligations?

Because the patrols examined in this study evolved dramatically and operated extralegally, data on them tend to be dispersed and unconnected. To overcome this limitation, this study examines a variety of primary sources, including interviews, archival evidence, non-governmental reports, booklets created by the Night Watcher patrols, and legal documents produced by the Peruvian Congress before the Night Watchers were legalized. In addition, it draws upon studies by scholars in other fields—including sociology, history, and anthropology—that attempt to explain the nature and purpose of the Night Watchers. Although each of these studies offers a different perspective on the Night Watchers, describing features that the others do not, most focus on why they emerged, their ideological roots, and their cultural environments. While this paper benefits from these studies, it differs from them in presenting a comparative institutional analysis of how the Night Watchers operated.

Importantly, this study also relies on the research and conclusions of the comprehensive report (2003) assembled by the Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). The TRC was a government-sponsored commission, and its report reconstructed the violent period in Peru from 1980 to 2000 with the goal of establishing responsibility for human rights violations.6 This study also relies on documents provided by the Peruvian media, army, and senate. These documents include formalizations of many of the patrol agreements and transcripts of meetings among and statements by terrorist leaders. Finally, it is supported by valuable firsthand accounts by several local scholars who produced field research on the towns most affected by terrorism and crime (Del Pino, 1992; Degregori et al., 1996; Coronel, 1996). Of particular importance is the ethnographic research of Orin Starn, who worked for many years in Peru and produced several books about the organizations involved in the conflict. His research describes the history of the events surrounding the Night Watchers of both the North and the South.


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